Electric cars represent exciting technology that might be the biggest transportation trend of the 21st century, but is the idea of a battery-powered car really that new?

A special Food Lion AutoFair display will examine the origin of battery-powered automobiles during the April 7-10 automotive extravaganza at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will include a 1918 Detroit Electric, a 2010 Tesla Roadster belonging to Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy and a 2011 Chevrolet Volt. The exhibit will share the Showcase Garage with “Beauties and Beasts” from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler and American Motors Corp.; a street-legal Radio Flyer wagon; a Legends of Drag Racing NHRA display and high-riding “skyscraper” sedans that roll on 30-inch custom wheels.

When Electric Cars Ruled
Although gasoline has been America’s preferred method of propulsion for 110 years, there was a time during the auto industry’s infancy when electricity was king and nearly 300 companies sold cars that ran on electricity.

Robert Anderson of Scotland built the first self-propelled electric carriage around 1832, more than a half-century before Karl Benz perfected his gas-powered automobile. For a brief period, there were great advancements in battery technology, especially in Europe. Locomotives, buses and cabs regularly moved people around London by electric power throughout the late 1800s. A Belgian-built, torpedo-shaped electric car known as “La Jamais Contente” (translated: “The Never Happy”) set a land speed record of 66 miles per hour in 1899. Its two motors cranked out the equivalent of 100 horsepower at a time when gasoline-powered engines generated a measly seven to 12 horsepower.

Electric cars had many advantages over gas-powered models. They were entirely silent in their operation, unlike the coughing, spitting and backfiring that accompanied a single- or twin-cylinder engine. Starting an electric car required nothing more than flipping an on/off switch; running errands with an internal combustion engine meant cranking it by hand, which often resulted in broken bones. When an electric car is still, it does not use any energy, unlike a petroleum-burner. The grinding gear changes necessary to get a gasoline-powered car to speed were not an issue with electric motors. So, why aren’t the world’s cars running on silent, clean electric power today?

Several factors contributed to the decline of battery-powered vehicles at the start of the 20th century. Lead acid batteries of the period were very primitive, heavy and weak, which limited their driving range and extended their necessary recharge time. Even though Thomas Edison’s first direct-current power station opened in Manhattan, N.Y., in 1882, most of the United States, especially vast areas of rural farmland, did not have electricity by 1900.

The fatal blow to battery-powered transportation came in 1901 when a drilling team at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, located the largest oil reserve the world had ever seen, a gusher that produced 100,000 barrels a day and sparked the Texas Oil Boom. Soon, every little burg in the country had a ready supply of cheap, never-ending fuel from Texas, Oklahoma or California. Gasoline’s high-energy content meant that a full 10- to 20-gallon tank could transport people and cargo more than twice the distance of batteries without the need for long periods of recharging.

Through the ‘Teens and ‘20s, a few companies such as Baker Electric and Columbian Electric thrived, but their markets were limited to large metropolitan areas where errands were short and electric power was abundant. Ease of operation and civilized demeanor were strong selling points for electrics, which were aggressively marketed toward women. Wealthier urbanites tended to buy electric cars in the ‘Teens, so models were often richly appointed and carried price tags many times higher than that of a Ford Model T.

Founded in 1907, Detroit Electric was the most successful builder of battery-powered passenger cars, with a yearly sales record in 1914 of 4,669 units. In controlled tests, an early model covered 211.3 miles on a charge, but the company recommended no more than 80 miles in everyday use. Batteries were stored under the passenger compartment floor. With no need for a hood or radiator grille, the typical Detroit Electric looked somewhat like a rolling china cabinet. To meet the public’s expectations about automotive styling, the company also offered some models with fake hoods and grilles. As gas-burners dominated the roads, Detroit Electric production crawled to a stop in 1939.

Electric Cars Today
With no market demand to satisfy, very little electric car development took place from World War II until 1973, when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) created a devastating energy crisis in the United States. Today, dozens of alternative fuels are being considered as substitutes for “black gold,” but the old-fashioned electric battery and motor are front-runners in the energy replacement race.

No car has made the move to battery power sexier than the Tesla Roadster, a $109,000, 288-horsepower, two-seat sports car that can go from zero-to-60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds on its way to 125 miles per hour. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Tesla can travel 245 miles on a charge for a “gas equivalent” rating of 120 miles per gallon. A comparable gas-powered car costs $0.25 per mile to drive; the Tesla costs only $0.02 per mile.

Fitted with a carbon fiber body, the zero-emissions car weighs only 2,723 pounds. Its 1,000-pound computer-controlled lithium-ion battery (with 6,831 individual cells) takes 3.5 hours to fully charge and has a life expectancy of seven years or 100,000 miles. Tesla Motors has sold more than 1,500 of its Roadsters in 30 countries since its 2006 introduction and recently showed a battery-powered family sedan prototype called the Model S.

As far as everyday use is concerned, the most practical electric vehicle type today uses the hybrid platform in which two or more sources of power allow drivers to combine or switch back and forth between propulsion systems based on need. Chevrolet’s 2011 Volt is technically a “plug-in” hybrid, although its maker prefers to call it an “extended-range electric vehicle” or E-REV.

Like other hybrid cars such as Toyota’s popular Prius, the Volt has a large battery (a lithium-ion unit that weighs 380 pounds) and a four-cylinder gasoline engine. Unlike the Prius, the Volt runs exclusively as a pure-electric vehicle until the battery charge drops to 35 percent capacity. At that point, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine serves primarily to charge the battery while in motion; this is known as the “series hybrid” mode.
Under certain high-load conditions, the engine might be called upon to mechanically propel the Volt, which means the powertrain goes into “parallel hybrid” mode like the Prius.

The EPA rates the Volt’s battery-only efficiency at 93 miles per gallon (gasoline equivalent) and 40 highway in gas mode for an average of 60 miles per gallon. Considering that two-thirds of American drivers commute short distances each day, a Volt’s gas tank might not go empty for months. Members of the automotive press report up to 47 miles on a single charge in light traffic before the engine turns itself on. According to the EPA’s testing, overall range is 379 miles on juice and gas combined. Owners are encouraged to recharge the battery overnight during the power grid’s low-demand hours for the cheapest rate.

Food Lion AutoFair
Hours for the April 7-10 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 per day for adults or $25 for a four-day pass; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.