Motoring Becomes Electric, Redux

2016 Pre-production Chevy Bolt caught in the wild in 2015

We tend to think of electric cars as futuristic but for our great-great grandparents, they were a thing. Who knew so many of the private automobiles sold up until the 1920s were electric-powered or that they and their styles ranged so far and wide? They were easier to start and maintain than cars propelled by internal combustion engines and had no gears to shift through, noise to suffer through, or smoke to choke through. Motor Magazine’s 218-page catalog of all cars marketed in the US in 1907 featured something like 800 models, including 75 electric vehicles (EVs) from dozens of manufacturers offering buggies for under $1000 to limousines at $4000 or more.[1] Pretty expensive for back then, but gas and steam cars cost a lot too until after 1910 and the Ford Model T. But before that…

The 1908 Columbia Victoria Phaeton. Dozens of EV makes and models flourished in the Edwardian Era.

A 2010 article in Low-Tech Magazine tells us “The first electric cars (1894 – 1900) had a range of 20 to 40 miles (32 to 64 km), still better than the 20 km ‘range’ of a horse. The average second generation EV (1901 – 1910) already boasted a mileage of 50 to 80 miles (80 to 130 km). The third generation of early electric cars (1911-1920), including larger vehicles that could seat 5 people comfortably, could travel 75 to more than 100 miles (120 to more than 160 km) on a single charge – and this is still the range of electric cars today”[2]

A 1900 automotive census found that of 2,370 cars in New York, Chicago and Boston, 29% were electric, 15% ran on gasoline, and the rest were steam-powered.[3] But by 1920 gas cars were much faster than EVs and had starter motors. Ford had driven down car prices to $650 and Texas crude ushered in cheap petrol. Sales of EVs slowly slumped until none were being made that weren’t glorified golf carts.

In this century, EVs are making a comeback but for somewhat different reasons. And despite—or perhaps because of—technological advances, most of today’s EVs only barely exceed the range of Edwardian ones, and face the same paucity of refueling facilities as gas-powered cars did back then. The 2010 article in Low Tech Magazine cited above highlights other problems:

“Electric motors and batteries have improved substantially over the past one hundred years, but today’s much hyped electric cars have a range that is – at best – comparable to that of their predecessors at the beginning of the 20th century. Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don’t need better batteries, we need better cars.” This is the Chevy Bolt’s 60 KWH battery, weighing in at 960 pounds (introduced in 2016). How much of its juice goes to hauling it around?

In the US, with its wide-open spaces and supersized everything, consumers demand maximum range, carrying capacity, and cruising comfort. Carmakers happily oblige by cluttering car consoles, steering wheels and overheads with expensive gadgetry, too many widgets for one to attend to without driving to endanger. The economic logic is this: when a maker thinks it might have to drop the price of a model, it finds some way to beautify or complicate next year’s to prop up the price. And when a model gets a makeover, the new version tends to bulk up. That reduces range, which is then addressed by providing bigger batteries that, of course, weigh more.

And so, like all cars, new EVs cost more than they should, and don’t get better range at a better price than they might because they’re not lean enough. If Fritchle’s 1905 Victoria Phaeton could take its driver 100 miles on heavy lead-acid cells over bumpy, rutted roads, carmakers should be doing better.

While small EVs can be had, their range tends to be proportional to their size. They are mostly found abroad. One you can buy in the US is the Daimler Smart EQ two-seater with a range of 58 miles and a top speed of 80 MPH that costs around $25K before options and incentives. While such a small car might not survive a crash well and is susceptible to wind buffeting, it’s well suited for urban errands and short commutes.

This photo from Wikimedia[4] shows two Smart EVs deployed by the Dutch Car2Go car-sharing service refueling in Amsterdam. Sharing small EVs makes great sense in urban centers where congestion is endemic, parking is at a premium, gas stations are scarce, and air pollution is often a problem. It’s a trend that American entrepreneurs should emulate.

Still, EVs are peppy, low-maintenance, and don’t spew pollutants. They consume no oil and have few moving parts to fail. Inside and out, they’re as quiet as a Rolls Royce Phaeton, whose maker used to boast that the loudest sound inside the cabin was the ticking of the clock. And with always-on regenerative braking feeding electricity from the motor back to the battery when the car decelerates, one can coast an EV to a stop without tapping the brake pedal, gaining a bit of range in the bargain.


My wife and I decided we needed a new car. After running through 10 previously owned autos between us since first getting together, by last year we were left with a dented 2001 Honda Civic with a leaky exhaust, cigarette burns in the upholstery, and 129,000 miles of suspension fatigue over potholed streets. Still, the little sedan has been incredibly reliable and uncomplaining. We’re thankful that even in its dotage it still treats us well, not unlike an ageing auntie who never fails to send a five-dollar bill on your birthday, but how long can one continue to count on that?

For reasons involving the fraught mathematics of applying for college scholarships, we decided the time had come to splurge on a new automobile instead of a customary clunker. After exhausting ourselves (well, mainly me) researching specs and reviews of makes and models, lease v. buy, and environmental friendliness, we concurred that our next car should be electric. We didn’t want a kludgy hybrid, no matter how green. That said, the greenness of EVs is open to debate, especially if one attempts to take their complete lifecycle into account. Throwing up our hands over determining whether EV’s really cut carbon, we concluded that they seemed to be the future and went out and got one.

We decided to buy, not lease, even though EVs depreciate faster than most other cars due to rapid improvements year over year. We knew we’d be spending a lot, even with rebates and tax credits, not to mention auto insurance and excise taxes, but figured if we drove the car until its warranty expired and we couldn’t afford to fix it anymore, we might be able to amortize its costs over a decade of service, during which we assumed a fair amount amount of inflation would hit the fan.

What we got was a 2019 Chevy Bolt (which EPA calls a “small station wagon,” assigning it an average range of 235 miles). And despite our dislike of gadgetry—particularly “driver assistance” robots—we loaded it with every bell and whistle proffered. Carmakers make you do that by embedding the one gadget you want in a package of a dozen you could do without. It’s more convenient and profitable for them that way, but dizzies owners with superfluous details and enslaves them to vehicles that are smarter than they are.

It’s not as if car buyers have clamored for these conveniences. Car companies have been loading up vehicles with gear such as cameras, radar, and AI for a while now, mostly for collision detection and avoidance systems in anticipation of self-driving cars, for which I’ve noticed little consumer enthusiasm.[5] Their goal seems to be to make drivers not trust themselves to operate their smartcars and render them sufficiently docile to accept robot control. On top of that, their obligatory wireless connectivity makes most new cars susceptible to surveillance and hacking.[6]

Three main computers connected every which way control our car and its widgets. One of them manages entertainments and Onstar, GM’s eye in the sky. Onstar provides many consumer comforts, such as Wi-Fi for mobile devices, GPS navigation, and roadside assistance as it tracks the car’s location, speed, direction, and vital signs. It bundles up information it gleans and packs it off to Onstar via satellite, who parcels it out to GM divisions and assorted public and private partners, who mine it for whatever factoids may interest them. Who gets what data and what they do with it us none of the car owner’s business.

Aggravated by the sexy female voice that urged us to push the Onstar Button every time we started the Bolt, we decided to eschew its services altogether. But that, we found, won’t happen. GM owns Onstar, which is now built into most GM makes and models, not just our car. After a free trial, Onstar charges $10 to $20 a month to use. Its 7/24 surveillance tracks you and can summon emergency services and law enforcement, by necessity, upon court order, or at whim. We didn’t expect our car to come with such a snitch when we bought it, but then nobody—as the old Mont Python skit went—expects the Spanish Inquisition. When I called Onstar to discontinue service, a lovely lady there (could she be our Onstar button vixen?) told me that she could sort of turn it off, but only a GM dealer could completely disable it. But when I spoke with our dealership, I was told sorry, no can do; Onstar is too deeply embedded in the vehicle’s brain tissue to even think of terminating it.

And so, even though we don’t subscribe to it, Onstar continues to collect and share data about our car’s whereabouts that remunerates GM and its strategic partners but not us, just as Facebook and any number of free phone apps do. It might even be used to deny an insurance claim or void the car’s warranty should it detect driving at high speeds or recklessly. This feels like a protection racket muscling in: Nice little car you have there; it’d be a shame if something happened to it.


But none of this prevents us from enjoying our Bolt as it silently whisks along. With its low center of gravity (thanks to the massive battery lurking under the floorboard), a stiff suspension, small turning radius, and aggressive pickup, operating it feels like piloting a sports car, not that we drive it very exuberantly. In fact, we drive like the proverbial little old lady motoring to church, keeping an eye on the console’s wattmeter (the EV equivalent to a tachometer) to moderate speed and acceleration. This is partly due to frugality and partly to what’s called range anxiety—fear of running low on juice at an inconvenient time some distance from an obliging electrical outlet. Our frugality causes us to visit places just because they provide free charging stations (four in our town, fortunately) and hang out for several hours as the car sips electrons. But it’s a great excuse to take a long walk or dawdle in a café with a good book.

Prior to a trip we scour EV websites that map charging stations to decide where to refuel and what to do while waiting, resigned to being on the road several hours longer than we otherwise would. Locating chargers would be simpler were we to own a smartphone which, mostly out of sheer cussedness, we have eschewed. So instead of those handy free phone apps from GM and various EV charging networks that locate pit stops, we’ll make do with word of mouth and paper maps.[7]

It seems that within a week of getting it, our car made us change how we drive, just as new technologies have always changed how people live and work, something I know well. Having horsed around with computer systems for half a century as a developer, analyst, documentarian, and journalist, I’m no Luddite. I was a willing acolyte who should have foreseen that expanding digital know-how would become subservient to expanding market shares and in the process render humans subservient to machines.

OTSAW’s autonomous O-R3 security robot vehicle and drone can recognize and follow objects, people, faces, and license plates, feeding its data to a control center

I also hadn’t reckoned on the extent to which Military-Security Complex drove high tech or that it would bring on massive ill-begotten consumer exploitation and fraud, and secret oversight of everyone around the clock and around the world. Had I been a more of a Marxist, I might have better kept my eye on the ball capitalism was rolling down the alley at us. The tech juggernaut will keep on knocking us down and then sweep and set us up for the next frame. Until, that is, it just lets us lie once it has engineered life forms that are cheaper to maintain and more obedient. And now that AI has emerged from the nursery to outsmart us, I fear it may be too late in the game to change the rules.

Under the guises of consumer convenience and choice, our devices and their makers program their users to obey. I’d love an auto company to make a modern version of the Columbia Victoria Phaeton without all the bells and whistles that load down today’s automobiles and sap their drivers of agency,[8] but it probably won’t happen.


[1] Leaf through the catalog at https://archive.org/details/illustrateddescr00newyrich/page/n5. Find pages for EVs by searching for “electric pleasure”

[2] Low-Tech Magazine, The status quo of electric cars: better batteries, same range, 3/10/2010. https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/05/the-status-quo-of-electric-cars-better-batteries-same-range.html

[3] C. Sulzberger, An early road warrior: electric vehicles in the early years of the automobile, IEEE Power and Energy Magazine (vol. 2 no. 3, May-June 2004) https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/1293606/authors#authors (subscription req.)

[4] Photo: Car2Go_Amsterdam_Smart_ED_Herengracht.JPG: Brbbl derivative work: from: Car2Go Amsterdam Smart ED Herengracht.JPG:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18251668

[5] Indeed, assaults on Google’s self-driving cars have been reported from Arizona and are likely to happen elsewhere as robot vehicles proliferate. Tech critic Douglas Rushkoff opines “There’s a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart. Just think about the humans inside these vehicles, who are essentially training the artificial intelligence that will replace them.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/31/us/waymo-self-driving-cars-arizona-attacks.html

[6] Law enforcement can disable many smartcars remotely, don’t you know. So can hackers, as experiments involving commandeering Teslas have demonstrated. https://www.wired.com/story/hackers-steal-tesla-model-s-seconds-key-fob/

[7] GM did not provide the Bolt with internal navigation software or a map interface for displaying routes. It does provide voice navigation via an optional Onstar plan. To minimize Onstar’s invasion of your privacy, navigate with an app on a smartphone equipped with GPS or do it the old-fashioned way. Make each trip an adventure instead obediently following the siren’s song.

[8] Auto mechanics too are losing agency as vehicles include fewer repairable components. EV’s especially have obsoleted most of their skills to the point that many may have to quit the business.

 

 

 

 

 

admin

Author: admin

I'm an ex-this-and-that, including software developer, computer graphics researcher, geospatial analyst, market manager, and technical writer, who now writes full-time when not reading, running a household, foraging for edible mushrooms, pushing progressive politics, or volunteering fsomewhere. I live near Boston with my wife, daughter, two cats and two old cars.