Cheap Oil Drove Successful Alternative Power Autos From The Marketplace 100 years Ago
The new high oil price crisis and the resulting low ratings for President Bush and the Republicans are creating a mad scramble to jump start a new generation of alternative fuel powered automobiles. However 100 years ago, some successful alternative fuel automobiles existed that had some huge advantages over gasoline powered cars but were driven from the marketplace by cheap oil in those days.
In 1906, one model of the Stanley Steamer was able to post a record speed of 127mph. From 1908-1919, the Ford Model T was only able to post a top speed of 45mph. A 1907 experimental model of the Stanley Steamer was able to break the 150mph mark. It was not until the 1966 Buick Riveria that was able to post a top speed of 143mph that any American production car was able to post a speed close to the year later racing version of the 1907 Stanley Steamer "Rocket". But what hurt the Stanley Steamer was the owner had to wait for a warm-up of the water to provide the steam power. The gasoline engine provided a quick source of power to the owner. But with today's microwave oven technology, maybe a fast warm-up would he possible. The Stanley Steamer automobiles were like a small locomotive engine. Since the 1698, successful models of steam powered engines had proven themselves to be viable.
In 1909, when battery storage was not very technologically advanced, the Baker Electric cars were able to travel 110 miles without having to recharge. But these cars tended to be fragile and more designed for city driving as country roads tended to damage or break the car's suspension. But with today's huge advances in batteries such as those used in the Toyota or Honda hybrid automobiles, the possibility of electric automobiles that are far technologically superior than the 1909 Baker Electric as more than possible.
What did in both the Stanley Steamer and the Baker Electric was cheap oil. It seemed far more convenient just to fill the car up with cheap gas. It provided the car and owner a quick fix that provided instant power. Even as late as the Nixon Administration, Nixon predicted that gas would never hit more than $1.00 a gallon. It was only a few years later in the Ford and Carter Administrations that higher gas prices hit along with gas lines. Some automobiles such as Chrysler were totally unprepared for a rise in price from 35-65 cents a gallon. Chrysler was put on the road to bankruptcy by only having large automobiles to market in those days. Even small companies such as American Motors had smaller cars such as the Gremlin and Hornet with economical six cylinder engines and merely dropped their largest or most fuel hungry models such as the Javelin, Javelin AMX and the Ambassador when the first American fuel crisis hit. Chrysler eventually needed a bail-out by the U.S. government to survive and developed small fuel efficient models such as the K-Car platform cars and Omni and Horizon in their bid for a comeback in the automobile business. Today the German company, Daimler owns Chrysler, where only GM and Ford survive as American brands.
In 1977, the oil industry also hit what was known as the "peak oil" point in which more extreme measures had to be taken to maintain nearly the same level of oil production as in the past. Since that point, some oil wells such as the giant Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia have required as much as 4.5 million barrels of seawater to be pumped in each day in order to raise the oil level enough to maintain previous production levels. Most of the largest oil wells in Russia or other places now require either air or gas injection to push out more oil production, but most of these oil reserves continue to decline to as little as 10% of previous barrel production rates.
For way too long, oil was used as the primary power source for world industrial societies. There was more than ample time in the last 100 years to develop viable alternative fuel automobiles, but the warning was ignored. Now a real crisis is developing in higher prices, a possible serious war with Iran, and trouble spots like Nigeria and Venezuela, and a growing demand of 20 million barrels a day demand by the U.S. and a sure to increase demand of 6.5 million barrels a day from China. China's economy is growing at a rate of 10% per year. It is only rules that limit the use of automobiles in 500 of China's largest cities that prevents a full blown world fuel shortage and price increase crisis. China is considering opening 200 cities up to increased automobile use. In 1988 privately owned Chinese industry accounted for only $5.3 billion dollars in trade. By last year this grew to $288 billion. As Chinese industry grows more coal as well as oil will be needed. With a population 4 times that of the U.S. and China expected to become the world's largest economy by 2042, if Chinese oil consumption grows to only 50% per person usage of the 20 million barrels of U.S. usage a day, then there is no possible way that world oil output could squeeze out an increased Chinese demand from the present 6.5 million barrels a day to 40 million barrels a day.
Just like the days of whale oil use which nearly depleted much of the world's oil production, the world has relied on cheap and plentiful oil supplies for far too long. Now a crisis of tightening supplies and resulting high prices as well as serious international friction points like Iran, Nigeria or Venezuela exist that could tip into military conflicts. Rather that alternative fuel vehicles being driven from the marketplace 100 years ago by cheap oil, it would have been far better for them to co-exist and grow in technology and compete head to head with existing gasoline models. Now that a real crisis is here, it is a little late to fix the problem overnight when the last 100 years were squandered away.