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As gas prices skyrocket, move toward electric car recalls more than a century of efforts

High gas prices are boosting interest in electric cars, which have a long history in upstate New York.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the first electric car hit the streets around 1890, and by 1900 one-third of all cars on the road were electric and many New York City taxis were electric powered. In 1914 inventor Charles Steinmetz bought an electric car that he routinely drove around Schenectady.

The car is now owned by Union College where Luke Dosiek is an Associate Professor of Electrical Computer and biomedical engineering. He says Steinmetz's “Detroit Electric” car was powered by Edison batteries, which contained a caustic electrolyte.

"They would have charged them similarly to how we do it in that they would have plugged it in, and had a converter in between the wall outlet and their car," said Dosiek. "Back then the converters would have been huge and bulky and they didn't have silicon. Nowadays, we have silicon transistors that transform AC to DC, which is what we need to charge our batteries. Batteries are all DC. So back then it would have been these really large expensive pieces of equipment that used things like vacuum tubes, all sorts of mercury vapor diodes, you know, things that are just really nasty stuff."

Gasoline engine technology eventually prevailed as assembly line mass production of vehicles began. But times are changing. U.S. carmakers are transitioning to manufacturing computer-controlled EVs. General Motors had a huge jumpstart on the competition in 1996 when it introduced and began leasing its all-electric EV1, which drew raves from customers but ended up being recalled and crushed after the automaker deemed the cars "unprofitable."

Now GM says its Buick line will be all-electric by the end of this decade, the first vehicle set to go on sale in 2024. Buick National Marketing Manager Rob Peterson says the line's future EV products will carry the Electra name, drawing inspiration from the brand’s history.

"As an electric vehicle, you charge up every night, you have a full tank in the morning, and you avoid going to the gas station, which, you know, one of the big incentives is that, you know you're charging at home where the electricity is much cheaper, and not visiting the gas station where the gas prices are much more expensive," said Peterson.

As additional charging stations appear in cities and along highways, buyers’ concerns about range are expected to lessen.

Vice President of Operations at Albany's DePaula Auto Group Thomas Restino says he hasn't seen a big increase in customers looking to get into an EV.

"The surplus of those cars are not here yet. We don't have enough of them out there and the infrastructure isn't there," Restino said. "So that's a concern right at the moment, but I think more gas goes up, I think you'll see more people driving less and it'll be that they'll come to that point. They can't afford it. "

There are concerns about risks of overloading the electric grid which could result in low voltage and brownouts that have the potential to damage electronic appliances. New York Independent System Operator President and CEO Rich Dewey says he believes the grid will be able to handle the additional load.

"The key will be having optimization and control over the time of day that they charge," said Dewey. "So one of the things which we’re mindful of, you don't want to be charging all of your electric vehicles at exactly the same time, for example, that your air conditioning load is going to be driving up the peak. So it's going to be really important to think about programs at the local level and the retail level to make sure that we optimize when that charging is done."

Dewey expects economic forces and technology will help drive optimization around the scheduling of charging for the transportation sector.

Dosiek says additional work and upgrades to electric distribution are going to be necessary at the local level.

"Hopefully, as EVs are rolling out, we can spend money on improving our infrastructure to make it so we don't have to be in this constant state of worry. 'Oh no, if too many people are charging during the day we're in trouble,'" said Dosiek. "Like it'd be great if, you know 20, 30 years from now everyone's driving an EV and the grid has been modernized and hardened so it can so can handle that."

The Associated Press reports as gas prices head above $5 a gallon, major automakers are asking Congress to lift the 200,000 per company cap on how many people can receive tax credits for buying a hybrid or fully electric vehicle.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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