An archivist with the global delivery giant, UPS, has unearthed photos and memos confirming that the company had electric vehicles in its delivery fleet as long ago as 1933, and perhaps even earlier. The finding adds a nice piece of historical cred to UPS’s long list of sustainability-related initiatives and it’s also a reminder that electric vehicles once began on equal footing with their gasoline-powered counterparts.
That’s a good lesson to keep in mind as electric vehicles begin to assert themselves into the mainstream. Though the anti-electric vehicle noise machine cranked up by conservative pundits has quieted down in recent months, it’s still rumbling in the background and is likely to pop up again at the smallest sign of controversy. However, the simple fact is that no technology is guaranteed an eternal lock on the U.S. transportation landscape. Gas-powered vehicles can find themselves surpassed by new developments just as easily as electric vehicles once did or, for that matter, the horse.
A brief history of electric vehicles
According to a rundown by the Department of Energy, electric vehicles actually outsold both gasoline and steam-powered vehicles at the turn of the last century, in 1899 and 1900. There were a number of good reasons for their popularity, including the fact that they were practically noiseless, odorless and vibration free. They did not require physical exertion to start up (early gasoline cars required cranking), they did not require a gear shifter, and they had better range than steam vehicles.
The heyday of the electrics didn’t last long, however. By 1935 they had all but disappeared, brought down partly by the need for extended driving range with the rise of the highway system, and partly by the ability of gasoline car manufacturers (namely, Henry Ford) to develop more affordable vehicles for the mass market. Other technological improvements, such as electric starters and automatic transmissions, also helped to erase the advantage that electric vehicles once had, and the introduction of cheap gasoline into the market place sealed the deal.
UPS and electric vehicles
From this perspective, it looks like UPS may have held onto its fleet of electric vehicles long past the time when other companies and the general public had given up on the technology.
Fast-forward another 50 or so years, and UPS can be found picking up right where it left off. In 2008, for example, the company pledged to purchase 200 hybrid EVs and other alternative fuel vehicles, and it engaged in a comparative EV study partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
In 2011, UPS upped the ante by helping to kick off the Obama Administration’s Clean Fleets partnership, which now includes heavy hitters like AT&T, FedEx, PepsiCo, Verizon, Coca-Cola, Enterprise Holdings, General Electric, OSRAM SYLVANIA, Ryder, and Staples. With fleets totaling about one million vehicles, the new partnership is committed to introducing more clean vehicles to cut down on diesel pollution, especially in cities.
The electric vehicle advantage
What goes around, comes around, and in terms of technological improvements it looks like the balance has swung away from gasoline-powered vehicles and back in favor of electric vehicles. That’s partly because of technological improvements to EVs themselves, but more importantly, it’s also due to a sea change in the way vehicle owners can interact with their vehicles and their homes or businesses.
In addition to offering a cleaner driving experience, EVs also offer the potential to tie into their owners’ domestic or corporate microgrid, storing energy when prices are low and feeding it back in during periods of peak demand, when prices are higher. On a regional basis, the stored energy can also help reduce the incidence of brownouts, and it can be called into play for disaster relief in case of more serious grid disruptions.
Ford has just begun introducing this concept to the mass consumer market through its MyEnergi Lifestyle package for EV owners. The U.S. military is also developing EV microgrids at its installations, and they are also popping up at college campuses and other facilities.
It’s highly unlikely that liquid fuel will ever completely die out, but for the foreseeable future, the EV trend appears to have the upper hand.
[Image: Courtesy of UPS archives]
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