What’s Cool in Transportation – Introduction

Friday, February 24, 2017 - 9:53am

By Shichun Hu, MSISE 2017

Welcome to one of METRANS’s special columns, “What’s Cool in Transportation!” I am your writer Shichun Hu, a graduate student studying industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California. I am excited to be able to head up this column focusing on one of my passions, namely new and cool developments at the intersection of transportation and technology.

Before I begin, please allow me to stress that my goal for this column is to present both reliably sourced facts as well as personal (but hopefully well-reasoned) views. I welcome and appreciate your feedback, and hope that you will continually reach out to me with your comments (including dissent), questions, and suggestions for future content so we can work together to make this column timely, relevant, balanced, and an overall good read! 


What’s Cool in Transportation – Electric Vehicles (part 1)

To begin, I would like to give a comprehensive view on the trending topic of electric vehicles. Since I am a rookie in this area, l position this column as if we are learning about electrical vehicles (EVs) together. Here we go!

Back in 2012, when the world’s first premium electric sedan was brought to market by Tesla,[1]  I was a sophomore in China learning calculus and linear algebra. A commercial electric car? Never heard of it. Back then, I doubted if most people would have expected that in just a few years the electric vehicle business (including hybrid, battery charged and fuel cell electric vehicles) would dramatically grow into a market size that is estimated to be over $271 billion (US) by 2019.[2]

Today, news about electric vehicles is everywhere. Both traditional car manufacturers and new players are rushing to this market. With over 30 models of electric cars to choose from today, a number which is expected to grow in the coming years, I am obviously not the only one interested in EVs. Let’s start with a brief history of engine powered automobiles, starting with the one which is most familiar to most of us, the gasoline powered, internal combustion engine.  The first patented gasoline powered automobile came into being in 1886 and was built by Carl Benz[3] (picture below).  This automobile underwent many changes and iterations, adding the addition of the fourth wheel at the front, and enclosure of the cab, for example, but the fuel source (gasoline) for most of us remained the same.


How about the first electric powered vehicle? It turns out that the first known electric vehicle was actually a locomotive built in 1837 by a chemist named Robert Davidson, powered by galvanic cells (having a high school chemistry flashback?). Later, in 1842, Davidson took a four-wheeled machine called Galvani to London.  He hoped that by demonstrating that his machine could travel at 4 mph towing six tons he would pique the interest of a sponsor who would find an application to rail transport.  Unfortunately, investors did not see the potential for this technology to make a commercial success of electric applications in railways, and his dreams were dashed. The major reason behind this failure was the nature of his galvanic cells, which were not rechargeable, causing obvious cost if not disposal concerns.  The rechargeable lead-acid accumulator did not materialize until the end of the 1850s. [4]


Next came the second industrial revolution in which electricity and petroleum played a critical role. As mentioned previously, the gasoline powered automobile was invented during that time. But seldom do people remember that the first electric automobile was developed in the same century. Soon after the benchmark finding of Gustave Trouve on how to successfully develop a first practical marine outboard (in 1880), Englishmen William Ayrton and John Perry built a tricycle (1881). The Elwell-Parker Ltd. then made the Parker-designed high-capacity rechargeable battery and started their journey to make electric passenger vehicles. In 1896, Elwell-Parker manufactured the first “electric dog cart” (see picture below).


Doesn’t it look similar to the Carl Benz automobile? The only major difference would probably be the source of power. And engineers have continued, undaunted, to try to build ever better, ever stronger, and longer lasting electric cars.[5] Factors such as the cheaper price of petroleum and technological challenges to creating high density batteries hindered the widespread development of powerful but affordable electric engines that could boost a car to travel hundreds of miles away with only one charge (like what Tesla produces today).

You may wonder how things are right now with electric vehicles. Do batteries nowadays have significantly stronger power than those of even a few years ago? The answer is undoubtedly yes, but to what extent? My next column will be there to answer these and other burning questions. Content such as the status of the electric car market, the state of technology and development in this area, and comparisons between a variety type of EVs will be included. Stay tuned for part 2!  And until then, please let me know what YOU think and what interests you most about transportation!







[5] A more detailed version can be seen here.


Shichun Hu

Author Shichun Hu is a student assistant at METRANS Transportation Center specializing in research project administration and coordination of the METRANS Mentor Program. She is a 2nd year graduate student majoring in Industrial and Systems Engineering in the Viterbi School of Engineering, USC. Her interests are using data and operation research methods to improve urban logistics and the supply chain. She is pursuing analytical internships in these fields. Shichun can be reached at