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Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America Paperback – Bargain Price, June 22, 2010
"Children of Blood and Bone"
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To most modern Americans, the electric automobile is a charming anachronism, a memory of a time long past, not unlike high button shoes or chicken houses in urban backyards. In fact, electric automobiles are making something of a comeback as society searches for alternative systems of locomotion for our precious private cars. Schifer looks in detail at electric autos, their development, eventual supplantation by gasoline guzzlers, and burgeoning return to favor. Although he devotes most of the book to the days when the very concept of machine-powered personal travel was new, Schifer, in the final analysis as well as chapter, makes the case for reviving electric autos. On the way, he examines the various reasons that development of alternatively powered automobiles stagnated and also the social history of the automobile and automobile ownership. Part car-nut's history, part social history, this is a fine resource for popular culture and American studies collections. The vintage photos and bibliography are by themselves arguably worth more than the purchase price. Mike Tribby --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“A cracking good read.”—Technology and Culture
“The car of the future turns out to be the car of the past, according to Schiffer in this peppy look at the electric car’s Edwardian infancy.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Much more than a historical overview, Schiffer puts his anthropology training to good effect in the text, livening his recitation with fascinating details about contemporary personalities and cultural settings. His volume provides the best insight to date of how and why electric vehicles faltered [in the past], and why that result was due more to culture than technology.”—Environment
“Part car-nut's history, part social history, this is a fine resource for popular culture and American Studies collections.”—Booklist
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The goal of the book is to examine and explain why electric vehicles disappeared in the early 1920's. The author walks us through the initial distribution of power in the United States and the problems associated with DC in a wide area network. Then, the rollout and problems associated with lead-acid batteries of the time, particularly when used in a fleet of sixty cabs in New York city. The lead-acid batteries were sensitive to the bumps and vibrations of daily travel causing them to last less than six months. Today we expect no less than a two year life-span out of our lead-acid batteries in cars. Moving on, Thomas Edison, a prominent figure in early battery research, and Henry Ford converge in a battle of gasoline vs electric. We all know the ultimate conclusion but the methods both men used are quite sinister.
Michael covers three theories at the opening of this book to explain why this happened: vested interest, technological constraint and consumerist. The theories were new to me and gave me a much needed foundation to debate the demise of electric vehicles in the 1990's. While coverage of the theories here would be worthwhile, I leave you the reader the opportunity to examine them and offer your opinion in a followup review to my own. These theories are being tested even now in Key West, FL on a smaller scale. Over the past two years electric vehicle rentals have quietly pressed the gasoline moped rental market share to an alarming 50% by my best estimates and through interviews over the past weekend. Hotels now offer charging services for these six passenger mini cars to guests at no extra charge (no pun intended). I wish you could have seen my face as my cab pulled me up to the Casa Marina hotel and I saw a line of Think EV's being charged!
We can learn a lot from studying the past. You can also see proof of this "history repeats itself" proverb in this book. Taking Charge was published in 1994, before GM's EV1 program was leasing cars. The vested interest theory presented herein is eerily similar to how GM squashed the EV1. To drive the point home, General Motors and Ford are credited in this book with killing the first generation of electric cars!
What makes the book so interesting are the recurring themes of electric cars, present since their inception. "They're too slow", "They don't have the range", "new batteries will be coming out next year"... all of which apply to the current discussion of electric cars in 2007.
Even hybrid cars were experimented with very early on, and one wishes for a bit more technical information on those. Plus it would be nice to know what happened to Edison's replacement for the lead-acid battery. Is it still in use today? Or is it extinct?
The last chapter is also fun. His prognostications are not too far off the mark. He predicted the next innovation would not come from the Big 3 automakers, no matter what they said they were going to do. That turned out to be true. He also predicted we would have some options for buying electric cars by now. In that he was wrong, but we do have the Prius and Insight.
So, all in all, a fine early history, but you'll still want to know more to fill in that gap from 1920-2007!