With a more robust infrastructure, internal combustion engine (ICE) cars might have been a minority today.

The Economist »

“All is rotary, beautifully perfect and wonderfully efficient,” said one evangelist for electric vehicles (evs). “There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine…no dangerous and evil smelling gasoline and no noise. Perfect freedom from vibration assures both comfort and peace of mind.” Translated into Twitter-ese, such views would not sound out of place from Elon Musk. But their author was Thomas Edison, pioneer of the light bulb, in 1903.

The authors consider various causes of petrol’s triumph in 1900-10. Cost is unlikely, since until 1910 petrol-powered cars and evs of the same model type were similarly priced. As for range, evs managed a respectable 90 miles (145km) by the 1910s. Had this been evs’ principal handicap, battery-swapping stations, which replaced depleted batteries with charged ones in seconds, could have become as common as petrol stations did.

The study then used a statistical model to predict how automotive history might have differed if the power grid had developed faster. It finds that if the amount of electricity America produced by 1922 had been available in 1902, 71% of car models in 1920 would have been evs (though long-distance motorists would still have chosen petrol cars). Accounting for the extra power generation such a fleet would need, this would have cut America’s carbon-dioxide emissions from cars in 1920 by 44%.

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