Automotive history

Dan Snow’s potted history of the electric car

by James Mills
20 May 2020 2 min read
Dan Snow’s potted history of the electric car
Dan Snow examines the history of electric cars (Photo: BBC)

Dan Snow might be a self-confessed electric car evangelist, driving a Tesla and powering it at home using solar panels, but that doesn’t stop the historian from delivering an unbiased, potted history of the electric car. He freely admits that his dream car is a Ford Mustang.

Speaking with Robert Llewellyn, on the Fully Charged Show, the historian and presenter travels back in time to the earliest days of the car and gives a stirring snapshot of a three horse race – the horse versus the electric car and the combustion-powered car.

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He charts the discovery of big oil, highlights industry breakthroughs, such as Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T, and skips through the sobering, political implications of energy security.

Unsurprisingly, Snow suggests there are lessons to be learned from history. “I think the lessons from history are pretty clear,” he tells viewers. “Don’t be surprised how disruptive the technology can be.

“We moved from whale oil, so whaling, which was the black gold of its generation. In the 19th century the whaling towns of New England were like the glittering cities that we see in the desert that we see in the Middle East, and they’re not any more. That died almost overnight when it was replaced by kerosene, which is a petroleum derivative.

“And if you look at the streets of New York City, horses and electric cars within 10 years had disappeared – yet they seemed like a permanent feature. There were no more conversations about what you do with all the horse poo in the streets. It was all gone.

“In the same way if you look at mobile phone usage… I made a programme in India, touring one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Mumbai, and I was very struck that many people had a smartphone, even the children. The penetration of smart phones into the world is astonishing.

Snow says the lesson from the 20th century is if you have an engineering problem, you can solve it by spending resources on it. He cites the development of the atomic bomb and the Apollo Program.

“It’s great to see that the money being invested in R&D, in lithium batteries and in solar panels, for example, is starting to get to a point where it is going to be like a tidal wave and when it comes we will wonder what on earth we were doing before.”

However, neither Snow nor Llewellyn address the concerns over the supply of battery materials such as cobalt and lithium. Both are emissions-intensive to mine, and the working conditions at mines in countries including China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latter providing an estimated 65 per cent of the world’s supply of cobalt, has raised alarm, as has the limited supply of cobalt and end-of-life recycling of batteries.

Despite a strategic shift to becoming a manufacturer of electric cars, Volkswagen has admitted that an electrically powered Golf must travel 77,000 miles before it is more environmentally efficient than a diesel-powered Golf. This is because the battery of the electric model is emissions intensive to produce, accounting for 40 per cent of the EV’s CO2.

Is it right or wrong to convert a classic into an electric car? Tom Ford, presenter of Hard Cell, gets stuck into the debate.

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