100 Years Before the GMC Hummer EV and Tesla Cybertruck, Electric Trucks Were Popular

Walker Electric Truck
A Walker Vehicle Company electric truck that was used to deliver milk in downtown Chicago. Iowa 80 Trucking Museum

Earlier this year, automotive startup, Rivian, had its first production pickup truck roll off the assembly line in Normal, Illinois. The company's R1T is the first all-electric pickup truck to hit the market, beating the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Tesla Cybertruck. GMC produced its first Hummer EV this week.

The idea of electric trucks is not new. About a century ago, when passenger cars were gaining prominence, electric vehicles were a common sight in major cities.

The battle between electric-, gas- and steam-powered cars would eventually give way to a winner, but for a brief period in the early 1900s was a popular use case for the electric truck.

Back in the day, electric trucks were generally relegated to commercial use. As companies looked for ways to streamline their operations and modernize their fleets, electric-powered vehicles proved to be an attractive option.

In the second decade of the 1900s, Chicago's Bowman Dairy Company used Walker Vehicle Company electric trucks to deliver milk to restaurants and hospitals in the downtown area. The truck had a rear axle electric motor that had a range of up to 50 miles and delivered 3.5 horsepower.

"If you think about it, that's truly the perfect use of an electric truck at the time,"Dave Meier, Iowa 80 Trucking Museum curator, told Newsweek, adding that short trips around an inner city with a base for charging appealed to a lot of businesses over other modes of transportation.

The museum counts a few Walker trucks as part of its collection. Despite their relative popularity in the business world at the time, Meier says that most visitors are surprised when they see an old truck that ran on electricity.

DeMoll Co. Electric Autocar Truck
O.J. DeMoll Co. Autocar truck in 1919 or 1920. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., [LC-F82-1234]

In 1897, Louis Semple Clark introduced Autocar No. 1. Two years later, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based manufacturer produced its first truck. Their gas-powered truck made its way to the New York Auto Show in 1901, 22 years before the company would create it first electric truck, the E1.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the company's E1, E3 and E5 commercial trucks (capable of hauling one, three or five tons, respectively) were commonly found on U.S. streets.

Tim Thornton, a vice president of Autocar Company, told Newsweek in an interview that the company's electric trucks were a reliable, cost-effective replacement for the horse.

"When you look at the value proposition of the electric truck that Autocar was producing at that time, it was three to four times the speed of a horse," he said. "It was two times the cruising radius of a horse in good or bad weather... And it would do one and a half to two times the work of a team of horses at the same cost."

Charging facilities were outfitted with battery swapping systems. Autocar electric trucks came with three sets of batteries mounted inside cradles that could be interchanged to allow for a drained battery to recharge.

Dr. Erica Schoenberger, an environmental historian at Johns Hopkins University and author of Nature, Choice and Social Power, said in an interview with Newsweek that the demise of the electric motor in the early 20th Century came about largely because of two factors: the nonexistence of personal charging infrastructure and the dominance of gas-powered cars.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the few houses that were wired for electricity didn't have wall outlets as we know them today.

"If you went into a house in those days and looked for the electrical outlets, they were all in the overhead lighting," she explained.

The awkward interior design of electrical outlets combined with the high cost of electricity to the average household represented a huge barrier of entry.

The other prevailing factor: Henry Ford favored the internal combustion engine and his low-priced vehicles worked to wipe out much of the competition. With the growing popularity of these engines, their research and development became more of a priority.

"When (the electric starter) finally became ubiquitous, that was the end of being interested in improving battery technology," she said. "That's all you needed from electric if you were running an internal combustion engine. And so people stopped doing research on electric batteries."

The electric starter, which had existed in one form or another since 1903, was introduced to the Ford Model T in 1919.

Henry Ford
Henry Ford stands next to a Ford Model T. Ford Motor Company

According to Shoenberger, gas engines had spread faster as a mode of transportation than electric driving. The gas-powered vehicles that were put into service for World War I, the tanks, ambulances and supply trucks, also increased their familiarity with the public.

"There was not a constituency with enough voice and enough money to say 'we want to keep the (electric) battery-powered car as well,'" she said.

Shoenberger says that if that research had continued through the modern era, electric vehicles might hold a third of the overall vehicle market share, possibly higher for commercial vehicles.

A few years ago, Autocar returned to the electric vehicle (EV) market. They introduced an electric version of a terminal tractor to operate in distribution centers. The data collected from those units will inform their development of an electric garbage truck and other products.

Thornton says that these innovations, whenever they happen in trucking or the automotive space in general, are bred from the need for efficient outcomes.

"It's really going to come down to the same thing that hurt EVs in those days, which is the ability to charge and maintain a power supply efficiently and effectively," he added. "Because at the end of the day a truck's purpose is to provide a service. That's to deliver goods from point A to point B and to do it effectively and on time."