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Museum find: GE's 'missing' electric car


One of the things I enjoy most when traveling is visiting small museums, especially those with a local focus. Those are often the places where I find those things that “upset your expectations,” as my signature line says. Last weekend in Schenectady, NY that happened again, when I found the hidden story of a modern electric car that almost made it to market long before Prius or Tesla.

DSC07438Since Schenectady has long been known as the “Electric City” and home to General Electric, it should come as no surprise that GE is the company behind the car. What has come as a surprise to me is how little-known the 1978 GE-100 is; it’s not even mentioned in Wikipedia articles on electric cars, although it came within months of being put into production back in the 1970s.

This prototype, and the story, are in Schenectady’s Museum of Innovation and Science as part of an exhibit on Fueling the Future. It’s a one-of-a-kind that cost $250,000 to build, using only off-the-shelf, commercially-available products. That’s a lot for one car (unless it’s a million-dollar Ferrari), but the engineers calculated that it would cost about $6,000 each if 100,000 were built—and that’s about the price of a similar-sized gas-engine car at the time.


The GE-100, was designed as a project for GE’s 100th birthday in 1978, and also to show off what GE could supply for anyone planning to build them in bulk. The parts came from 18 different departments of GE, and from auto parts suppliers. Even the batteries were already in existence; the car used 18 6-volt deep-discharge lead-acid batteries, derived from the ones used to power golf carts and forklifts. A standard 12-volt battery handled headlights, radio, etc.

And notice the full-access hood, and the doors that pop out and slide up. That feature should be looked at: It allowed the doors to open fully without needing a big space to swing wide and ding the car in the next spot! The batteries were easy, too: A tray under the surprisingly large trunk space slid out to allow easy battery service or changing.

That's Edison himself, holding up the hood of an electric car in 1914

And that’s a reminder that electric cars really aren’t that new at all; in fact, at the beginning of the automobile age, electrics sold up to about 10% of the market. After all, most buyers weren’t planning to go long distances, or at high speeds.

Baker_Electric_(1902)_front-left_Toyota_Automobile_Museum Morio
Edison's personal Baker Electric was similar to this 1902 model

Even after the electrics died off before World War I, it continued to be the preferred power for many forklifts and carts, and even, for many years, for UPS trucks. In 1899, when Walter Baker founded the leading electric car company, customer #2 was Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric. Incidentally, he never had a driver’s license! Around the same time, Ferdinand Porsche designed electric and hybrid cars for an Austrian company.

An early electric chassis from Lohner, the company Porsche worked for

So, what could the GE-100 do? About 45 miles of city driving, or 75-100 highway on a single charge. It could do 0-30 in 9 seconds, not exactly super, but not totally shabby. Top speed of about 60, cruising speed 45-55, so not likely to be passing too many others (for the extreme version of that, have a look at this video of the GE-100 on the race track with Indy cars). Recharge took 6-8 hours overnight, on house current. Obviously a 220v charger would have been faster.

DSC07430GE showed the car off in a number of places, as you can see from the pictures of it on the track and in Washington, DC. The only story I could find about it in the NY Times reported that the company was showing it off on college campuses near New York.

DSC07434So, if it was that practical, and that close to production, what happened? Well, those of us old enough to remember those days remember oil troubles. Arab embargoes and other events drove prices up, and at points restricted supplies enough that gas stations had long lines, and states imposed systems to avoid chaos (odd numbers one day, even numbers the next).

That drove up interest in economical cars and in cars that wouldn’t use gas at all. The federal Energy Department funded some of the efforts. And then the gas became plentiful again, prices dropped, and so did interest in GE’s electric car. And so, the GE-100 became just a fascinating footnote in automotive history.

More next week on the Museum of Innovation of Science and the Schenectady County Historical Museum—a great pair to visit!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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A great piece! Amazing to me how some of the best products of their day were not built commercially . Even when they were, sometimes they were not successful. Cars like the GE-100 are great examples of that. A true find and thanks for teaching us more!

If you want a thing done, ask a busy man.

Love it!  Exactly the type of finding that makes a trip memorable.

Something proponents of electric cars seem to forget or choose to ignore -- where does the electricity come from?  Currently mostly from coal and oil fired plants, so the practical side of having them for most doesn't currently make that much sense (might as well burn the oil product in the car engine, right).  But I am hopeful that was energy technology improves, as it surely will, we'll develop better ways of charging these batteries and that our travel will be much cleaner.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

The argument, and I'm not informed enough to judge it, is that the amount of fossil fuel needed to generate electricity for a plug-in is far less than that required to run a gasoline engine. The same sort of argument that points out that a gallon of fuel moves far more freight on a diesel train than a diesel truck.

On the other hand, that's about plug-in cars. For hybrids, it's a different story because the batteries charge while the car is running on gas. So less gas is used than using gas alone, and less oil used for generation, because the gas that's used by the car is also the gas that powers generation.

Says the man whose next car will, in fact, be a hybrid.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

As I understand it, with hybrids the batteries charge when the car brakes are applied (transferring the energy of moving to the battery), so they're especially well adapted to city driving in places with lots of stop signs and traffic lights.  Less useful for driving on open road because you don't brake often.  So living in Brooklyn, I think the hybrid would be a reasonable choice for you.  

I don't think battery technology is anywhere near "ripe" yet, but as with the Mercury and Gemini programs, what we've seen so far are important steps for what follows.  The exciting things will be in the future, more than today.  I see the GE-100 as comparable to a Mercury space capsule.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Much further to go, of course, but even in a highway driving situation (and a city/highway mix), hybrids are generally cheaper to run than their gas-only counterparts. That's Camry vs Camry hybrid, for example, not Corolla vs Prius.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

A little further research confirms what I thought: at least in the Toyota and Ford hybrids, the gasoline engine powers a generator/charger while in use. That's in addition to the power captured from braking.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

I have some friends with a Prius, and their greatest fuel efficiency comes when driving in the city, not on the highway.  Paradoxical, but it shows how good the braking is at building up a charge.  Good to know there is a backup generator. 

While the hybrids save on fuel, they also cost thousands of dollars more than their non hybrid counterparts.  For an average consumer, it takes many years to recapture that extra cost for the hybrid on fuel savings, if they ever will.  And there's the issue of dealing with battery waste and recycling, etc.  Not to say it's not the right thing to do, but it's part of the reason why the technology is not widely accepted by consumers and while I still view it in its infantile stages.  And again, it makes far more sense for the urban driver than other folks.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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