Consumption & Production
History of Electric Cars: a timeline of the ups, downs, and ups
The history of electric cars has played out a lot like a Rocky movie. They’ve been around forever and have been beaten by the popularity of other technologies. But they always get up. It may surprise you to know that EVs have been around for nearly 200 years! And while they’re being lauded as the future of transportation by being on the cusp of knocking out internal combustion engines, it’s proving incredibly ironic since gasoline engines repeatedly cast them into obscurity.
Electric cars are popular for a reason. They produce zero emissions, don’t need motor oil, have lower maintenance costs, and are developing increasingly longer ranges. The average electric car can travel up to 350 km or roughly 220 miles. However, the history of electric cars tells an important story.
To understand this, we need to ask ourselves, Why haven’t engineers en masse been working on electric cars since their inception? Why didn’t the general public go all in on electric cars back in the day?
The truth is EVs were only embraced because of their ability to address practical problems, just as they are now. When other innovations were able to fill the gaps, EV went down hard, but amazingly always got back up.
While significant challenges remain, electric vehicles are currently the most viable solution for addressing CO2 emissions, fuel prices, air quality, and sustainability. The history of electric cars can be broken down into five distinct periods.
Periods of electric vehicles
1. 1830-1880: Pioneering developments and the first electric car
2. 1880-1914: The first wave of electric cars
3. 1914-1970: The fall of EVs and the rise of internal combustion
4. 1970-2003: Reconsidering EVs
5. 2003-2020: The EV boom
1. The first electric cars
The history of electric cars has a unique timeline. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first electric car was invented. They emerged as a result of a series of breakthroughs and a confluence of technologies: namely the electric motor and batteries.
Inventors in the U.K., Hungary, the U.S., and the Netherlands had been working on the concept of a battery-powered vehicle.
However, in 1835, British inventor Robert Anderson displayed what is widely regarded as the first electric vehicle at an industrial exhibition. It relied on power from a disposable battery that generated electricity from crude oil and traveled at speed of 12 kilometers per hour.
Utilizing better batteries
In 1881, pioneering French inventor Gustave Trouvé designed the Trouvé Tricycle, a bizarre-looking 3-wheeled electric vehicle with a giant wheel on one side and two smaller wheels on the other. For power, two engines drew electricity from a lead-acid battery mounted behind the driver.
It traversed the streets of Paris at 18 kph (11 mph) with a range of anywhere between 14 and 26 kilometers (9-16 miles)
In 1890, William Morrison manufacture the first practical electric car. His vehicle was basically a horse-drawn carriage fitted with a battery that could carry 6 people at 14 mph (about 23 kph).
2. The first wave of electric cars
After Morrison’s electrified wagon debuted, electric vehicles started popping up around the U.S. from a variety of manufacturers. They became increasingly popular in urban areas. At one point, there was even a fleet of more than 60 electric taxes in New York around the turn of the century.
By 1900, 38% of all automobiles in the U.S. were powered by electricity, 40% by steam, and just 22% by gasoline.
It’s important to remember that the electric engine predates the gasoline engine and remained a competitor to the internal combustion engine (ICE) until the 1920s.
Steam engines fell out of favor because they constantly needed to be filled with water, had limited range, and required a long startup time (up to 45 minutes!). Electric vehicles on the other hand were easy to drive and were excellent for short round trips in cities.
The problem with gasoline cars
Gasoline-powered cars were making advances, but they also had faults. For one, they required a lot of manual work to drive due to the manual gear shifting required, and the need to be started with a hand crank.
But more than that, they were noisy and belched smelly exhaust! Electric cars, on the other hand, were clean, quiet, and easy to handle.
Electric cars lead the way
The potential of EVs attracted many top minds including Ferdinand Porsche who developed an electric model called the P1. He also created the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid car around the turn of the century.
Around that time automobiles soared in popularity and electric cars proved to be the preferred choice, especially in urban areas where roads were well-developed and electricity was accessible.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford even teamed up to develop an affordable EV. Ironically, Ford’s assembly line production of the Model T was a major contributing factor to making electric cars obscure.
3. The fall of EVs and the rise of internal combustion
There were several main contributing factors that led to the downfall of the first wave of electric cars.
- Expanded roads, fueling stations, and infrastructure in the U.S.
- Lack of electricity in rural areas
- The cheap price of gasoline
- Affordability of gas-powered cars over electric cars
Mass production of gasoline-powered vehicles made them widely available and affordable. In 1912, a gasoline car was $650 whereas an electric one was $1,750.
Batteries were also a big drawback. They were heavy and required a complicated and lengthy charging process that relied on stationary generators.
Another decisive factor was American Charles. F. Kettering’s design of an electric start motor for gasoline cars that did away with the pesky hand crank.
With the discovery of oil in Texas, gasoline prices in the U.S. plummeted and filling stations became common and accessible. By 1935, electric vehicles had nearly disappeared.
4. Reconsidering EVs
The internal combustion engine’s appetite for gasoline suddenly hit a dry spot when oil prices began surging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo hit the U.S., stoking shortages and massive lines at fueling stations.
The U.S. Congress passed the Electric Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1976, which boosted support for research and development for electric and hybrid vehicles. Several major manufacturers developed electric porotypes. General Motors even developed a prototype and displayed it at an Environmental Protection Agency symposium in 1973.
The American Motor Company manufactured electric Jeeps that were used in a test program for the US Postal Service in 1975.
In the end, electric vehicles produced in the 1970s still suffered from limited performance. Their range was limited to about 40 miles (65 km) and their top speeds maxed out at 45 mph (72 kph), according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
National & state regulations in the U.S.
Federal and state regulations in the 1990s drove renewed research into EVs. In 1990 the U.S. government passed the Clean Air Act and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a mandate that made the production and sale of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) a requirement for automakers to continue to market their vehicles in California.
The first mass-produced electric car
This led to the first mass-produced EV, GM’s EV1. The vehicle had a range of 80 miles and accelerated from zero to 50 mph in seven seconds. They were never commercially sold but were available for limited lease-only agreements while their viability was evaluated. The program cost GM one billion dollars and it quickly lost popularity within the organization.
With such a price tag, GM judged the EV market to be unprofitable. Furthermore, the very concept of the EV1 challenged the implications of its product lines. In the end, all of the vehicles in the lease program were reclaimed and destroyed, despite positive customer reactions.
The move set EV progress back years. Had GM focused on the long-term viability of zero-emissions vehicles, they could very likely have been ahead of where Tesla Motors is now.
Furthermore, regulations in California that helped generate interest in EVs by requiring manufacturers to produce zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) were successfully challenged in courts allowing for reduced-emissions vehicles instead. This lead to a trend away from EVs towards hybrid vehicles as they were cheaper to produce and benefited from not having to develop a new fueling infrastructure.
The release of the first mass-produced electric hybrid vehicle in 1997, the Toyota Prius, coupled with rising gasoline prices and increased concern over carbon emissions led to an appetite for more sustainable solutions.
5. The EV boom
Advances had been growing in lithium-ion battery capacity and performance. In 2003, two entrepreneurs, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning formed Tesla Motor. Three years later their startup announced it would start producing a luxury sports car that could travel more than 200 miles (320 km) on a single charge.
The rapid success of Tesla thrust EVs squarely into the public, spurring major automakers to focus on developing their own EVs. In 2010, Nissan launched the Nissan Leaf, a ZEV that has become the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.
Continued development in battery technologies has improved the range of EV batteries and dramatically reduced their price by 97% since 1991, leading to cheaper vehicles and increased customer enthusiasm.
Where do commercial vehicles fit in?
Believe it or not, electric trucks have been around for more than 100 years, and have typically relied on lead-acid batteries. Until recently, the scope of their service has been limited to niche applications like local delivery services and factory logistics.
In the 1920s, American auto manufacturers like Autocar Trucks produced and sold electric trucks. While they were adept at short-range operations, they were ill-equipped for long hauls. ICE trucks soon eclipsed their electric counterparts.
However, the rebirth of EVs along with improved battery technology has led to new advances in hybrid and ZEV commercial vehicles.
For its part, Mitsubishi Fuso developed the Canter Eco-Hybrid in 2005, which became commercially available in Japan. FUSO also developed the revolutionary eCanter in 2017, one of the first fully electric commercial trucks. The model has gone into limited service worldwide, and Mitsubishi Fuso recently lanuched a second generation.
Are EVs here to stay?
All major auto manufacturers are now in the EV game, with many going further by announcing dates when they will exclusively produce electrified cars, be it plug-in hybrids or full EVs. Many have vowed to do the once unthinkable: discontinue internal combustion engines (ICE). Some have already done so.
According to the International Energy Agency, there were 10 million EVs on roads at the end of 2020.
Concerns over climate change led to the passage of regulatory frameworks to strengthen policies aimed at reducing C02 emissions, including ZEV mandates. At the end of 2020, more than 20 countries announced bans on ICE cars or mandates for new sales to be ZEVs.
However, the expansion of EVs put the sustainability of their energy source into the spotlight: lithium-ion batteries.
Read our article on EV battery recycling infrastructure.
The swell of EVs in production and the batteries required to power them is straining the resources required for the components in lithium-ion batteries, which rely on rare and toxic metals like cobalt and nickel for the anodes and cathodes.
The lifetime of EV batteries is estimated to be about 8 to 10 years or 100,000 miles, and many vehicles’ batteries will soon be approaching their end-of-life, inundating the nascent recycling infrastructure. It remains unclear how it will be able to handle them.
The scarcity of rare metals is creating concerns about supply sustainability.
Since the recent EV era is only in its embryonic stage, sustainable infrastructure for battery manufacturing hasn’t been firmly established, and that’s not even mentioning greater electric grid support. More sustainable battery solutions will need to be realized before the world goes all-in on EVs.
Read our article on plant-based EV battery alternatives.
The journey of electric cars has turned full circle and they seem on the cusp of guiding the future away from ICE vehicles in the long term. However, one question remains. Are there other technologies that can provide superior solutions to the challenges facing society?
The greatest challenge to EV technology may come from hydrogen vehicles. Where EVs require a large investment in a region’s electrical infrastructure and reliance upon rare resources, hydrogen fuel can be pumped like common fuel.
This is a significant advantage, especially in developing countries that lack the necessary electrical infrastructure. However, hydrogen fueling, availability, and sustainability are still in a nascent state.
One thing is for sure. Electric vehicles will be embraced as long as they are the best solution to addressing the practical problems today presents.