By on September 26, 2012

A few months ago, BMW announced that it was throttling back (or should that be rheostating back?) on it’s “i” branded EV program, in part due to a lack of public charging station infrastructure. A company that sells as many gasoline and diesel powered cars as BMW does can afford to temper its enthusiasm for cars that run on electrons. A company that only sells battery powered electric cars, as Tesla does, doesn’t have that luxury.

If a lack of charging stations limits the rate of acceptance of EVs by consumers, well then, the businesses (and governments) with an interest in the growth of EV sales will just have to create that charging infrastructure, so Tesla just opened the first four of what is planned to be a nationwide network of more than 100 high speed charging stations that will let most Tesla Model S owners recharge their cars quickly, for free. While the notion of refueling your car at a station owned by the car’s manufacturer might seem a bit unusual, after all we don’t buy gasoline at Ford or Toyota filling stations, the idea is not really a new one, at least as far as electric cars are concerned. Tesla’s automaker owned charging stations were predated by over a century.


Electric cars were first popular a hundred years ago, and finding a place to charge your car was an issue then as well as now. Of course there weren’t gasoline stations on every corner then either so it wasn’t as much of a competitive disadvantage. Some people charged their cars at home – most urban areas of the United States had electric service by then. By 1914 General Electric had sold tens of thousands of mercury arc rectifier based EV chargers. Most of those chargers, it turns out, were installed in public charging stations, usually located in parking garages or at hotels. Some hotels also had dedicated curbside chargers for use by electric taxi cabs.

Until Tesla sells a few thousand more cars, the Detroit Electric, manufactured by the Anderson Carriage company and corporate successors, will still be the most successful electric car ever sold, at least in terms of units sold. About 20,000 Detroit Electrics were sold between 1907 and 1939. As a matter of fact, the Detroit Electric’s fortunes more or less parallel the early history of electric cars, peaking between 1910 and 1920, eventually overcome by the rapid technological improvements in internal combustion engines.

Just as Tesla is opening up a network of EV charging stations, a century ago Detroit Electric operated public charging stations for their customers (and others as well since most EVs of the era used a standard charging plug). Tesla is said to be locating their stations near trendy restaurants. A hundred years ago Detroit Electric also tried to accommodate their generally affluent customers (electric cars were significantly more expensive than typical gasoline powered cars) by locating company owned charging stations near where their customers lived, worked and played. In Detroit, there was a Detroit Electric showroom, repair garage and charging station near the foot of Woodward, another just across the bridge from the Belle Isle island park, and a third near the exclusive Boston-Edison residential district, nor far from where Henry and Clara Ford lived. Clara was not fond of “explosion” automobiles and like Helen Joy, the wife of Packard chief Henry Joy, Clara had her own Detroit Electric. The building for the charging station near Belle Isle still stands and is used by a theatrical prop company.

The charging stations were large, about 17,000 sq ft, and could accommodate charging more than 100 vehicles at a time. Detroit Electric offered a service where owners of Detroit Electric cars paid $35-$40 a month and their cars would be picked up, charged, washed, polished, given a complete mechanical inspection and then delivered back to the customer’s house. According to one inflation calculator, that works out to ~$800-$900 a month.

By 1912, Detroit Electric had sales branches and charging stations in Manhattan, Chicago , Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, Evanston, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. Route guides were published, showing the location of Detroit Electric and other public charging stations to show that electric cars were not just suitable for city use, by the Electric Vehicle Association, Goodrich tires and the Automobile Blue Book publishing company. The EVA even published a route guide for charging stations along the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway, though few EVs could have made the trip, as there was one leg with 190 miles between charging stations, a distance beyond the range of any electric cars made at the time. EV drivers were resourceful, though, and in a pinch they’d get a charge from the power cables used by electric streetcars.

Hope and the future promise of battery electric cars spring eternal. In the Feb. 1913 issue of Country Life in America (that also has an ad for REO automobiles penned by Ransom E. Olds himself), the publication’s automotive writer, one Ryland P. Madison, discussed the problems and promise of EVs in a manner that could be be repeated almost verbatim today:

Their well-known deficiency is a lack of ability to carry sufficient storage capacity to give long mileage at high speeds or under heavy loads… In the last three years there has been a marked improvement in storage batteries – so great that some engineers believe that electrics will be the universal car of the future.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS


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14 Comments on “Plus ça Charge, Plus c’est la Même Chose Pt. 3: Tesla’s Supercharging Stations...”

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Great article Ronnie. Let’s see if advances in Lithium ion batteries can put EVs on the map again. We seem to be at the same stage that Detriot Electric was in the 1910’s, but now the company making electric cars for the rich is call Tesla.

  • avatar

    Pure electrics will never be more than a novelty unless gas goes >$10 gallon…..pesky laws of thermodynamics, you see. Instead it would make more sense to electrify the main roads in urban areas and devise some way of cars to draw power through induction. Since it would only be practical to wire up the arterial roadways, the batteries would get you the final 10 or 20 miles to home. For example: Start off on secondary roads under battery power, hit the main drag and switch to induction, finish the last few miles on secondary roads under battery power.

    • 0 avatar

      Gas is already over $10 per in most of Europe, probably WELL over with the recent runup. Still not seeing many electric cars over there. Just smaller engined, more efficient gas and diesel ones.

      I’m glad to see the technology is progressing, but it is a LONG, LONG way from ever being common. Just too much hassle and not enough payback over a very efficient gasoline or diesel car at this point. Think what kind of mileage a Leaf with a <1.0L gas-hybrid would get if the buyer would be happy with a 12-13 second 0-60 time flat out, and the cost of the car was spent on making it as light as possible. See the old Audi A2 as a perfect example – add a small hybrid system to recapture even more energy and it would be over 100mpg.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      It is not induction, but:

      “Los Angeles-area officials are betting that one route to cleaner air in the smog-choked region might be a so-called e-highway for commercial trucks.

      “Within the next few years they plan to test a trolley-like system developed by Siemens AG that relies on overhead electric wires to power specially equipped freight trucks down roadways.

      * * *

      “Siemens’s system involves outfitting new or existing diesel-electric hybrid trucks with high-tech rooftop gizmos and software that enable them to attach automatically to overhead electric wires that will power the vehicles for the distance they are in place. Siemens has been testing the technology at a former airstrip in Germany and says drivers retain full control to speed up, slow down, steer, and detach from the wires and switch back to diesel power.

      “That flexibility, if it lives up to its billing, means the wires simply could be strung over certain lanes of existing roadways without having to be off-limits to cars or non-equipped trucks.”

      • 0 avatar

        The 1913 article that I linked to also mentions the possibility of powering cars via “wireless”. They meant radio waves, which of course would not be practical but since radio waves are just farther up the electromagnetic spectrum that 1913 prediction might apply to inductive power systems. Like the title alludes, the more things change…

  • avatar

    What, exactly, about the second law of thermodynamics makes electric cars impractical?

    As I see it, it’s a function of battery technology rather than physics. The second law prevents one from creating a perpetual-motion machine. It does not prevent the creation of, possibly, batteries with more internal surface area for charge, or better resistance (bad pun there) to internal heating or any of a number of things that will incrementally improve them.

    Once can certainly argue about cost-benefit ratios and practicality given the current (damn, another bad pun) state-of-the-art. But battery-electric cars work. Maybe not as well as you would like, but they do work. All without violating the second law.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      Electric drivetrains have an awful lot of pluses going for them: nigh-silent, smooth, high torque @0RPM, efficient, compact, simple and robust. Now if only there were a way to use them with liquid hydrocarbons (the easiest way so far to carry a lot of Hydrogen around reasonably safely)…

      Fingers x’d.

    • 0 avatar

      Here is a great article on the theoretical limits of batteries. This is good reading for anyone interested in electric cars.

  • avatar

    It’s creepy to compare the relative state of the technology 100 years ago to today. The challenges today vs the ICE are indeed verbatim. I wonder how far along battery tech would be today if electric cars became the standard instead of ICEs.

  • avatar

    Excellent article.

    Most people fail to realize that most technology does not follow Moore’s Law, including battery energy density. So the dreamers always think that ‘within a decade’ we’ll be all-electric, or have flying cars (yes, you, Popular Science), or a cure for cancer. The progress on these things is excruciatingly slow, and throwing money (corporate or other people’s) at it isn’t always the answer to speeding progress.

    All the challenges in the article still exist today: battery energy density, refilling time, infrastructure development, charging station availability, and cost.

    Personally, I think the portability of fuel makes the ICE very attractive. You can’t carry electrons in a gas can.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Really great, informative article, Ronnie. I was especially interested in the fact that, then as now, electric cars were the preserve of the rich.

    At least in the old days, the cars’ owners probably didn’t babble on about being “emission-free.”

    Mr. Madison’s quote omits a third limitation: that recharging electric cars takes much, much longer than filling a 20-gallon gas tank; and that, while theoretically possible, high charge rates destroy the batteries in short order. So, while you’re driving cross-country and stopping every 100 miles at a conveniently-placed charging station, the duration of your stop is going to be much longer than it takes to have a cup of coffee.

  • avatar

    In 1915 it took all day to drive 100 miles because of the poor roads, low top speed capability, frequent tire repair stops, etc. Now it takes less than two hours to travel this distance. So what would be an overnight charge then is now a four or five time a day exercise.

  • avatar

    You have to admit though that the battery technology has improved significantly. Model S has been driven from LA to San Diego and back at freeway speeds by Motor Trend. They also went from LA to Las Vegas and had 60 miles of range left over. Significantly more usable than the Detroit Electrics of the past.

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