The Clean Fuels Ohio office in downtown Columbus sits near a retired coal plant, railroad tracks that carry crude oil and coal across the country, and an original manufacturing plant for Electric Vehicles (EVs). In our office hang two old timey posters advertising the benefits of the “Columbus Electric Buggy”, a relic of past industry. As Clean Fuels Ohio assisted the City of Columbus in developing the Smart Columbus application and workplan, I often reflected on the organization’s current role in the advancement of alternative fuels and efficiency technologies, and the impact alternative fuels have had in Central Ohio for decades. In order to examine the city’s place in EV lore, let’s take some inspiration from the 1985 film Back to the Future, and travel back a few decades.
Electric Vehicles are often heralded as objects of the future: advocates regularly hail the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, and Chevy Bolt as the harbinger of a cleaner, modern transportation sector. In reality, electric vehicles have been around since the 19th century, before even the Model T. In fact, Columbus Ohio played a large role in the development and deployment of EVs during the advent of automobiles. In the late 1800s, Columbus was known as the “Buggy Capital of the World”, so recognized for its role in manufacturing carriages and automobiles. Clinton Firestone and Oscar Peters helped found the Columbus Buggy Company, known for producing a buggy every 8 minutes. At one point, the company claimed that one in every 5 buggies used in the United States was produced in Columbus.
By the early 1900s, the Columbus Buggy Company employed over 1200 people, originally producing horse propelled carriages and ultimately making automobiles powered by both gasoline and electric. The company built its plant near what is now Huntington Park in Columbus, right down the street from the Clean Fuels Ohio office. The 1903 Columbus Electric provided a range of 70 miles per charge at a then-competitive top speed of 21 miles per hour. Advertisements touted the Columbus EVs as “noiseless, odorless, and clean running”. These facts remain true today, as we look at the emissions reductions and environmental benefits EVs provide.
Eventually, gasoline vehicles beat out EVs due to manufacturing improvements, the success of Henry Ford’s assembly line, and the invention of the electric self starter by Charles Kettering of Dayton, Ohio. The Great Flood of 1913 in Columbus finished off the company, ruining the plant and destroying most of its records. Presently, the “Buggyworks” building houses office space and condominiums.
As the Smart Columbus program seeks to advance consumer adoption, charging infrastructure, and fleet usage of electric vehicles, what better way to embrace the future than looking back to the past? In the slightly modified words of Doc Brown, “Gas? Where we’re going, we won’t need gas!”