Are EV makers retracing the auto pioneer trail?

As you look at the dozens of small, entrepreneurial and optimistic startups designing electric vehicles, it's tempting to see them in the same light as automobile pioneers a century earlier.

We have Tesla and Fisker and dozens of others. Is there another Ford or Dodge in the making? Or future footnotes of history: a Ballard, Baker, Buckeye or Briscoe?

We have catchy names such as Aptera, Zap and Wheego. A future Land Rover? Or more like Whippet, Bantam and Terraplane? There are high-minded names such as Think and Envision. So, new-gen Smart and Infiniti? Or old-timey Empire, Liberty and Peerless?

But it's not that simple.

The auto pioneers faced much lower technology, regulatory and capital barriers. They were replacing transportation that needed oats, grooming, harnessing -- and a shovel -- not versatile, convenient and mature products like modern cars.

And the car trailblazers weren't fighting against a consolidated horse-and-buggy industry. There was no Central Wagon Corp. or United Horse Inc. Today's independent electric vehicle companies are up against EVs designed, built and distributed by automakers with a regulatory motive to enter the EV segment.

Perhaps most important, the early 20th-century auto pioneers captured the imagination, and pockets, of most Americans. The EV pioneers are fighting over what will be only a modest wedge of the auto market.

If the budding EV era was more like the early American auto industry, it would be easier to speculate on a new crash-and-burn ratio for EV makers.

In the Automotive News almanac dating to 1893, I found 181 brands once sold in America that have failed. That's a grossly incomplete picture.

It doesn't include brands that were never successful enough to break out of the statistician's "other" data row at the bottom of the tally. Or low-volume exotics such as Panhard or Bugatti. It doesn't count the foreign brands that were never sold here or only available on the gray market.

It also excludes "hobby" brands such as Avanti, limping along making hand-built versions of the last Studebaker model and turning a series of multimillionaire owners into millionaires. No Checker Motors. No Bricklin, DeLorean, Sunbeam or Rover, either. Not even Tucker, a fluke interesting enough for a Hollywood movie.

In short, there was a really discouraging failure rate for car brands a century ago.

But I do see encouraging signs for the newbie EV companies. They're avoiding names that suggest locations. Like Pontiac, Fargo, Oakland, Cleveland, Auburn, St. Louis and Detroiter.

And they're steering clear of any name with "mobile" in it. Just ask the folks who once brought us Gasmobile, Oldsmobile, Hupmobile and Locomobile.

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