One day in 1948, Caltech chemistry professor Arie Haagen-Smit took a break from trying to decipher the mystery of the flavor of the pineapple. He stepped outside his lab for a breath of fresh air but instead found himself enveloped in what he called “that stinking cloud” of smog. At the time, there was a bitter debate as to what caused smog. So Haagen-Smit decided to put aside his pineapples (he had already worked out the taste chemistry of onions, garlic and wine and had identified the active agent in marijuana) to try to solve the source of smog.
What he discovered explains why plug-in electric cars — the Leafs, Volts, Teslas and all the other models that automakers will bring out in the next few years — are appearing on our roads. Or, to be more precise, reappearing.
In 1900, more battery-powered electric cars ran on the streets of New York City than cars with internal combustion engines, and over the next few years there was a fierce race for supremacy between them. But the arrival in 1908 of Henry Ford’s Model T turned the gasoline-powered car into an affordable mass-market product and made the electric car a historical curiosity. The moment when Haagen-Smit exchanged his fascination with food for one for smog marked the beginning of a shift back.
It could only have happened in L.A., which in the decades after World War II was under continuous attack by a blue-gray cloud that stung the eyes, made breathing painful and suffocated the L.A. Basin. On bad days, L.A. schools canceled recess. Sometimes the smog was so dense that motorists had to pull over and wait for it to lift; flights had to be diverted from Los Angeles airport.
The city seemed defenseless. During one particularly bad attack, Mayor Norris Poulson was hauled in front of a grand jury that wanted action. The mayor said there was nothing he could do save issue a proclamation “to halt automobile traffic and to direct people to stay home.”
A critical obstacle to doing more than that was the lack of agreement about what caused smog. Many thought the main culprit were the million and a half backyard trash incinerators. Using his great skills as a chemist, Haagen-Smit demonstrated otherwise. And he did so rather quickly; as he put it, “We hit the jackpot with the first nickel.”
The source was primarily the emissions from the incomplete burning of gasoline in internal combustion engines, plus emissions from gas storage tanks and auto gas tanks. The automobile that was the basis of the Southern California way of life was also the scourge of that lifestyle. One citizen summed up the shock in a letter to the Los Angeles Times: “We have created one of the finest networks of freeways in the country, and suddenly wake up to discover that we have also created a monster.”
From Haagen-Smit’s decisive discovery came the first regulations of auto emissions, which led to the catalytic converter and other technical solutions. But it didn’t happen right away. One smog attack in the 1960s was so bad that Gov. Ronald Reagan went on television to plead with the public “to limit all but absolutely necessary auto travel.”
But Reagan did something else as well. In 1967, he signed into law a new agency — the California Air Resources Board. As its first chairman, he chose none other than Haagen-Smit, by then known as the “Father of Smog.”
Because California was such a large car market and because other states adopt its regulations, the air resources board became the closest thing to a global environmental regulator of the auto industry. From the beginning under Haagen-Smit, it focused on solving the smog problem. It required automakers to come up with emission solutions, and the air quality in Southern California improved in response.
Then, in 1990, the board took a historic step. It ordered that 10% of new cars sold in California by 2003 had to be zero emission vehicles, or ZEVs. That required, in practical terms, electric cars.
The zero-emissions target had slipped into the regulations almost unnoticed, but carmakers set out to deliver as ordered. Remember the EV1? In the 1990s, GM spent a billion dollars on its development. And Toyota tried to sell an all-electric version of the RAV4, its small SUV. But while hybrid Priuses moved out of showrooms, there was little consumer interest in the all-electric model. The documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” names the automakers themselves as the main villain, but the real obstacle was the technology, or lack thereof.
“The true villain was the battery,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a current member of air resources board. “The batteries at the time were simply not capable of meeting the cost requirements and the performance expectations.”
But California’s zero-emissions requirement, even if a failure in the near-term, had laid down a marker for the return of the electric car. The air resources board revised its first ZEV order, but it did not back off, and other factors began to catch up with it to pave the way for the current generation of electric cars.
For example, new lithium battery technologies appeared, with more energy density and greater range than traditional lead-acid batteries. Climate change moved to the top of the environmental agenda, which meant more focus on tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions. Rising gasoline prices and concerns about energy security stimulated interest in diversifying transportation away from oil. Competition among the United States, China and Japan for manufacturing leadership in new industries focused on the electric car.
Still, it all started with smog. As Sperling put it, “The 1990 ZEV mandate emerged out of a debate about what to do about air quality, not from concerns over oil security, global warming or competitiveness with China.”
The race that seemed to be definitively over a century ago has started again. But it is still very much the first lap in this latest heat. It will be half a decade, or even a decade, before the outcome is decided and we find out whether the electric car will be a truly mass-market product or, at best, a niche vehicle.
Whatever the haze over the future, what is clear is that a straight road clearly runs from Arie Haagen-Smit, his pineapples and “that stinking cloud” of smog in 1948 to the electric cars that are appearing today.
Daniel Yergin’s new book is “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for his history of oil, “The Prize.”