Electrified: Great Lakes Automotive Industry Revs Up Innovation
On a recent trip to Nevada, my husband and I rediscovered the Great Lakes’ automotive industry. As we walked through the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, we rounded a corner, and there she was. A 1914 Detroit Electric, built by the Anderson Electric Car Company. She sat parked in a cushioned bed of tan gravel that hugged her wheels, her hunter green chassis shining under the bright exhibit lights. She sat around the corner from a solid copper-framed Rolls Royce and while she didn’t shout or exude luxury, there was something even more powerful that drew me near.
The 80-volt car cost $2,500 new and was part of America’s longer production lines of electric cars spanning from 1907 to 1938. I later learned that the car was sold mostly to women and doctors who were tired of having to hand-crank the engine and preferred something a bit more reliable. Can anyone blame them? The Detroit Electric averaged 20mph, perfectly acceptable for city driving in 1914. As I looked under the hood at the 68 massive batteries that would carry the driver 50-85 miles per charge, I chuckled to myself at how this “historic” technology was making a comeback in today’s market.
In 1899, Walter C. Baker founded the Baker Motor Vehicle Company in Cleveland. Electric cars were most popular in Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and in 1902, Baker produced the first fully streamlined electric racing car with a top speed of 120 mph. By 1905, there were more than 1,200 electric motorcars in America. A decade later, the boom ended.
By 1919, the electric car industry began to fade. Amid war, epidemics, and the Great Depression, the Detroit Electric was one of very few to survive over the next decade. After that, we had to wait until the 1970’s before we saw any resurgence in the market. What caused the decline? Ironically, one of the major contributors was electricity. On August 17, 1915, Charles F. Kettering issued U.S. Patent No. 1,150,523 for his “engine-starting device.” Once the electric start and electric lighting systems became standard in gasoline vehicles (which were more consistently reliable), the need for electric cars dwindled.
Throughout the following decades, gasoline-powered automobiles had their ups and downs. Taxes placed on fuel literally helped pave the way for American motorists, but leaded gasoline caused the unintentional mass poisoning of American people.
In the 1920’s, more than six billion gallons of gasoline were sold in the U.S. every year. Lead poisoning, similar to the amount emitted by exhaust levels in large cities, was estimated to cause an average of 50,000 cases of hypertension, 300 heart attacks, and 400 premature deaths per million. The federal ban on leaded gasoline for on-road vehicles didn’t go into effect until the Clean Air Act of 1996.
Despite our more modern unleaded variety, gasoline still poses a threat. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register, an estimated 75,000-100,000 underground storage tanks leak millions of gallons of gasoline into groundwater each year.
The Recovery Act: Transforming America’s Transportation Sector was introduced in July 2010 and offered $5 billion “to electrify America’s transportation sector.” The goal was to cut the cost of certain electric car batteries by nearly 70 percent by the end of 2015. The plan was that these investments would yield “tens of thousands of American jobs.”
Fourteen grants were awarded in Michigan and as of September 2015, 1 million electric cars were on the road. From 2010 to 2016, the number of electric car models available increased from five to twenty-five. The average price tag dropped from $328,700 to a more manageable $51,908. The future of electric cars is looking even more promising with 2016 numbers exceeding monthly totals from previous years.
With the focus on electric car technology, the Great Lakes region is taking back its transportation innovation title. This is true not only for the auto giants GM and Ford, but also for EcoMotors International out of Detroit, creating more power with less fuel, and Envia batteries, made from material at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago and providing 300-plus mile-per-charge electric vehicle abilities.
We’ve travelled a long way since the 1914 Detroit Electric and its 50-mile battery. So, will you be visiting the gas pumps in 2017 enjoying the latest Slim Jim flavor, or will you be enjoying a relaxing dinner on Lake Erie at Shooters on the Water in Cleveland? (Visit www.plugshare.com for a complete list of mouthwatering, artsy, and useful Electric Vehicle Charging Stations)