Electric Vehicles in the 1970s: an uneasy alliance

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2019)


The 1970s were a period during which an old technology was rediscovered: the electric vehicle. Gradually, saturated markets, environmental concerns in cities in particular, and the oil crisis provided a growing stack of arguments to develop a new generation of such vehicles and try to bring them to market. As a hybrid artifact involving two industries – electric utilities and car manufacturers – it needed to be determined which industry would take the lead in developing such vehicles, and what form each industry's involvement would take. Our paper will explore the role of French and German auto manufacturers in this process, but based on an unusual perspective and sources: that of the electric utility industry.

As other authors (Michel Callon) have suggested, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the initiative lay with the electricity producers in these two countries. The automotive industry was not a passive bystander however. It entered into cooperation agreements with electricity producers, provided cars for them to retrofit and undertook R&D activities on their own. In France and Germany, Renault (TREGIE) and Volkswagen were particularly active in this respect, but vehicles were also made by MAN, Daimler, Peugeot, and a series of smaller independent manufacturers and inventors. Despite such an abundance of activity, the relationship between the two industries was complex, sometimes conflictual, and at times revealed divergent mindsets between the partners.

Based on archive material from two utility companies, EDF (France) and RWE AG (Germany), we will explore a series of questions about this relationship. Did the car industry "sabotage" or support the development of EVs in the 1970s? Did the electricity industry treat car manufacturers as subordinate suppliers or as equal partners? How advanced was the 1970s generation of electric cars in terms of performance and what criteria were used to assess their market potential by each industry? Do the 1970s allow to speculate on whether electric utilities or auto manufacturers are better suited to commercialize EVs? To discuss these and similar questions, we will draw on the relevant literature in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and try to generate some insight by taking into account recent developments in the field.

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