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40 Years Later: Electric Cars and the OPEC Oil Embargo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Oregon’s odd-even plan reduced the lines at gas stations during the fuel crisis in the fall and winter of 1973-74. This station was servicing cars with even-numbered last digits on their license plates on an even-numbered calendar day. Image credit: David Falcone, National Archives and Record Administration

Forty years ago, an Exxon executive named George Piercy led a small gang of oilmen into a Vienna hotel room. They were there to meet Sheikh Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s oil minster and negotiator for OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), which was demanding a 100 percent price hike in response to the Yom Kippur War. Long story short, Piercy said no. Yamani called his colleagues in Baghdad to deliver the news. Piercy asked what happened next. Yamani answered, famously, “Listen to the radio.”

We know what happened next: the first OPEC oil embargo, and with it gas rationing in the West. But something else happened then that we often forget: an aggressive international effort to develop electric cars and advanced batteries, an effort that led directly—if slowly—to the Tesla Model S’s and Chevy Volts on the road today.

Now, it’s not as if the day the 1973 oil embargo began, Detroit CEOs picked up their phones and screamed “Build me an electric car, stat!” That effort had already begun. By the late 1960s, smog was so thick in the Los Angeles basin that local politicians were talking about banning the internal combustion engine. In response, all of the Big Four Detroit automakers (remember, American Motors was still around) started working on electric-vehicle technology. In 1967 Ford developed a molten-sodium battery that was so unconventional it broke a research logjam. The 1973 oil embargo supplied this simmering research scene with apocalyptic urgency and essentially unlimited funding.

Even Exxon started planning for the end of oil. The head of the firm’s research division at the time: George Piercy, whose experience in Vienna informed the priorities of his entire company. In 1976 Stan Whittingham, a young battery engineer working in an Exxon research and development lab in Linden, N.J., published a paper in Science detailing the first rechargeable lithium battery. It had problems, including a tendency to burst into flames. Nevertheless, it became the ur-battery whose descendants now power every serious electric car of the 21st century.

Why did it take four decades to get viable electric cars on the road? Part of the answer has to do with the intrinsic difficulty of battery chemistry. Batteries are messy, disobedient, devilish machines. They don’t obey Moore’s law. It has simply taken researchers a long time to work through all of the problems.

But it could have happened more quickly. A big part of the problem is that as soon as oil got cheap again in the 1980s, companies and governments shut down all those battery-research projects they had started in the 1970s. Exxon closed Whittingham’s shop. The U.S. government largely got out of clean-energy research as well. As Whittingham told me for my 2011 book on the subject, “When Exxon stopped, the federal government in their ignorance decided, ‘If Exxon’s not doing it, it’s not worth doing.’” He added, “If Reagan had continued the programs the Jimmy Carter administration started, we’d be a lot further ahead. But that didn’t happen, and so we had this hiatus.”

The lesson, in case it’s not obvious, is that if basic research is funded in fits and starts, then that is exactly how it proceeds.

The battery-research hiatus ended when Japanese electronics companies picked up the moldering literature in pursuit of smaller, longer-lasting consumer gadgets. Sony commercialized the lithium ion battery in 1991, but by the mid-1990s, when GM started work on its short-lived EV1 electric car, lithium-ion still wasn’t mature enough for use in an automobile.

Sixteen years later, facing doom, General Motors threw a historic Hail Mary and announced that it would build the lithium ion–powered Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. We can now say that electric cars have arrived—(a few of them, at least) and this time, they don’t seem to be going away. But if we get distracted again from basic research by cheap energy or political dysfunction, it’s going to take a lot longer than it should for the next generation of electric cars to get here.


Seth Fletcher About the Author: Seth Fletcher is a senior editor. Follow on Twitter @seth_fletcher.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Carlyle 12:13 am 10/9/2013

    We have viable electric cars? Have I missed something?
    Tesla Says Car Fire Started in Battery

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  2. 2. David Cummings 4:24 pm 10/9/2013

    Electric cars would make a lot more sense to me if we had massive amounts of nuclear power stations to cleanly supply all the electricity needed. As it is, all electric cars do is burn dirty fuel in some other location.

    Of course, breakthroughs in solar power will change all that… eventually. For the near and mid-term, I think electric cars just aren’t going anywhere.

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  3. 3. dcary3133 7:12 pm 10/9/2013

    To Carlyle, who apparently has nothing else to do but to comment negatively on every article: What you’ve missed are all the recalls on gas powered cars which had a problem with gas tanks that had tendencies to burst into flame with a relatively minor crash. So far I’ve heard of only one (that is a number: 1) Tesla that had a fire problem. There will be others, but that does not negate their viability.

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  4. 4. jerryd 8:38 pm 10/9/2013

    First 2 deniers right off the bat try to make EV’s look bad. Carlyle why do you keep doing it? Are you paid by industry?

    What would happen to you if a big piece of metal priced your bottom? Or your cars bottom? Likely it would have come right through the 18gge? metal floor/footwell into you. No?

    Yet despite having a battery module in trouble from massive damage, warning the driver, the EV took them to a safe spot from the fast/HOV lane to off the interstate where everyone got out safely. Could your car do that? Be honest.

    Cummings even from coal, EV’s now are cleaner than gasoline cars. It’s been a decades since coal EV’s were only in SO2, worse. By the time a good number of EV’s are out there, coal will be used rarely in 5 yrs because of emission limits.

    Now they are far cleaner. Nor are more PWR nuke, though more small, factory made PWR nuke waste burning failsafe will really help but only to 40% average peak grid.

    PV already beat retail coal, nuke, etc prices on or off grid if shopped well, sunelec in many places.

    Ford even sells a home PV system for $10k to charge their EV customers cars as an option.

    Back to EV’s, this 40 yrs has been big auto/oil slow walking EV’s as slow as possible and we still have overweight, overpriced and over teched EV’s only.

    Though 1 hot Lightning EV MC won the Pikes Peak race 12 miles long and a mile up, beat the best gas MC racers, hottest MC’s in the world by 30seconds!! And it was stock!!

    They won’t make the safe, all composite body/chassis lightweight/1,000lb, aero EV’s we need. Such because they need 50% less battery, etc than a steel one. It can cost under $12k for a lead battery 100 mile range, 80 mph one.

    Not a single tech newer than 1970 tech most far older.

    But only apparently hobbiest could build good EV’s and still make some of the best for these 40 yrs.

    They shamed, a group of hobbiests, Toyota, who said a plug in Prius couldn’t work. In 2002 but they made a DOT approved kit to do just that. Now Toyota sell one stock.

    As for Chevron they bought the NiMH battery patents from GM and forced everyone from making EV size ones force several EV’s out of production.

    It took Nissan to make the Lithium battery work in EV’s taming it in the 1990′s. They are the only big auto company to really back EV’s.

    And all the EV’s are sold out with back orders, some over a yr shows EV’s are wanted. Yet big auto won’t increase production to meet the demand with the recent price drops to more reasonable levels.

    Luckily the oil/coal era is coming to an end, too expensive to burn by 2033 so they won’t have much choice soon. EV’s charged by home made power are the low cost energy and transport of the future.

    Link to this

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