Recently I had the exquisite pleasure of getting a ride in an original 1913 Detroit Electric car built by the Anderson Electric Car Company, and on several levels it was a surprising experience.
The 1913 Detroit Electric
First of all, the fact that this vehicle is 108 years old is impossible for me to compute. I sit in it, I feel it, and yet I don’t understand it. This thing is so old that in order for me to grasp its existence it should be a static object in a museum that you would be advised not to touch. But no, I got a ride in it. The driver and owner Jørn Grønkjær sat there with the controls and drove it, and although it obviously didn’t look brand new due to the exterior and interior being for the most part original, I have driven used cars that were in poorer condition after 10 years of regular use.
Terms like “unbelievable” and “incredible” are used much too frequently about things you actually do believe or find credible. However, in this case I really had a hard time projecting what I was perceiving as being part of reality. I knew what kind of technology this was, but I had only read about its origins, not actually experienced it as a working original appliance. This, happening on the streets of a busy town and not in a museum, just made it that more difficult to comprehend.
I have driven different electric vehicles for half a decade by now, and so much has happened in this market in that short span of time, so this just couldn’t be an actual functional EV more than a century old, could it? Getting a ride in a Ford Model T would probably be much easier to grasp, because, well, I know the controls are very different, but still, it’s just internal combustion right? And you would feel comfortable with the noise and rattling, but no, this thing felt mechanically brand new, no transmission noise, no suspension rattling. In short: My mind warped.
I drive a Tesla Model 3 as my daily driver, and jumping straight from a 2019 EV to a 1913 EV was like trying to squeeze a century of automotive history into a frame in which it did not fit. I knew the Detroit Electric story from foreign articles, and I have of course enjoyed watching Jay Leno enthusiastically drive his Baker Electric which is a very similar vehicle, where he touches on many other surprising details of the electric vehicle in general from that era, but never in my life would I have thought a 1913 Detroit Electric would be driving around in Denmark. I had contacted the owner, Jørn Grønkjær of elbilby.dk, after reading about it, and he invited me to come see the car at an EV event in a city nearby.
It’s now been a few weeks since I got acquainted with Jørn and his unique vehicle, and I am ready to share what I have found, both on a technical level and an emotional level. Emotional? Well, what can I say, I was completely unprepared for the thought process that followed this experience. Let me illustrate it this way:
If you have driven ICE vehicles only, you get this strange sensation when you try an EV for the first time, comprised of the silence, the torque, the speed. It feels unreal. But then you realize that these machines are in fact real, and you can buy them, and more and more people end up owning them and enjoying them on a daily basis.
Now, imagine striking the ICE part of this equation and go back and put in horse and carriage as the preceding experience. That’s what I felt, 100 years of fossil fueled propulsion gone, just like that, no need for it, straight from horse to EV, brilliant move. But then my first emotional response was something like “Oh no, what have we done? Have we wasted away a century, and on top of that destroyed the planet?” But as it so often happens in my case, I get another emotional response to the first one that is conveyed by curiosity like “How did this happen? What changed? Is this the inevitable sequence of technologies maturing that has lead us to where we are today?” and this again leads to the final sensation of awe and inspiration, and ultimately, hope.
Right, so with the emotions out of the way, let’s dig into this and see if the past can indeed tell us what the future holds. First up, a video of my ride. Go ahead and turn up the volume, and you will find that all you can hear is ambient noises. This thing is silent!
The following is information on the main EV-related components of the vehicle. Jørn Grønkjær even supplied me with a copy of an original Detroit Electric manual, and it’s just full of gems.
There is no steering wheel in the Detroit Electric, only 2 levers and 3 pedals. One lever is for choosing the levels of power fed to the electric motor — 5 levels forward as well as backward. Look how neatly the manual describes this:
The pedals are a combination of driving brake and parking brake. When parked, you flip up the power lever to disconnect and prevent accidental engagement. The other lever is for steering. Push it away from you to turn left, and pull it toward you to turn right. This is how we learn that although this car was loved by women, it would be unwise for pregnant women to operate it since turning right could be a problem with the unborn baby getting in the way!
The beauty of the controller operated by that one power-select lever is that it’s all mechanical switches. I have no photos of it since it was hidden under a seat, but take a close look at the amazing photos in this rebuild of a Detroit Electric controller. Contactors are located on a wooden roll and by pushing the select lever back and forth it rotates the roll and conducts a ballet of intricate connections in various modes between the batteries, a couple of resistors, and the motor. Again, the manual describes this beautifully, and even educates you on what voltage and amperage actually means:
It is very important that the controller is serviced properly, since poor connections in the controller can cause a lot of damage. The voltage is not in a deadly range as such with a maximum of 82 volts, but the high amperage can cause a lot of heat.
What if the meters themselves stop working? There is a solution to that which probably would not be viable today in terms of customer service:
“…remove from the car and return to the instrument manufacturer”? “…speedometer people”? Imagine walking into a dealership today with a large instrument cluster display from you car and insisting to see the “display people”! Hilarious.
Originally the car was fitted with lead-acid batteries in its base configuration, and indeed those fitted now are lead-acid. However, at the time this car was in production you could order, or upgrade, it with Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron battery pack for an extra $600 (about double the price of a Ford Model T at peak production rates in the 1920s!). This would double the range and halve the charging speed.
Thomas Edison claimed that his nickel-iron battery would last a century and indeed original batteries are claimed to still be working today. The nickel-iron batteries can be compared to modern nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) which had its heyday in the 1990s just after the toxic nickel-cadmium and before today’s lithium-ion types. In fact, this battery could have changed the entire history of cars, had a deal with Ford on supply of batteries to a rumored EV project come through. Something to think about…
Today this car has 6 x 6V lead-acid batteries connected in series in a front compartment and a corresponding setup in the rear compartment. Each battery has a capacity of between 1,080 and 1,440 Wh depending on load over time. These new tube type batteries work optimally within a certain range, and in total they have a potential of around 72V. These tube type batteries are comparable to those used in electric forklifts, and they can cope with many deep discharge cycles.
If you discharge continually at 36A (180Ah/5h), each individual battery can do this for 5 hours and you thus achieve a capacity of 180Ah, whereas if you are less demanding and discharge continually at 12A then the battery can handle this for 20 hours, and thus you achieve a capacity of 240Ah (240Ah/20h).
For example, if you drive with low load on flat hard pavement (72V x 12A = 864W) the total battery pack can deliver a total of 17 kWh, but if you load the car fully and are in a hurry and accelerate a lot and the road is hilly (72V x 36A = 2,592W) more energy is lost in internal resistance, which turns into heat, and then only 13 kWh can be used for actual driving. The car does not have regenerative braking.
The car originally had 42 x 1.95V battery cells that could each cope to be discharged at 25.5A for 6 hours (153Ah/6h), giving a theoretical capacity of 12.5 kWh (82V x 25.5A x 6h) with a nominal load of 2,091W. By comparison, the Nissan Leaf I drove 5 years ago had a lithium-ion battery pack with a capacity of 24 kWh.
The speed is quite limited, so we are talking about a realistic range of about 200 km (124 miles) with the new batteries. Not bad at all. As new, it probably did not go quite that far, but Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron batteries were said to double the capacity, and it would thus match my Nissan Leaf, which about 100 years later could muster some real-life 150 km (93 miles) on a single charge (to be fair though, at significantly higher speeds).
A word on charging. Yes, not at all as easy as plug-and-play!
There were a lot of charging stations in larger cities like Detroit and New York when this car was popular and roamed around in the thousands. It was, and still is, a perfect downtown city car.
Thank God for the invention of the brushless electric motor, because look what needed to be done on a regular basis to service the motor back then:
Today electric vehicles only use brushless technology. It’s a given in alternating current (AC) motors, since it’s the shifting rotational electromagnetic fields that forces the rotor to move, but in direct current (DC) motors the cheapest way is still to use a commutator to connect current to the rotor’s electromagnets.
If you’re ever in doubt what kind of motor the EV you’re driving is using, hit the accelerator hard and notice if a distinct smell is produced. A hilarious video with Robert Lewellyn getting a ride in Johnny Smiths Flux Capacitor updated 1974 Enfield 8000 ECC explains so well what 1,400 amps smells like!
Brushless, meaning no physical contact between stator and rotor, other than bearings, results in dramatically reduced maintenance requirements. Galileo Ferraris demonstrated a working model of a single-phase induction motor in 1885, Nikola Tesla built his working two-phase induction motor in 1887, and Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky introduced the first three-phase induction motor in 1890.
The 80,000 km (50,000 miles) and 30 months of ownership of my Tesla Model 3 has only cost me a recommended checkup on my brakes: $100, they were fine, no service needed. They probably won’t even bother checking the motor for a long while, because it’s built for a million miles of operation…
Maximum nominal motor power output of the Detroit Electric is 3,690 Watts, which is just about 5 horsepower. You get this number by multiplying the maximum power consumption in amperes by the maximum battery voltage: 45A x 82V = 3690W. This is how much power can be utilized without overheating the system.
However, keep in mind that batteries can typically easily withstand several more amps for a short period of time. When we drove the car I noticed that the ammeter could easily go past 100A from stand still, which means that the motor will typically deliver up to 10 horsepower at acceleration or pulling uphill. It develops more heat, but that’s not necessarily a problem for shorter periods of time.
The nominal power is enough for a top speed of about 20 mph (30 km/h), and believe me, that’s enough in this car. My Model 3, which is the most modest configuration with only one motor at the rear, produces about 300 horsepower from a drive unit about the same size as the one in the Detroit Electric.
What Happened In The Last 100 Years?
What enables the current EV revolution is essentially a convergence of 3 technologies that have matured:
The first technology to mature was the motor efficiency driven by the industrial replacement of steam engines with the electric 3-phase induction motor principle, which made electric motors very common due to their compact size and the fact that the polluting combustion of fuel to power them was external. As the electrical grid shifted from DC systems to a 3-phase AC systems, it was possible to radically simplify the electric motor and make it virtually maintenance free. What is commonly unappreciated is the fact that power generation at a fixed AC frequency dictated the speed at which the motors in the factories ran at, making them predictable and reliable.
The second technology that has matured is the power electronics driven by the introduction of the silicon controlled rectifier in the late 1950s to the first high power DC/DC converters in the 1960s followed by the commercialization of metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors which has made all kinds of power electronics possible, like DC/AC and AC/DC converters. It cannot be understated how important these components are in the world today. They are everywhere!
The third technology to mature in recent years is of course batteries. Battery power density has reached a point where decent range is possible at a low enough cost to compete with liquid fuels. This has been the hardest part, since we are dealing with enclosed chemical reactions that have to be reliable and safe in order to be viable and scalable in commercial applications. It’s one thing to have a rechargeable battery in a phone in your pocket that runs at 10 watts, and quite another to have thousands of battery cells in a car that runs at a nominal 10 kW to maintain a speed of 50 mph (80 km/h) and also be capable of pumping out hundreds of kW at peak levels. Battery management systems is a category of its own, with immense complexity of monitoring and cooling/heating.
All this combined has to be safe in order to succeed. Motors and batteries were actually relatively safe a 100 years ago, but only because of the low voltages and low speed of the vehicles. Nowadays it’s not enough to be on par with the average horse. We expect to get from point A to B much faster now, and doing this safely has been a very hard endeavor. The internal combustion engine made it possible to travel fast and far, but the convergence of the 3 technologies mentioned above is really the reason the EV is back on track to win the race.
Then & Now
Would the electric car have had a chance to win the race back then even without the power electronics and high power density batteries we use today? Maybe, but there were also circumstances like World War I putting pressure on prices of things like copper, and no doubt the war also helped inflate the global fossil fuel industry out of sheer demand of heavy military transportation needs by land, sea, and air, which made the choice of gas-powered technologies an easier one from a manufacturing standpoint. Eventually, post-war when the infrastructure was built, it made it cheaper to own a gas-powered car than a horse and carriage, let alone an electric car. Price is always the rule in mass adoption, not logic alone.
Also, let’s not forget what Henry Ford did just one year after the first Detroit Electric was produced: He introduced the Ford Model T which was a true revolution in vehicle mass production. I’m sure Ford had nothing against electric-powered vehicles. He worked for Edison Illumination as a young man, servicing their steam engines that produced electricity for homes and businesses in the rapidly growing city of Detroit, and he was very interested in electricity in general.
An important point is that Henry Ford saw the internal combustion engine powered by gas as a massive leap forward from the external combustion engine powered by coal and steam. However, he needed to master the electricity that was needed to produce the spark that ignited the controlled combustions inside the engine. No easy task, but eventually he mastered the principles of the ICE so well it enabled him to mass produce his cars.
Well, then you might think the electric car and the gas-powered car were on level playing grounds, and they were indeed for a while at least, but Henry Ford saw the internal combustion technology as the winner from a scaling perspective. Then, when he made the bet that the Model T chassis would be built from vanadium steel alloy, which was stronger and lighter, but also initially more expensive and mostly used to make axles, gears, springs, piston rods, and crankshafts, he hit a home run with 25,000 preorders.
The doom of the electric vehicle was sealed by the enormous popularity of the Model T which ended up being produced in 15 million units in just 18 years, and it would be another 100 years before the electric car would get a new chance. Between 1907 and 1939 a total of 13,000 Detroit Electric cars were built, and even though the Baker Motor Vehicle Company had started building electric cars as early as 1902, it was overtaken in sale numbers by the Anderson Electric Car Company in 1913, so in a way the car that I experienced represents the peak of the electric car era before it was pushed into oblivion by its fossil fueled competitors.
It would take a century and a company named after inventor Nikola Tesla to end the run that Henry Ford started with the Model T. When thinking about these early days of the passenger car era and the competing technologies that won and lost at the time, it is obvious that a certain technology is not necessarily bad or wrong in itself, but it will only succeed when converging with other technologies at the same time.
In Ford’s case it was the technologies of the internal combustion engine, the vanadium steel alloy, the assembly line, and more, that converged and achieved traction through the vision of one genius of the day, Henry Ford. Today, in Tesla’s case it is the technologies of the lithium-ion batteries, power electronics, electric motors, connectivity, and more that is converging and achieving traction through the vision of one genius of today, Elon Musk.
It could have been anyone, but it just happened to be Henry Ford and Elon Musk who had the vision and the courage to do something bold that had not been done before, at immense scale. In my view this is also where any comparison between the two ends. I doubt that Henry Ford had any environmental agenda on top of his wish to make transportation affordable, and Elon Musk is thinking a bit off-planet too. By the way, Ford and Tesla are the only US car manufacturers to not yet have gone bankrupt at some point.
It is said that Henry Ford was not all that tech-savvy and that his genius was more in the vision of what was possible in manufacturing. Had he been more nitty-gritty from a first principle technology standpoint, he might have given the electric car another chance along the way. After all, his wife Clara refused to drive anything other than electric cars. At the end of the day the two main issues with electric cars were, and is are, the range and the price, and seeing what Edison managed to pull of with his nickel-iron battery design, which he claimed could last a century, a joint effort to make the fully electric car viable could probably have been possible.
Instead, electric cars remained a luxury product until they disappeared completely. In this video from Sandy Munro Live, the CEO and founder of ONE (Our Next Energy), Mujeeb Ijaz, gives a lot of truly remarkable insights from what he learned after acquiring a fully restored Detroit Electric of his own. Mujeeb says that William Anderson, of the Anderson Electric Car Company that built the Detroit Electric, wrote a letter to Henry Ford in 1912: “I’ve serviced your wife’s car 4,950 miles from the first year and the nickel-iron battery required 90 cents of maintenance,” and making the point that maybe electric cars were the way forward because of the low running cost.
In Europe, electric cars had existed for even longer, and around the time the first Detroit Electric cars were sold, Mercedes and Porsche had already begun experimenting with different hybrid technologies, where the power did not come from a large battery, but from an ICE/dynamo combination, and a somewhat smaller battery as a buffer. These systems could output far more power than a battery pack, in fact between 10 to 20 times more power. These grand old German manufacturers took advantage of the high power and designed high-end cars with the technology. However, these expensive and powerful hybrid electric cars did not sell well and were only offered for sale for a few years. One is tempted to say that we now again see the hybrid cars as a kind of middle ground that will not survive long.
Before Tesla got successful in reviving the electric car industry, there were many other attempts. The most spectacular was probably GM’s EV1 from 1996, which suffered a disastrous fate, even though it was technically close to being competitive. Nissan had an honorable attempt with its Leaf in 2010, which became very popular and is still on the market, but it just shows how difficult it is for legacy car manufacturers to change (Nissan should get extra credit though for the EV “Tama” that was a popular taxi up into the 1950s in Japan).
The most famous attempts from Denmark are Hope Whisper, Mini-El, and Kewet (Kewet exists even today as the Norwegian Buddy), all from the 1980s, and they were undoubtedly born out of the energy crisis in the 1970s. These cars have a loyal fan base today, but these startups all ran into a wall (Hope Whisper actually ran into a wall at its reveal) consisting primarily of two problems: They started from the bottom up with cheap small vehicles, and the technologies needed to out-compete the efficiency of the fossil-fueled car had not yet matured.
Most recently, Søren Ekelund may also be recognized for having tried to create a Danish electric car industry with the conversion of fossil-fueled cars, such as the Nissan Qashqai which globetrotters Nina Rasmussen and Hjalte Tin drove around the world to prove its worth.
By the way, the original Detroit Electric brand was revived in 2008, but nothing has happened since 2017.
Well, as they say, the rest is history, and here we are looking at the inevitable future of electrification. I think William Anderson, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and many others would say “It’s about time! What took you so long?,” to which I would answer: “We got ICE’d by Henry Ford.” (For those who don’t know: To be ICE’d means some internal combustion engine vehicle took your charging spot…)
Articles about the Detroit Electric:
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