SAE Detroit explores ‘Past Forward: 100 Years of EV Engineers & The Future of Electrification’

The 2016 General Motors First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle is now on display at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. (Photo: SAE Detroit/The Henry Ford)

DETROIT — The SAE Detroit Section hosted a webinar titled “Past Forward: 100 Years of EV Engineers & The Future of Electrification” on June 24, 2020. It explored the history of electric vehicles, the current state of EVs, and also previewed the future with self-driving EVs.

Featured speakers included Jessica Robinson, co-founder of Detroit Mobility Lab, Chairwoman of Michigan Mobility Institute and current Entrepreneur-in-Residence; Mark Zachos, Executive Vice Chair of Programs for SAE Detroit Section and President of DG Technologies; and Matt Anderson, The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation.

Jessica Robinson: “When most people think about electric vehicles, they think about Tesla. They imagine electric vehicles as a fairly recent innovation. I think for a lot of people, even engineers in this industry, they might be surprised how far back these vehicles go.”

Matt Anderson: “We’re fortunate at the Henry Ford to have an extensive collection of not just automobiles, but early automobiles. We have not one–but two, pre-19th century electric vehicles in our collection. They are both what I’d call prototypes–experimental vehicles. They were not production cars in any way shape or form. The first one was our Edison Electric Runabout initially built in circa 1889. Thomas Edison has no intention of going into business producing automobiles. But he wanted to build the car as a test platform for batteries. It’s a three-wheeled vehicle that has two electric motors. One connected independently to the two front wheels. The one wheel in the back is a steering wheel in this case. Edison played with this for a little bit in the late 1880s and 1890s and kind of put it away on the shelf for a while until he got back involved in battery development with his new friend Henry Ford. Henry Ford worshipped Thomas Edison so this was one of many vehicles Henry Ford collected.

This 1896 Riker Electric Tricycle is on display inside The Henry Ford. (Photo credit: SAE Detroit/The Henry Ford)

Anderson: “We have another pre-1900 electric vehicle. This is another tricycle interestingly enough. This one built by a fella named Andrew Riker. Built a little later in 1896. The set up and design is a little bit different. We do see the three wheels again but in this case you street with the front wheels and your motor is attached to your rear wheel. The batteries are stored right underneath the driver’s seat. This would have had 20 different battery cells to power it. Riker built this as an experimental car, he had no intentions of going into production. He built an electric race car that set some land speed records. He realized that gasoline was going to be the fuel of the future and electricity wasn’t going to be around much longer. Andrew Riker was actually the first president of the SAE.”

Mark Zachos: “There were a lot of collaborations going on in the early automotive age. They wanted to standardize components as they were buying a lot from vendors. Another thing the SAE did was bring together people with like minds and interests. That continues today. Henry Ford, Riker, even Thomas Edison and all of the other people you might have heard of have been part of the early history of the SAE.”

Robinson: “One of the questions is I get all of the time when talking about electric vehicles is range. How far can these vehicles go on one charge? We talk about range anxiety and consumer adoption today. What’s changed over time? What are some of the design considerations engineers have had to deal with when it relates to batteries?”

Matt Anderson is The Henry Ford’s Curator of Transportation.

Anderson: “Range anxiety is nothing new. It was an issue with the original electric vehicles at the turn of the 20th century. Depending on which literature you read or which manufacturers you were investigating, they would advertise a top range of anywhere from 60 to 70 miles. In reality, I think the range was between 35 and 40 miles between charges. It was an open question for the first 10 or 15 years–whether we’d be using electric, gasoline or steam for automobiles. They all had their advantages and disadvantages. Electricity in particular was well suited for urban environments. It was clean, it was quiet, much easier to drive the vehicles. There are no gears to shift and you are not getting you and cranking to start the engine. The problem was once you got out of the city, electricity became hard to find. Rural areas haven’t been electrified until well into the 1930’s. That was a major nail in the coffin for electric technologies.”

Zachos was asked about next generation batteries, density, range and charging times.

Mark Zachos is the Executive Vice Chair of Programs for SAE Detroit Section

He answered: “Charging times is related to how you charge it. There’s some safety issues that we have to recognize. You mentioned Tesla which is a great company, a great vehicle that they have. They have a unique charging system that they developed themselves. It optimizes connectors, the way the energy is drawn from the grid into the battery. It’s not a standard–other EV companies don’t do it that way. That’s something SAE helps with all of the time.”

Robinson: “What do we know about the history of charging technology? There is a question about Mrs. Ford. Where did she have to charge her vehicle in the Dearborn to Detroit trip?”

Anderson: “One of the electric vehicles we have in our collection is the 1914 Detroit Electric, which was owned and driven by Clara Ford. Electric vehicles were targeted towards well-to-do women as customers. Clara could have made it on the trip to Detroit a couple of times on a single charge. It’s about 10 miles back and forth, it shouldn’t have been an issue. They would have had a charger set up in the Fair Lane garage. In addition to Clara Ford’s 1914 Detroit Electric, we have a 1922 Detroit Electric which we keep in operating condition. If you’ve been to some of our events like the Old Car Festival, you may have seen this vehicle operating. This issue of safety was a concern for some early drivers. I would point out that early gasoline cars were attacked as being less safe than electric cars.”

Zachos: “In these times, they weren’t interested in air pollution and the air quality. That wasn’t an issue back then. Today, of course it is. We want to make sure they are both safe and clean. One thing we need to make sure of is a standard way to make the connection. How do you measure the cleanness of an electric vehicle? How much power actually are we drawing from the grid? There’s got to be a power plant somewhere in Nevada, if not California, that is burning coal that is charging those vehicles. All of that is connected to the Air Mandate that is coming out of California.”

1997 General Motors EV1 Electric Coupe (Photo credit: SAE Detroit/The Henry Ford)

Anderson: “The EV1 was as good as electric cars got in the 20th century. It kind of occupies the halfway step between a research program and an actual consumer product. GM did put these cars in the hands of the public but you couldn’t buy one outright. You had to lease it from the company and the company had the right to take it back from you. GM just determined that they couldn’t make money building these electric cars and scrapped most of them. We’re fortunate to have one of the survivors.”

Robinson: “There’s a number of questions around hybrids. We’ve talked exclusively about electric vehicles to date. They are not the only type of electric vehicle that’s out there. There’s plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), there’s hybrids that have more than one powertrain option. Hybrids are older than we realized too, right Matt?”

Anderson: “We have a hybrid car in the collection at the Henry Ford that is believe it or not–over 100 years old now. It’s our 1916 Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe. Depending on your point of view, this is a car that either came way before its time or just a little after its time. Woods realized by the mid-teens that the market was starting to evaporate. They thought, what if we tried to combined the two technologies, a gasoline-electric hybrid. It works much like a hybrid does today in that you use the electric motor to get up to speed, maybe 15 miles or so then the gasoline engine takes over.”

The 2002 Toyota Prius Sedan is on display at The Henry Ford. (Photo credit: SAE Detroit/The Henry Ford)

Anderson: “Then, we have the poster modern example of a hybrid vehicle, a Toyota Prius. The first generation model introduced in the United States, this model is from 2002. It’s the same ideas as the Woods, trying to get the best of both worlds. Although in this case it’s all computerized. The car does all of the hard work for you. In the early 21st century, we had government tax credits to offset some of the cost to help encourage the sales of the vehicles. Now, there are people interested in buying the Prius because of what it meant for the environment.”

Jessica Robinson is co-founder of Detroit Mobility Lab and Chairwoman of Michigan Mobility Institute.

Robinson: “The only car that I’ve had in the past 10 years was a plug-in hybrid. I could put gas in it or I could charge it. This particular vehicle would operate on the battery charge for a certain number of miles and then the internal combustion engine would kick in after. Frankly, I loved that car. The challenges for me was where I lived. I live in a multifamily situation. I don’t have a garage, I don’t have a driveway. I would have to charge at work or my favorite was actually charging at the airport when I would travel in Detroit, Metro Airport. I could always count on being able to charge and getting a great parking spot as well. What I loved about that vehicle, frankly, was that it was super zippy. This is one of the unknown perks of electric vehicles if you haven’t had the chance to drive one. There’s no lag in the design. When your foot goes down, that vehicle goes. It does have a pep and a pickup that an equally sized sedan or hatchback might not have.”

Zachos: “Part of the conversation also circles back to charging. How big is the battery? What’s the range? How much energy can you store in that? When you run out of juice, how long does it take to charge up? It’s just not a vehicle or battery-centric solution. It’s a system-centric solution. That’s going to take years and years. Mary Barra said it’s going to take years to build up that infrastructure instead of running into the Conoco station and topping up the tank. You still need to get that energy from someplace.”

Robinson: “The lingering question is on road trips. Will I feel confident running a bunch of errands? There’s a question around charging infrastructure–not at work and not at home. That’s something we’re seeing a lot of too. Stores actually are thinking of it as a benefit. Think of it if you’re a big retailer and you’re someone who has 20 or 30 minutes to kill while charging their vehicle. The retailer would say, ‘what better way to do that and come into my store and spend some more money while you are into my parking lot.'”

This 2016 General Motors First-Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle is one of the newest additions to The Henry Ford’s collection. (Photo credit: SAE Detroit/The Henry Ford)

Finally, the speakers wrapped up the discussion by talking about electric vehicles with self-driving capabilities.

Anderson: “We’ve been trying to simplify the work of driving and moving in a direction toward autonomous vehicles for perhaps a lot longer than we might initially think. One of the newest vehicles in our collection and it does point the way to what might be our future. This is the 2016 GM First Generation Self-Driving Test Vehicle. This is one of the first vehicles they developed with Cruise Automation. These vehicles were tested out on public streets in San Francisco, California and Scottsdale, Arizona. They were accompanied by engineers who would be in the seat there with controls for the driver. There was an emergency button so the driver could step in and take over if necessary. But for the most part that wasn’t necessary. These vehicles ran very well and there weren’t many serious incidents. What really draws me to this vehicle is just how prototypical, experimental it is. When you look at the way they sought out holes in the bumper there and the mounts for the radar units up front and the LiDAR units on top and the array of cameras. AV vehicles are almost by default electric vehicles. It draws the amount you need to actually propel the car. I remember five years ago it seemed like we would all have self-driving cars in the garage by 2020-2021. I think manufacturers have backed off a little bit on that as we realize some of the complexities involved.”

Zachos: “SAE has worked together with the industry and with the government, with NHTSA, to develop the five levels of autonomous driving. Now we know when we’re talking about hands-off or full autonomous when you can sleep in the back seat. Level 1-5 is all part of an SAE standard. We’ll continue to develop further standards around that area. It’s very, very important to get it right. Just like the early days of the SAE with fasteners and lug nuts we talk about. SAE is very involved in this.”

Electric vehicles have been around for more than 100 years. It’s safe to say that they won’t be going away anytime soon. Look for many more EVs to hit the road soon in the not to distant future!

Video by SAE Detroit / The Henry Ford