For decades electrically powered vehicles were considered exotic, but today everyone’s talking about them. What is less well known is that 120 years ago, electric vehicles were all the rage. In those days, around half of all engine-driven vehicles in New York were electric vehicles. Switzerland’s contributions to e-mobility have been recognised worldwide.
Jean-Luc Rickenbacher is a historian and curator at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.
In about 1900, it was still anybody’s guess which propulsion system would become the accepted standard for road vehicles. In the USA, the numbers were fairly even with approximately one third each driving with steam, petrol and electricity. The first petrol-engine cars were unreliable, cumbersome to operate, and had to be laboriously started up with a hand crank. The electric car, on the other hand, is ready to drive as soon as the master switch is on, if the battery is fully charged. In 1899 it was an electric car, “La Jamais Contente” designed by Belgian engineer and racing driver Camille Jenatzy (1868-1913), that was the first road vehicle to drive faster than 100 km/h.The railway was one of the main early electrified modes of transport. Switzerland has no coal deposits of its own, and so the country had to import what was in those days by far the most important fuel. To make the country less reliant on foreign fuel sources and to open up a new field of activity for the electricity industry, Switzerland pushed ahead with the electrification of the railways at an early stage. Trams and smaller railways got the ball rolling. The first electrified route in Switzerland was the “Tramway Vevey-Montreux-Chillon” in 1888. As early as 1906 and 1913, the various track sections of the Simplon-Lötschberg axis went into operation using the “white coal”. The SBB even built its own power plants to electrify its lines, including the Ritom hydroelectric power plant in the Canton of Ticino, completed in 1920. Compared with other countries, Switzerland was in the vanguard of e-mobility as early as the interwar period.
Electric vehicle pioneer Johann Albert Tribelhorn
In Switzerland, the early days of electric vehicle production were closely associated with the name Johann Albert Tribelhorn (1868-1925). Raised in an orphanage in St Gallen, in 1889 Tribelhorn emigrated to Buenos Aires, where he became head of the mechanics workshop for Argentina’s telegraph company. In 1899 he returned to Olten and a year later founded the company “Schweizerische Accumulatorenwerkstatt Tribelhorn AG”, producing accumulator batteries. In 1906 Tribelhorn moved production to Feldbach on the shores of Lake Zurich, in the municipality of Hombrechtikon. In addition to road vehicles, he designed around 26 electric boats. The company’s customer magazine, for which Tribelhorn wrote most of the articles himself, was called Das Elektromobil. Standard vehicle types were offered, but in the end almost every car was individually customised to the needs of the buyer. Buses for hotels, ambulances, various commercial vehicles, fire engines and delivery vans were especially popular. Doctors made up the top tier of the customer structure for passenger cars. The advantages are obvious: hands remain clean and uninjured during the starting process, the vehicles travel quietly and they produce no exhaust fumes. The city of Lucerne, a tourist centre, probably had the highest density of Tribelhorn vehicles, with every first-class hotel having at least one e-vehicle. In 1912 there were 24 charging stations available for electric vehicles, mostly in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. During World War I when the army needed “workhorses”, the number of Tribelhorn trucks ordered increased by leaps and bounds. However, an electric wheelchair designed for homes for ex-servicemen failed to catch on. The stellar business year after the end of the war prompted Tribelhorn to build a new factory in Altstetten. But the venture was not a success. In 1921 the Tribelhorn company had to file for bankruptcy. The company’s successor, “Elektrofahrzeug AG EFAG”, had only five permanent employees, and in 1926 Tribelhorn’s son Leon Ricardo took over management of the firm.
The petrol engine drives out the electric
During the interwar period, the electric car embodied the antithesis of what was considered modern and sophisticated. Motoring organisations were popular, but electric cars represented nothing heroic. The internal combustion engine burning petrol and diesel had clearly won the day; true-cost pricing was hardly an issue. Electrification was expedited, especially in the household sector. Electric cars, on the other hand, were seen as old-fashioned, slow and expensive. Despite this, they remained popular workhorses in a variety of niche areas. Electric pallet trucks, platform trucks, haulers, small commercial vans and delivery vans provided valuable service. Other companies, such as the Schweizerische Industriegesellschaft Neuhausen (SIG) and the Oehler company in Aarau, entered the e-vehicle business. In 1937, EFAG was renamed “Neue Elektrische Fahrzeuge AG NEFAG”. Owner and director from 1972 was Margrit Weiss-Schaad, who had a doctorate in mathematics. Although she had to fight against resistance in the male-dominated industry, she knew how to assert herself and successfully continued the company. In 1980 the company was sold to Mowag in Kreuzlingen, which continued to build electric vehicles.
Tour de Sol
Not least as a result of the oil price crises and the publication of the Club of Rome’s report “The Limits to Growth”, e-mobility experienced a new heyday in the 1970s. Starting in 1985, the potential of electric vehicles was demonstrated to a broader public audience during the Tour de Sol. The race using prototypes built by amateur inventors and equipped with solar-powered drives was a widely acclaimed media event. The first Tour de Sol went from Romanshorn via Winterthur to Geneva; the last Tour, in 1993, was from Lucerne to Adelboden. The Biel School of Engineering was a regular participant, setting the world solar speed record of 161 km/h at the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 1996 with the “Spirit of Biel/Bienne III”. The Tour de Sol made Switzerland the focus of professional interest, and added significant impetus to the construction of electric vehicles. Creative forms such as the GL-88, the “Egg” from Horlacher AG, the three-wheeled “Twike” from Twike AG and the “ZEM 4cycle” hybrid bicycle for four people, powered by muscle power and an electric motor, were developed. In 2009, the first factory in Europe designed exclusively for e-bikes was built in Huttwil. “Flyer” is the perfect example of the Swiss e-bike.
From central Switzerland to the moon
In 2010 the first national e-mobility forum was held at the Swiss Museum of Transport, with Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger in attendance. Around 300 participants from the research, political, economic and society sectors signed the “Lucerne Charter”, a statement of intent to pave the way for e-mobility in Switzerland. A lot has happened since then: electric cars have long since ceased to be exotic. Instead, they now represent progress and modernity, just as the petrol engine once did. But even electric cars aren’t the full solution: their proliferation will gobble up a lot of electricity – generated from renewable energies, ideally. The manufacture of the batteries is not without its problems, either; charging the batteries, and the nationwide rollout of the infrastructure, takes time. Nevertheless, e-mobility is set to make an important contribution to reaching the energy transition. The potential seems virtually unlimited: in 2015/16, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg circumnavigated the earth in the solar aircraft Solar Impulse. And nearly all the robot missions on Mars have trundled across the Red Planet using maxon electric motors from Sachseln in Obwalden.
In Switzerland, as elsewhere, climate change is forcing a rapid switch to renewable energies. The trend is called ‘electric’ and its advent harks back to the age of electrification, which in Switzerland occurred very early on, at the end of 19th century. Are there parallels to that era? Are we currently experiencing Electrification 2.0?