Comparing electric vehicle market innovation patterns of 1895-1920 with 1990-2015

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Marc Dijk


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2015)


In the late nineteenth century electric automobiles outsold every other type of vehicle. An electric prototype held the land speed record, battery-powered cabs traversed London, New York and Paris while emerging hybrid technology promised a solution to the problem of limited range. Electric vehicles (EVs) were the first choice of royalty and high-society drivers everywhere. Yet within 10 years the electric automobile was no more and the internal combustion engine reigned supreme.
As EVs make a comeback in the 21st century some of the same problems persist. Only one manufacturer (Tesla) has built an electric automobile capable of matching the range of an internal combustion engined vehicle. Most modern EVs have a range of approximately 160 kilometers. This impairs their ease of use in longer trips.
This paper compares the introduction of the electric vehicle in the late 19th century with the early 21th century from a socio-technical transition perspective. It discusses differences and similarities of market innovation patterns.
The transition perspective I adopt is routed in a socio-technical and evolutionary framework and understands the introduction of electric vehicle as niches introduced amidst a well-established market regime, with potentially transformative effects. It highlights how niche actors and developments interact with those of the regime. Therefore it puts the market innovation discussion in the context of a key issue in socio-technical innovation studies: how the new and old interact. I employ a theory that a disruptive niche will interact with an established regime in either a predominantly competitive, or symbiotic or neutralistic way.
The paper offers an analysis of the electric vehicle market of 1895-1920 with 1990-2015 in Europe. Key differences found include the competition with ICE vehicle, being a niche-niche competition within the context of a disruption of the horse-drawn carriage regime around 1900, but a niche-regime symbiosis (leading to hybrids) in the context of a sustaining ICE regime around 2000. Key similarities include the problem of range and refuel time. The role of incumbents, early adopting consumers, policies, infrastructural developments etc. are compared in the discussion.

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