Lost Causes


"It seems clear that a rapid escape from lock-in, a move from gasoline to the electric vehicle, is not going to happen." That was the conclusion of a 1996 Canadian-Swedish scholarly paper, "Escaping Lock-in: the Case of the Electric Vehicle." Yet the electric-drive Chevrolet Volt was our Automobile of the Year in 2011, and the Tesla Model S took the award this year, a century after its forebears were quickly disappearing from the marketplace. The largest-selling car in California today is Toyota's Prius, conceptually a close descendant of Ferdinand Porsche's 1901 Lohner-Porsche hybrid gasoline/electric car.

As the 1996 paper on electric cars suggested, real advantages can be and often are overlooked or flatly rejected because of industrial inertia, vested interests -- including users' habits -- and the existence of more or less satisfactory solutions. The authors specifically cited the Dvorak keyboard. A computer keyboard with that layout can provide a 20 to 40 percent time savings over the common QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to slow typists so that they wouldn't overwhelm the typebar mechanisms on early typewriters. Today's computers can switch to the Dvorak layout in a fraction of a second at no cost, but reprogramming our brains and fingers is no small matter, so none of us use the better solution.

For more than a hundred years, the term "automobile" has essentially meant a four-wheeled vehicle propelled by an internal-combustion, reciprocating-piston, poppet-valve engine operating on either the Otto or Diesel cycle. Your present car almost certainly corresponds to this description, as only a tiny percentage of all cars in operation today vary from it. That has not always been so. In 1900, there were 4192 motor vehicles registered in the United States: 1681 driven by steam, 1575 by electricity, and 936 by gasoline piston engines, and it was not at all clear which technology might triumph.

Just five years later, there were some 78,000 motor vehicles in the country, most of them gasoline powered. Electrics and steamers had perhaps doubled in volume, but the inconvenience of recharging an electric car in a country wherein fewer than ten percent of households had electricity -- most of which were in cities with high-density housing and no garages or off-street parking -- made them unattractive despite their instant usability. Steam engines were handicapped by the need to spend at least a quarter of an hour getting up steam. Gasoline cars, despite the dangerous necessity of hand-cranking their engines to get them started, simply overwhelmed their rivals, especially after Charles Kettering's development of the electric starter in 1912.

The electric-car industry was essentially finished by 1915, the steam car by 1920. Yes, there were still a few players, but the famous Stanley concern finally closed in 1925, Abner Doble gave up on his highly perfected steamer in 1931, and Detroit Electric had completely faded away by 1941. Because they are quiet and pollution free, electric cars have always had boosters, but they remained a dead issue through the twentieth century despite attempts to mandate their manufacture and use. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on essentially futile government efforts to impose electric vehicles on unwilling consumers. Yet here we are today with not one but two excellent Automobile of the Year electrics.

We decided to seek some examples of technologies that, like electrics of a century ago, were mature enough to have been commercially exploited but which, for good and sufficient reasons, were abandoned so far as automobiles are concerned. Is steam worth reconsidering in the light of modern metallurgy and the possibility of using extremely clean-burning, energy-dense fuel that doesn't produce excessive air pollution? Bill Lear (father of the Learjet) thought so in the 1960s but failed to prove his conjecture. Is there potential for the very simple gas turbine, which produces more power per pound of installed weight than any other vehicular powerplant? Could internal-combustion engines benefit from reimagining their architecture, as Felix Wankel believed?

The generous help of two notable car collectors, Jay Leno and Peter Mullin, made it possible to go out on the road in past examples of each technology. The cars we tried were Leno's 1910 White tourer, Mullin's 1934 Voisin C27 Aérosport coupe, and the 1963 Ghia-built Chrysler gas-turbine coupe that Leno acquired not long ago, one of just nine remaining of the fifty-five prototypes and demonstrators made decades ago. Both men, thanks to California's relaxed requirements for registering historical vehicles, keep the cars in their collections licensed, which meant that we could put them together on public roads. As Leno said as we cruised in the Chrysler turbine, just after he'd arrived from home in a Citroën DS: "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't fool around, and I'm not interested in playing tax games. All of my cars are registered, and I can drive them any time I want." Which is why after our drive he could go home in a Duesenberg roadster without consulting a team of lawyers. And why we could put all three vehicles together on public roads.

First to be fired up -- literally -- was the 103-year-old White. There is absolutely nothing electric on this machine, so the first step is igniting the pilot flame, which is accomplished with a match. Or at least, that's how it was done in 1910. Leno used a piezoelectric igniter for a gas cooking range to create the spark that lit a flow of gasoline dripping from a petcock. There was a lot of open flame around the bottom of the car, but it seemed to be of no concern to the experienced steam-car user and was soon extinguished. Once firmly established, the pilot flame ignited a burner for the flash boiler, which is capable of superheating the steam to more than 700 degrees. A double-acting steam engine might be thought of as a "one-stroke" powerplant, in that every movement of the piston from one end of the cylinder to the other produces torque. In a two-stroke, every downstroke does, while in our common cars, power is produced only every fourth piston movement. If that sounds a little Rube Goldberg, well, it is.

Not as well known as the Stanley, White steam vehicles were far more sophisticated. Leno, who owns several of each make, notes that Stanleys were "like teakettles." They boiled water, put the steam into the engine, and vented it to the atmosphere, necessitating a water-tank refill every fifty miles or so. Whites, almost from their inception, incorporated condensers to recover and recycle the water. Teddy Roosevelt may have been the first U.S. president to ride in a car, but William Howard Taft was the first to have White House motor vehicles, and he favored his White. The first U.S. Army trucks were Whites. Leno noted that the reliability of the White was so good that there was a three-times-weekly White bus service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a three-day trip, but the scenery must have been wonderful in those relatively pollution-free days.

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