New York City is proud of its six upcoming Nissan Leaf cabs, but more than a hundred years ago an all-electric fleet of taxis served the city using technology that even today would still be considered cutting edge.
Here's the story of how their fall from grace killed electric vehicles in the United States — and the world.
In the early 20th century, electric cars were actually mainstream. In 1900, there were more electric automobiles on New York City streets than cars powered by gasoline. True, there were only 4,192 cars sold in the United States that year, but 1,575 of them were electric. The advantages were obvious — electrics were quiet, clean, and easy to use. Battery power looked like the ideal choice for personal urban transportation (For what it's worth, both electrics and gas-engined cars were both beaten in sales by steam-powered cars — 1,681 of them, to be precise — but who the hell really thinks steam still makes sense?).
Street car tycoon, playboy and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney saw a business opportunity in using electric vehicles as taxis, and bought up a short-on-cash New York City electric cab company run by two engineers, Morris & Salom. With $200 million in assets, Whitney renamed the company the Electric Vehicle Company and dreamt of a taxi cab monopoly in every major American city. He hoped that New York would be his first success.
Whitney thought he had found a solution to the key obstacle of battery-powered electric cars, limited range. Instead of stopping every few hours to charge an electric car's massive lead-acid batteries, cars would swap out empty batteries for charged ones, not unlike Shai Agassi's Project Better Place battery-swap concept.
At the end of every shift, the taxi driver would return to the central battery storage facility on Broadway and switch his spent battery for a rested, recharged one, much like a horse-drawn taxi driver would return to a central stable. The company could keep the cabs running around the clock since they only had to only to rest the batteries and not the automobiles themselves.
Whitney made one big mistake: His grandiose dreams of expansion.
As Michael Schiffer supposes in his 1994 investigation of the legacy of American electrics, Taking Charge, Whitney built up the company's fleet from just 13 cabs to 200 and then ordered 1,600 more. The more vehicles Whitney built, the smaller his overstock of batteries became. In the quickly crowded spaces of the battery storage facility, maintenance grew slack and batteries began to fail. Within a few years, the Electric Vehicle Company operated with a fleet of malfunctioning taxis and it was all the company could do to just keep the existing cabs in service.
How The Electric Vehicle Company Became A Patent Troll
In 1895, George Selden, a Rochester, New York patent lawyer and inventor, despite never having gone into production with a working model of an automobile, had a credible claim to having patented the automobile. In 1899 Selden sold his patent rights to William C. Whitney and the Electric Vehicle Company for a royalty of $15 per car with a minimum annual payment of $5,000.
As the regional companies began to shut down, Whitney and Selden together focused their efforts toward collecting royalties of 0.75% on all cars sold by other manufacturers.
In 1903, Henry Ford, along with four other automakers, went to court contesting the patent claim by the Electric Vehicle Company. Eight years later, the case ended with a victory for Selden. Ford however, appealed the decision, and won his case with the argument that his cars were based on Otto Cycle engines — and not Selden's patent.
But by that time it mattered little to Whitney. EVC had gone bankrupt four years earlier.
The Electric Vehicle Company didn't have the money to update the cabs themselves and by the mid 1900s, were several years out-of-date. No longer able to justify the labor and costs of electric operations, the company liquidated its assets, took on new management from one of its subsidiaries, the Columbia Motor Carriage Company, and renewed its fleet with gasoline-powered cabs.
In December, 1889, the Electric Vehicle Company operated 2,000 taxis, trucks, and busses and its factory in Hartford, Connecticut was the largest electric vehicle assembly in the world. By 1901 his regional companies were shut down and in 1907 the Electric Vehicle Company was completely out of business.
The Electric Vehicle Company's experiment with battery-exchanging taxis was seen as a failure not of a company, but of a system. With the ambitious promises of William Whitney fresh in the public mind, the Electric Vehicle Company's bankruptcy deeply tarnished the reputation of electric cars. Electric taxi companies all over the world went out of business, unable to foot the maintenance bills for fleets of ever-rarer electric automobiles.
This discouragement of innovation is the real legacy of the Electric Vehicle Company. It is easy to see electric vehicles as technologically inferior to gasoline-powered cars, having limited range and added cost. Had there more investment in batteries and charging infrastructure, electric vehicles may have stayed relevant in the car market. Rather than almost completely disappearing from the market in the 1920s, electric cars may have even remained the go-to choice for a quiet, easy-to-use automobile very much in the mold of today's best selling family and luxury vehicles.
The bankruptcy of the Electric Vehicle Company was the end of New York City's great electric hope. A century later we are still feeling the effects of this momentous failure.
Photo Credit: JalopyJournal, twin6
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