Electric cars 'right around the corner' in 1966: what took so long?

3 weeks ago
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Illustration from December 1966 Popular Science article on electric cars

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Looking at yesterday’s visions of tomorrow is always entertaining, from flying cars to cities of the future.

In the case of the electric car, there have been two futures: one from 1890 to about 1910, and then another starting 100 years later in 2011.

The intervening century saw many, many predictions about mass-market electric cars, but none of them came true.

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We were reminded of this by a Popular Science article from 50 years ago, predicting the imminent arrival of all-electric cars.

The five pages of that December 1966 piece were reproduced on the Phil-Are-Go blog a few weeks ago (via Hemmings Motor News). You can embiggen and read them there.

A lot will be familiar to any modern-day electric-car fan or advocate, including the advantages—more interior space, a lower center of gravity—and the concept of battery packs that could be swapped out quickly for fresh ones.

The reason given for a move to electric cars then was the uncontrolled pollution produced by more than 100 million motor vehicles, whose tailpipe emissions wouldn’t be regulated in any way until 1975.

A Ford vice-president noted that the company had been working on battery-powered cars since 1958, but that a “super-powerful” battery was needed. Hydrogen fuel cells were also mentioned, by the way.

That technology was on the horizon in 1966: a liquid sodium-sulfur battery with greater energy density than the lead-acid cells used for decades in starter batteries.

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There were some drawbacks, of course, among them that the sodium-sulfur battery only worked at temperatures of 500 degrees F, high enough to keep its solution molten.

Lithium cells even then were on the horizon, but it would take another 55 years to overcome the sheer physics of energy density and cell development.

The 2011 Nissan Leaf launched in December 2010 was the first modern mass-market battery-electric car offered in global markets, though the pricey Tesla Roadster a few years earlier had shown what could be possible with lithium-ion cells.

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

First 2011 Nissan Leaf delivered to buyer, San Francisco, Dec 2010, photo by Eugene Lee

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Battery technology and mid-Sixties graphic design aside, the article may seem eerily familiar to electric-car fans who’ve been around for a while.

In 1966, of course, climate change produced by two centuries of human fossil-fuel use and the consequent emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere wasn’t even on the radar.

But broadly, the reasons for moving to electric cars were similar: zero emissions, more flexible vehicle design, and better, nicer, more pleasant-to-drive cars.

All it took was 50 years of battery development.

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