Book Review: Age of Auto Electric: Environment, Energy, and the Quest for the Sustainable Car

By on January 10th, 2024 in Articles, Book Reviews, Environment, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

By Matthew N. Eisler (Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2022, 365 pp.)



Reviewed by David N. Lucsko



When it comes to new technologies, I have never really been an “early adopter.” “Reluctant latecomer” would be closer to the mark, for my mantra has always been that “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” I still prefer LPs to MP3s, DVDs to streaming, and paper copies of journals, books, and magazines to their online equivalents. I have never tweeted, never used Facebook, and only recently (and with grave misgivings) acquired a smartphone. More to the point, my cars have manual keys, manual transmissions, and manual GPS (i.e., road atlases). Several decades into the digital age, I remain a comfortably analog person.

So, when an early-adopter buddy of mine stopped by recently in his brand-new electric Ford Mustang Mach-E GT, I was stunned at how impressed I was. For one thing, unlike other electric vehicles (EVs) I have seen up close (mostly Teslas), this one looked and felt like a real car: it had a real dashboard with real switches and knobs, a real brake pedal, and an overall design that did not look like something an eight-year-old doodled after seeing Blade Runner 2049. More importantly, it was by far the fastest vehicle I have ever driven, so much so that by the end of a quick spin I had an idiotic grin on my face I could not quite shake. It was, as Matthew Eisler reports in Age of Auto Electric, the “EV smile.”

It was by far the fastest vehicle I have ever driven, so much so that by the end of a quick spin I had an idiotic grin on my face I could not quite shake.

Like my friend’s Ford, Eisler’s new book is a tour de force. Its 14 chapters lay out an engaging and nuanced account of the recent history of EVs, focusing on the second and third eras of EV research and development (the 1990s and the current period that began in the late-2000s, respectively; the first was back in the early 20th century when the automobile itself was still new). Eisler proceeds from a couple of deceptively simple questions: How and why, after 80-plus years of internal combustion engine (ICE) dominance, did EVs once again seem viable in the 1990s, only to quickly fade once more into obscurity? And why did they reemerge a decade later in a more commercially sustainable way? Better batteries played a role—nickel metal hydrides in the 1990s and lithium ions more recently—but Eisler’s basic premise is that “better batteries” is a myth. Battery technology has improved, that is, but that is not why electrics reemerged. Instead, Eisler credits “the interplay between changing enviro-technical and socioeconomic conditions, energy and environmental policies, systems of energy conversion and industrial production, and material practices of innovation.” What this means in concrete terms is the following:

First, the near-miss EV revival of the 1990s, best exemplified by General Motors’ (GM’s) Impact/EV1 program, grew out of several decades of research and development focused on addressing the persistent problems of photochemical smog, on the one hand, and the on-again, off-again crises associated with the pricing and supply of crude oil, on the other hand. Second, the current EV era, that of high-end firms like Tesla, stems, in large part, from the investment patterns and innovative strategies of Silicon Valley. Contributions by EV enthusiasts before, during, and between the second and third waves were vital, too. Age of Auto Electric carefully unpacks all of this.

Following an introductory chapter, Eisler begins with the post-WWII struggle against smog. This led not only to the development of emissions controls for ICE vehicles and the rise of a persistent pattern of automaker resistance to environmental regulations, but also to research programs at GM on battery-driven cars and fuel cells and at Ford on solid-state ionic batteries. None of this did anything to persuade either company that EVs could be profitable.

Chapter 3 carries the story forward through the 1980s. In the 1970s, energy conservation became the primary motivation for EV research, backed by direct federal support. In the 1980s, however, with gasoline prices rapidly falling and mainstream automakers ever more certain that electric traction could never be profitable, the Reagan administration slashed funding for battery-based EV research and development. Federal dollars began to flow instead to what Eisler describes as “the hydrogen imaginary”: the dream of a (distant) future of clean and cheap propulsion based on hydrogen fuel cells. Automakers preferred the hydrogen imaginary to battery-based EVs precisely because functional and cost-effective fuel cells were always well beyond the horizon, a promising line of research that generated positive publicity but did not threaten their profitable ICE sales. In other words, the hydrogen imaginary was an early example of very effective “greenwashing.”

The hydrogen imaginary was an early example of very effective “greenwashing.”

Chapter 4 brings the State of California to the fore to get to the heart of the 1990s EV revival. Air-quality officials there passed a rule in 1990 requiring automakers to sell zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) in that state at a rate of 2% of sales by the end of that decade, and 10% by the middle of the next. Better known simply as “the mandate,” it sent automakers scrambling both to develop “compliance cars” for the California market and to fight the new requirement in every way they could, including continued promotion of the hydrogen imaginary. But by far the most important result of the mandate came from GM, where an ongoing research program to develop an experimental EV called the Impact rapidly became a more serious effort to deliver a marketable EV. About 1,100 of the resulting vehicles, known commercially as the GM EV1, were leased to customers in the late 1990s. This marked the apogee of the 1990s EV revival, for GM recalled and crushed nearly every one of these cars in the early 2000s. Following Chapter 5, a brief history of hybrid propulsion centered on the Toyota Prius, Eisler returns to the EV1 in Chapter 6 to analyze the partnership between GM and the Ovonic Battery Company that made the ill-fated car possible. Chapters 7–9 take a closer look at the role of the hydrogen imaginary and the first generation of hybrid cars in blunting California’s ZEV mandate and in helping doom the EV1.

The remaining chapters focus on the current era of EV development. Eisler begins in Chapter 10 with the origins of Tesla. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded this firm in 2003 with a singular (if lofty) goal in mind: to forever change the way we think about electric cars. They planned to do this by building an all-battery EV supercar—a ferociously torquey, Ferrari-beating monster that would appeal to wealthy early adopters whose favorable impressions would then trickle down to the general public. Tesla’s 2008 debut, the Lotus-based Roadster, managed to do just that. Following a brief return to hybrids with a detailed analysis of the Chevrolet Volt in Chapter 11, Eisler then resumes the all-electric story in Chapters 12 and 13 by taking a closer look at the public reception of Tesla’s cars, as well as the federal stimulus and other support (including Elon Musk’s substantial controlling investment) that has kept that firm afloat. He then wraps up with a wonderful chapter, “The Life Electric,” which documents, via a series of anonymized interviews, what it is like to live with and rely upon an all-electric car.

Age of Auto Electric covers a lot of ground. It sheds new light on the EV1, the history of hybrids, California’s ZEV mandate, the many strands of battery-technology research and development that came together to enable the EV renaissance, the role of Silicon Valley types in reimagining electric cars as blisteringly fast “computers on wheels,” and the important role of EV enthusiasts in shaping the technology in good times and bad. It ought to become required in undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of transportation and automobility, the history of science and technology, and environmental history. It is a welcome and thought-provoking contribution.

A wonderful chapter, “The Life Electric,” documents, via a series of interviews, what it is like to live with and rely upon an all-electric car.

My only real quibble is that I wish this book took hybrid cars more seriously as a genuine bridge between the internal-combustion era and the all-electric future, especially in terms of the user experience. For better or for worse, the petroleum-fueled paradigm is deeply embedded in the habits and expectations of ordinary motorists. This means that for all of the attention that automakers, EV boosters, the press, and Eisler himself give to “driving range” as the key metric for comparing the performance of electric and ICE vehicles, the fact of the matter is that out in the real world of everyday use, the effective driving range of an ICE car (including hybrids and plug-in hybrids) is more or less infinite, and thus mostly irrelevant. But this is not the case with the straight EV.

No matter what comes up—a sudden need to rush to the store, or to an emergency room across town, or to an aging parent’s house 200 miles away—a minute or two at any pump will get you there in a conventional car or a hybrid no matter how far you have already driven that day. This may one day be the case with full EVs too, assuming that charging points become as common as gas pumps and that the full recharging process comes to take no more than a couple of minutes. But we are not there yet by any stretch. And this is precisely why hybrids remain a vital bridge: nothing about their operation fails to meet their users’ embedded expectations regarding what a car can do. It matters, then, that hybrids have not only saved a lot of fuel over the last 25 years, but also that they have quietly introduced millions of motorists to at least part-time electric propulsion.

Eisler also falls victim, as he feared, to the perils of writing about the recent past. It is an unavoidable risk associated with contemporary history, and it happens to us all. Still, I found myself chuckling a bit at the notion of Elon Musk as a hip, out-there entrepreneur at the helm of a thriving EV firm. This of course was written before Musk bought Twitter late last year in a fit of erratic behavior that not only called into question his reputation for savvy dealing, but also put him on course to claim the Guinness record for “largest loss of personal fortune in history,” some $ 182 billion. Tesla has also had an abysmal run since Eisler finished this text, posting year-to-year stock losses in excess of 65%. Then again, perhaps by the time this review appears Musk will have reclaimed his reputation and his fortune, and Tesla will once again be the envy of the NASDAQ world.

As for me, I am certain I will be just as late to the EV party as I have been with pretty much everything else. There is way too much life left in my current cars to give them up, and there is a certain satisfaction in their analog operation, too. Plus, they are fully depreciated and paid for, meaning that even factoring in gas and maintenance, they are far, far cheaper to operate than anything new, including an electric. But it is nice to know that when my hand is finally forced, at least I will have the EV smile to look forward to.


Reviewer Information

David N. Lucsko is a professor of history at Auburn University, Auburn, AL 36849 USA, where he teaches transportation history and the history of technology. He is the author of The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990 (2008) and Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past (2016). Email:




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