“It’s been applied to motor vehicles since the 1890s,” said Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
The technology worked proficiently to haul people, so it was quickly applied to hauling goods and equipment, Kendall said.
Several companies made commercial electric vehicles. The Elwell-Parker Electric Co. of America, based in Cleveland, Ohio, built a six-ton street truck in 1903. At the time, it was the largest battery-powered vehicle ever made. The company was best known for battery-powered baggage transporters known as electric stevedores. Those were used to move luggage at railroads around the world, according to the Elwell-Parker website.
The Walker Vehicle Co., based in Chicago, made its first electric truck in 1907. It was a “stand and drive” model used for home delivery of milk and bread. Its small electric motor delivered about 3.5 horsepower. The truck traveled at about 10-12 mph and had a range of roughly 50 miles, according to Jay Christ, who owns a collection of antique delivery trucks in Pennsylvania.
“One hundred years ago, this technology was really commonplace,” said Giordano Sordoni, co-founder of XOS Trucks, formerly Thor, the modern electric truck company based in North Hollywood, Calif.
Electric powertrains were legitimate competition for gas and diesel, Sordoni said.
Sordoni and his partner, XOS co-founder Dakota Semler, bought a 1918 Walker Electric truck at auction two years ago. It’s parked next to their ET-1 Class 8 electric truck prototype as a reminder of what could have been, Sordoni said.
Electric trucks were popular “because they develop maximum torque at a standstill, which is needed to overcome the inertia of the vehicle, especially a heavy truck with a load,” Kendall said. They also were prized for their ease of use compared with a horse and buggy or a truck powered with a “finicky” internal combustion engine, she said.
But convenient as they were for short-distance deliveries, electric trucks fell out of favor for many of the same reasons as the first generation of electric cars from the same era.
“They had very limited range and took a long time to charge,” Kendall said. “They were comparatively heavy and much more expensive than gasoline vehicles.”
Gasoline was preferred because the fuel was energy-dense, easy to transfer and readily available, she said.
The development of the U.S. freeway system propelled the popularity of gasoline. It started with Southern California’s Arroyo Seco Freeway in 1940. The U.S. Interstate Highway System of the 1950s created a need to get farther, faster and to refuel more quickly to keep up the pace, Kendall said.
The shift to gasoline and diesel shuttered electric vehicle companies of all kinds, including Walker.
Electric vehicles are poised for a comeback more than a century after electric trucks first went into service. They have bigger, more powerful batteries capable of traveling longer distances.
Today’s electric vehicles aren’t so much innovation as “catching up to where we should be by now,” Sordoni said.