How electric trucks killed the horse-wagon in America

They were expensive to buy but cheap to run

America’s thriving cities were drowning in horse manure in the early 1900s. All their trade moved on the back of horses that left trails of poop behind them. What rescued cities from horse manure? The automobile; but the word brings to mind gasoline engines, not electric motors, which were more reliable, cleaner and cheaper to run at the time.

Electrics could not go fast, nor could they cover long distances between charges, but for city use these vehicles were perfect. Many businesses sold off their horses and wagons in the years before WW-I to go electric.

In November 2010, W R Metz wrote a paper for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, comparing the costs of using horse-drawn and electric vehicles, and the electrics easily came out on top.

Businesses at the time were considering whether to replace their horse-drawn wagons with automobiles. Metz estimated the office he worked for would save $11,000 per annum if it completely replaced its horse-drawn equipment with electric trucks. The actual saving came to $12,000 even though the office retained six horses for another year.

For his paper, Metz used numbers from the naval gun factory in Washington that had been using a 2,500-pound McCrea electric truck and a 5-ton (10,000 pounds, using the American ton of 2,000 pounds) Studebaker electric truck since 1906.

The light truck cost $2,230 to buy and the heavy one $3,725. This was much more than the 250-odd dollars a draught horse cost those days. But the cheap horse ate feed worth $150 or more in a year while electricity to charge batteries cost only 1 cent per kWh.

The gun factory’s light truck consumed current worth only $16.5 over 3,366 miles in a year (in fact, labour for charging cost thrice as much as the current, and battery acid $18). Including labour costs, charging the truck for a 40-mile run cost only 75 cents. Even the heavy truck cost $1.1 to run 40 miles. Then, the electric truck depreciated at 10% per annum to the horse’s 20%.

However, the horse still seems cheaper till you compare the cost of its full rig.

Metz next compared horse wagons, electric trucks and gasoline trucks used by a large company. This company used, among other vehicles, 5,000-pound electric trucks that cost $3,745 each to buy, and $2,533 to run for a year. A horse-wagon of similar tonnage using two heavier and more expensive horses cost only $1,175, but its operating cost, including wages, stabling and feed, was $3,369 per annum.

Not only was the electric truck cheaper to run, it averaged eight trips daily to the horse-wagon’s four. It also carried 5,500 pounds per trip, on average, to the horse-wagon’s 4,000 pounds. So, the cost per mile for the electric truck was $0.338 to the horse-wagon’s $0.899. Over a year, it saved $4,204 relative to the cost of running two 5,000-pound horse-wagons.

 

The electric trucks also cost much less to operate than the company’s gasoline trucks. Per mile, a 2,000-pound electric truck cost $0.03 while a gasoline truck cost $0.135 — that’s 3.4 times more. The gasoline trucks were of Cadillac, Brush, Buick, Ford, Franklin and Maxwell makes, with engines rated at 10-30 hp.

The numbers clearly show that the horse-wagon could not compete with the economics of automobiles, especially the electric truck, and so it bowed out.

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