Science to Live By: Electric Cars—Second Time’s the Charm?

The Sixth Annual Electrical Show, January 7-21, 1911, Chicago Coliseum.

In the center of the great hall stood a pillar three times as high as a man’s head and composed of drums wound over their entire surface with copper wire.  These drums were diabolically conceived and executed so as to embody every mathematical curve and surface dealt with by mathematicians since the days of Copernicus; including truncated cones, parabolas, circles and a few other things.  Given the height of the various drums, the size of the wire and a diameter or two, the problem was to guess the total number of feet of wire so as to win an electric automobile. 

Nearly 40,000 visitors to the Electrical Show participated in this diabolically difficult wire length guessing contest in the hopes of winning an electric car. My grandfather was one of them. In addition to the grand prize, the show’s sponsors offered twelve other prizes showcasing useful and entertaining products of the fledgling electronics industry. They included a washer, an ironing machine, a water heater, a fan, a lamp with a special Agalite shade, a stove, and a toaster. A very fine electric piano player was to be awarded to the second-best guess.

Nevertheless, the top prize, the main attraction far and away, was the electric automobile. And this was not just any electric car. It was the four-passenger, Queen Victoria model, equipped with an elegant, removable Brougham Top designed to withstand all climatic conditions encountered by the motorist!

Manufactured by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago, Illinois, the Queen Victoria was valued at $2,650. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $68,000 in today’s dollars. No wonder my grandfather and so many others thought they should give the guessing game a try.

The game’s challenge was daunting: estimate accurately the total length of wire wound around four drums of varying shapes and dimensions, stacked one on top of each other, with an eagle adorning the top of the column.  Complicating matters, each drum was first wound with a single layer of rubber-coated electrical cable over which the bare copper wire was tightly wound.  The gauges of the cable and of the bare wire varied from drum to drum.

Contestants were given the gauges of the cable and wire. They were also provided with some (but not all) of the drum diameters. The heights of the drums were not provided. Instead, contestants were told, “Height from floor to top of eagle, 25 feet, 3 inches.”

My grandfather, John D. Nies (he was the third and I am the fifth generation to hold that name), carefully studied the shapes of the drums and the configurations of wire. Meticulously and with great insight into the problem at hand, he made his calculations using a pencil and a single sheet of paper (which I am now holding in my hand).

He wrote, “I figured on it for about 2 hours and made the length 19,415 feet.”

Along with tens of thousands of other contestants, he turned in his estimate and hoped for the best.  As an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering at the Lewis Institute, he felt he had a leg up on most of the other participants.  

A week later, Professor Nies received a letter from the Electrical Trades Exposition Company, the main sponsor of the show. Opening the letter with a flutter in his heart, he read, “I am very pleased to inform you that your estimate of the number of feet of wire contained in the large column at the Electrical Show was the nearest to the correct amount. The exact amount of wire contained in the column was 19,416.1 feet…Congratulating you upon your success in solving this problem so accurately.”

He wrote of his success, “So I get the machine, which ought to be worth $2,300 cold cash.  How’s that.”

In the early years of the 20th century, America had a thriving electrically powered vehicle market. William Morrison, a chemist hailing from Des Moines, Iowa, started the ball rolling around 1890 by rigging an electric motor to a farm wagon. By the turn of the century, electric cars comprised around a third of all motorized vehicles on the road.

But they were expensive and many Americans did not have ready access to electrical power for recharging the car. With the discovery of abundant reserves of crude oil in Texas, the development of assembly-line manufacturing by Henry Ford, and the invention of an electric starter by Charles Kettering, less expensive vehicles with internal combustion engines quickly dominated market share.  Commercial manufacture of electric cars died out during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Today, around the world, we are witnessing a renaissance of manufacturers offering consumers a wide array of plug-in electric vehicles (EVs). In the United States, significant players include Chevrolet and Tesla; in Europe, BMW, Jaguar, Peugeot, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo all are in the market. In Asia, a mix of well-known companies and newcomers, BAIC, BYD, BYTON, Hyundai, KIA, Mitsubishi, Nissan, SAIC Roewe, and Toyota, round out the field.

Currently the world’s best-selling plug-in EV is Tesla’s Model 3. The next couple of years will likely see strong competition to the Model 3. EVs such as BYTON’s K-Byte and M-Byte, Chevrolet’s Bolt, KIA’s Soul EV, Hyundai’s Kona, and Jaguar’s i Pace, Nissan’s Leaf ePlus, Peugeot’s e-208, Volvo’s Polestar 2, and VW’s ID Concept and SEAT el-Born all are hoping to take their place in the EV marketplace.

A century ago, in 1919, my grandfather presented a paper to the Society of Automotive Engineers titled Possibilities of Steam Power. “Written from the point of view of an engineer not connected in any way with the automobile industry,” he felt, “in the general field of transportation, including all kinds—water, rail, air and road—giving to each its relative importance, steam power is unquestionably supreme.”

From an engineer’s point of view, he may have been right, but not from the points of view of manufacturers and buyers of cars. Today, steam power plays a negligible role in transportation.  Who knows what the future may bring to the transportation industry? Certainly not my grandfather.  Here are two things I do know.

First, Tesla announced a 31 percent decline in auto sales for the first quarter of 2019 compared to the previous quarter. On an unadjusted basis, Tesla reported it lost $702 million during the quarter ending March 31. This red ink rivals the loss of $710 million during the same period last year.

During a period of relatively good economic conditions, if sales of the world’s best-selling EV are declining, and if the company that makes them consistently operates in the red, then the future for this sector of the automotive market looks choppy to me. Especially so if governmental subsidies amounting to thousands of dollars per car are phased out.

Second, a highly credentialed think tank located in Germany recently published a study in which they find overall carbon dioxide emission from EVs (such as the Tesla Model 3) are, at best, no better than modern cars powered with efficient diesel engines. In many circumstances, over the lifetime of the car, overall CO2 emissions from EVs may actually be much worse.

Their startling findings, which fly in the face of consumer expectations and governmental “zero emissions” policies, arise for two main reasons. First, compared with the production of conventional car batteries, current production of most EV batteries emits much more carbon dioxide per car.  Second, Germany, like China and the U.S., still relies heavily on CO2-emitting fossil fuels to generate the electricity used to recharge the batteries of EVs. The German study joins a growing chorus of similar studies that suggest reductions in CO2 emissions by EVs are not nearly as great as touted.

This does not mean I am against EVs. They have many outstanding features and admirable attributes. I write simply to point out that, a century ago, the electric car went through a cycle of boom and bust. And if we do not generate electricity and produce batteries in ways that do not emit huge quantities of CO2, the luster and promise of the electric car may fade again. 


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