it could have introduced itself as early as 1899

Published July 20, 2022

The European Parliament voted to ban the sale of new thermal cars from 2035. This choice of motoring in favor of electric was almost made much earlier: from the end of the 19th century! At that time, the internal combustion engine was not yet installed and many believed in electricity for mobility. Over the course of the week, Novethic looks back on these historically unsuccessful encounters with ecology that could have been crucial to our lifestyle.

The electric car’s resurgence revives a debate that had already raged in the late 1800s. At that time, the choice of the best propulsion type had not been determined, and some already believed more in electricity than in oil. This was the case with the Belgian industrialist Camille Jenatzy. In the 1890s, he decided to prove the superiority of batteries over the internal combustion engine by breaking the speed record, which then peaked at about 92 km / h.

It was at the Compagnie Internationale de Paris that he ordered the construction of “Jamais Contente”, a kind of aluminum and tungsten shell, mounted on wheels. Its two electric batteries, which develop just under 70 horsepower, represent about half of its 1.5-ton weight. She set off on April 28, 1899, on a Yvelines road, breaking the record by reaching 105.98 km / h. The French-Belgian electric car sparks and becomes the first land vehicle to cross the symbolic barrier of 100 km / h.

Domination of electricity in the early 20th century

So driven by these technological feats, but also because they are easy to start and do not leave a breathable cloud of black smoke, electric vehicles evolve. In 1900, more than a third of the cars in circulation were thus electric, the rest were petrol and steam cars. And almost twice as many electric cars are produced as petrol cars. Result: in 1905, half of the global car fleet was electric. At that time, this technology was already adapted to cities. Thus, some taxi networks are already running on electric power, especially in France.

But the electricity quickly fell in favor of the internal combustion engine, which forced itself on just a decade. Several factors explain this dazzling dominance: the improvement of engines, the chain production method initiated by the famous Ford T, but also the expansion of distribution infrastructures that are favorable to oil. “The slow roll-out of electricity infrastructure has played a key role“to explain its decline in favor of oil, according to an article by Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen, economic researchers at Lund University in Sweden, published in the journal Nature Energy.”We estimate that the spread of the electricity grid 15 or 20 years earlier would have upset the balance in favor of electric vehicles“, The authors add.

Deployment of infrastructure is crucial

But the oil lobby was working to introduce the internal combustion engine, which then structured our lifestyle through the 20th century. It is on them that all our mobility tools and a great deal of modern technology have been built. A century after its advent, however, the internal combustion engine is recognized as the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and urban pollution.

He fell into disfavor. The rules are mobilizing to reduce it and even gradually disappear from 2035. But ironically, the return of the electric motor still stumbles on the distribution network. “In the context of the current climate crisis, the results support the idea that large investments in infrastructure are crucial for achieving sustainable socio-technological changes.“, Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen conclude.

Mathilde Golla, @Mathgolla

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