History of Electric Cars Part 2: the modern era
Consumption & Production

History of Electric Cars Part 2: the modern era

The modern history of electric cars began during the 70s oil embargo and continued to the present EV boom. Continuing from last week, let’s dig into their complex history.

The history of electric cars can be broken down into five eras. We’ll pick up in the 1970s.

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

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.

Enter hybrids

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 a second generation was recently launched.

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.

Battery end-of-life

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.

Beyond EVs

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.

What technology do you think will be the future of vehicles in the next 10 years? Electric or hydrogen fuel cells? Let us know what you think! Drop us a comment below.

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