Electric Cars

Adam Schreiber, General Motors (1), 1939, 2009, Archival Inkjet Print, 24 × 30”. Courtesy of artist and Sasha Wolf Gallery.

Looking into the future, it would almost seem that the electric car is destined to almost exclude other vehicles from town roads, and the petrol-electric carriage to secure the first place for long-distance travel.
— W. Poynter Adams, Motor-Car Mechanism and Management: Electric and Petrol-Electric Vehicles, 1908

The moment when the lifeblood of our automobile culture oozes away over the wetlands and the wildlife and the sugar-sand beaches should, by rights, be the moment of the electric automobile. Its technical superiority over the straight internal combustion car will be abundantly clear to anyone who looks at the numbers. It’s more efficient, safer, and its carbon footprint is smaller across many dimensions. What’s more, the good people of America choose electric cars when given the chance. Hybrids from Toyota, Ford, and Honda often require waiting lists, while many nonhybrid models feature cash rebates to spur sales. General Motors’s EV1 and Toyota’s RAV4 EV — both straight-up battery-powered vehicles, no gasoline — found willing and loyal customers in the 1990s, so loyal that many lessees (the cars were never offered for sale) begged to keep the cars after the leases expired. GM said no, a bad PR move that sparked the film Who Killed the Electric Car? Toyota said yes, and hundreds of RAV4 EVs are still on the road. Toyota is now planning a next-generation version in collaboration with California-based Tesla Motors. New electrics are equally popular: 20,000 people have lined up to buy the 10,000 electric Leafs Nissan will produce over the next year; GM claims 25,000 people have joined its “enthusiast list” for the Chevrolet Volt, and has upped 2012 production plans from 30,000 cars to 45,000. Given these numbers, the question must be posed: Why can’t we have the cars we want?

L’Objet Roi

The simple answer is that our transportation system isn’t logical. More precisely, the logic of the system has political and cultural components that exert more force on the evolution of automobility than simple technical logic would dictate. Since their appearance a century ago, cars have become embedded in human culture in a profound way, and the government and industrial and social system that’s grown around them like a concrete sarcophagus will not easily be budged.

Henri Lefebvre rightly labeled the car “l’objet-roi”: the king of all objects. Not only do people spend enormous sums on their automobiles — more than any item save houses, which we treat as appreciable rather than depreciable investments — but producers spend extravagantly to influence consumer choices. At its peak, automobile production and sales accounted for one in six American jobs. Even in their attenuated modern form, these industries account for nearly 8 million jobs in the US — 4.4 percent of private sector employment. Automobiles don’t just move us through space; they reproduce social space, thereby facilitating the reproduction of a capitalist political economy.

This perspective on our automobile culture is as prominent inside the academy as it is invisible outside it. The historians, sociologists, and urbanists who advance it include David Gartman, David Harvey, Miriam Konrad, Peter J. Ling, and Edward Soja. But for most of them the actual means of locomotion remain out of bounds. Those who have studied the rise of the petroleum-powered automobile have generally succumbed to a post hoc technological determinism: internal combustion triumphed because it was faster, stronger, and meaner. What more is there to say?

And yet the internal combustion engine achieved dominance not in some purely technical sense, but within a specific sociohistorical context. In America and the Automobile: Technology, Reform, and Social Change 1893–1923, his study of the first three decades of automobility in the US, Ling emphasizes the degree to which the automobile is embedded in the capitalism of the late 19th century, and follows Marx in believing that its central role is to facilitate the movement of capital. Like the train before it, the automobile, “by incorporating hitherto self-sufficient or relatively isolated regions more fully into the cash economy . . . served to transmit the heightened pace of industrial production to other phases of the cycle of capital accumulation.” In other words, the automobile helped stitch the national market together, especially by bringing previously isolated villages into daily contact with booming urban centers.

In his book Down the Asphalt Path, urban historian Clay McShane shows that the steam automobile, invented in the 1780s, failed because it lacked a context — it was a solution without a problem. The inventor Oliver Evans ran a self-propelled steam vehicle down the streets of Philadelphia in 1805 that might have been the basis for a city bus, but where would it go and why? Streets were made of bumpy cobblestones, for the benefit of horses, and cities themselves were compact, pedestrian-sized. As Hiram Percy Maxim, son of the inventor of the machine gun and himself the inventor of, among other things, the car muffler and an electric vehicle (designed to be “operated, managed, and cared for by inexperienced and even unintelligent persons without danger of injury”), noted in his autobiography: “We have had the steam engine for over a century. We could have built steam vehicles in 1880, or indeed in 1870. But we did not. We waited until 1895.”

More from Issue 10

More by this Author