Gas-Electric Cars Go Way Back
Some History and Prospects

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
January 2003

Hybrids & exotics

Combination gasoline and electric cars are on the roads (from Toyota and Honda) and big changes in car design are coming.

Is the combination of a gasoline engine and electric drive a new idea? Not entirely; there was a gas-electric car in 1900. It was called the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobile, and it was designed by two automobile geniuses in Austria: Ludwig Lohner and Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the Porsche who developed the Volkswagen Beetle, and whose name is carried on some very capable cars today). Discs on its front wheels were not hubcaps: they were the electric motors that powered the car. The Elektromobile was built from 1900 to about 1906, and I don't know why such a great idea was not copied throughout the automobile industry. Some trucks and military vehicles were built using similar principles.

The modern gas-electric cars can use their momentum (which is usually wasted when the brakes are applied) to feed power into the batteries. They can switch back and forth between gas-electric drive, electric drive, and gas engine drive. All activity is controlled by computer chips doing their mysterious jobs.

Our automobile engineers have spent a lot of time and money on the development of gas-electric cars, partly because they are under pressure to "Do something ... anything" to show they are opposed to pollution.

I have seen a publication describing the research by General Motors on all-electric cars and gas-electric cars — at least one of which was a fuel-cell car with hydrogen and oxygen tanks. GM built an electric version of their Corvair, which performed well, but the heavy batteries had to be recharged after about 80 miles. Their fuel-cell van had possibilities; but it was apparent to GM that the size, weight, and cost of the fuel-cell power source would have to be greatly improved before a practical vehicle could be built and sold at a reasonable price.

This work was done more than 30 years ago. All of the car builders have been working on alternate power systems, and we can assume that the solution is not far away.

My father drove a big electric truck in the 1920s, hauling ice, which is very heavy. He claimed that his truck would climb a brick wall if it could get a grip.

In the early days of the 20th Century there were three competing car propulsion systems: internal combustion, steam, and electricity. Gas engines won the business because they are simpler to operate than the steamers and are faster and more convenient than the electrics.

It is obvious that the major car builders have tested and rejected the "all-electric" vehicles. There are some serious pollution problems that would be crated by the electrics. Batteries pollute when they operate, when they are being charged, and when they need replacement. If we ever have millions of electric cars, they would require battery replacement every few years, and getting rid of old batteries is a major disposal problem. We can't just dump them in a landfill.

Here is another problem: On a dark, cold night, if thousands of electric cars are on the electric lines for recharging, how much of an added load will the power companies have to handle? Not to worry ... it will never happen; the all-electric car does not seem to be the final answer.

Somebody will find a solution. Cars have been driven on sun power, which is (so far) just a stunt. Power lines bult into the roads and radio transmission of power are science-fiction ideas that should be discussed. I like the idea I heard about many years ago: build cars with big back wheels and small front wheels. Then they will always be going down hill and would use less gas. — From the looks of some of the new cars (they seem to slant forward), the car builders are ready for that great improvement.

Toyota may (or may not) have won the race. They are advertising their hydrogen-powered car, which will be available in small numbers this winter. As they say in their ads, the only emission from the tailpipe is pure water vapor.


© 2003 Wilfred R. Franson

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