Electric cars were introduced more than a century ago, and now, electric vehicles are regaining appeal for many of the same reasons they gained favor in the first place. Whether hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric, demand for electric drive cars will continue to grow as prices continue to fall and people explore methods to save money at the pump. Currently accounting for more than 3% of new vehicle sales, electric vehicle sales might reach over 7% – or 6.6 million vehicles per year – globally by 2020, according to research by Navigant Research.
With the increased interest in electric cars, we are examining the history and future of this technology. Join us as we retrace the history of the electric automobile.
The electric vehicle's birth
It isn't easy to attribute the creation of the electric automobile to a single individual or nation. Instead, a succession of advances in 1800 resulted in the first electric car being driven on the road.
In the early twentieth century, inventors in Hungary, the Netherlands, and the United States – including a Vermont blacksmith – experimented with the notion of a battery-powered vehicle and built some of the earliest small-scale electric vehicles. And while British inventor Robert Anderson invented the first primitive electric carriage during this time, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that French and English innovators produced some of the first practical electric automobiles.
In the United States, the first practical electric automobile debuted about 1890, courtesy of William Morrison, a scientist from Des Moines, Iowa. His six-passenger vehicle, capable of reaching speeds of up to 14 miles per hour, was just an electrified wagon, but it sparked interest in electric cars.
Over the next several years, electric vehicles from various automakers began to appear around the United States. New York City even had an electric taxi fleet of more than 60 vehicles. By 1900, electric automobiles had reached their peak, accounting for around one-third of all cars on the road. Nevertheless, they maintained a high level of sales over the next decade.
The electric car's early rise and decline
To appreciate the popularity of electric cars in the early 1900s, it is necessary to understand the evolution of personal vehicles and the alternatives available. At the turn of the twentieth century, the horse remained the dominant form of transport. However, as Americans got more prosperous, they began to rely on the newly created motor vehicle – whether in steam, gasoline, or electric form – for transportation.
Steam was a tested and true energy source used to power factories and railways for centuries. However, while some of the early self-propelled vehicles used steam in the late 1700s, it was not until the 1870s that the technology gained traction in automobiles. This is partly because steam proved unsuitable for personal cars. Steam vehicles needed lengthy starting periods – up to 45 minutes in the cold – and required frequent refueling, limiting their range.
As electric cars were available, a new form of vehicle – the gasoline-powered automobile – became available, owing to advancements in the internal combustion engine in the 1800s. While gasoline-powered cars held promise, they were not without flaws. They took considerable physical effort to drive — changing gears was not easy, and they had to be started with a hand crank, which made them difficult to operate for some. Additionally, they were loud, and their exhaust was odiferous.
Electric automobiles did not have any of the difficulties that steam or gasoline vehicles experienced. They were quiet, simple to operate, and did not produce toxic pollutants like other automobiles. As a result, electric cars swiftly gained popularity among urban dwellers, particularly women. They were ideal for short excursions within cities, and the bad road conditions outside cities limited the range of automobiles of any sort. As more people acquired access to electricity in the 1910s, charging electric cars grew easier, increasing their appeal among individuals from all walks of life (including some of the "best known and famous manufacturers of gasoline automobiles," as a 1911 New York Times story noted).
Numerous entrepreneurs saw the electric vehicle's great demand at the time and began studying methods to enhance the technology. For instance, Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the Porsche sports vehicle business, invented the P1 electric automobile in 1898. Simultaneously, he developed the world's first hybrid electric vehicle powered by electricity and a gasoline engine. Likewise, Thomas Edison, one of the most productive innovators, believed electric cars were superior technology and strived to improve the electric vehicle battery. According to Wired, even Edison's buddy Henry Ford teamed with Edison in 1914 to examine ideas for a low-cost electric automobile.
Nonetheless, Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T struck the electric automobile a fatal blow. Introduced in 1908, the Model T revolutionized the automobile industry by making gasoline-powered automobiles broadly available and inexpensive. By 1912, a gasoline-powered car cost just $650, while an electric roadster cost $1,750. In addition, Charles Kettering created the electric starter that same year, removing the need for the manual crank and resulting in an increase in gasoline-powered car sales.
Other factors also led to the demise of the electric vehicle. By the 1920s, the United States had developed roadways connecting cities, and Americans wanted to travel. In addition, gas became affordable and readily available to rural Americans with the discovery of Texas crude oil, and filling stations began sprouting up across the country. By comparison, very few Americans lived outside of cities during the period. By 1935, electric cars had all but vanished.
Electric vehicles gain popularity as a result of gas shortages.
Electric cars entered a technological slumber over the following 30 years or more, with no improvement. Demand for alternative fuel cars was limited by cheap, plentiful gasoline and continuous advancements in the internal combustion engine.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Soaring oil costs and gasoline shortages – which peaked during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo – sparked an interest in reducing the United States' reliance on foreign oil and developing domestic fuel sources. Congress took notice and enacted the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976, which authorized the Energy Department to fund research and development in electric and hybrid cars.
Simultaneously, several large and small automakers began researching alternate fuel vehicle choices, including electric automobiles. For example, General Motors developed a prototype for an urban electric car that was displayed at the Environmental Protection Agency's First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development in 1973, and the American Motor Company manufactured electric delivery jeeps that were used in a 1975 test program by the United States Postal Service. Even NASA contributed to the electric car's rise to prominence in 1971 when its electric Lunar rover became the first human-crewed vehicle to drive on the moon.
Nonetheless, the vehicles created and manufactured in the 1970s had disadvantages when compared to gasoline-powered automobiles. During this time, electric cars had limited performance, often reaching speeds of 45 miles per hour, with a typical range of 40 miles before needing to be recharged.
Concern for the environment propels electric vehicles ahead.
Rewind once more to the 1990s. In the two decades since the 1970s' enormous gas lines, interest in electric vehicles has ended. However, new federal and state rules are beginning to alter the landscape. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment and the 1992 Energy Policy Act – together with new transportation emissions standards released by the California Air Resources Board – all contributed to a resurgence of interest in electric cars in the United States.
Automobile manufacturers began converting several of their most popular car types to electric vehicles during this time period. This meant that electric cars could now compete with gasoline-powered vehicles in terms of speed and performance, and many of them had a range of up to 60 miles.
During this time, one of the most well-known electric automobiles was General Motors' EV1, which was prominently featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Rather than altering an existing car, GM built the EV1 from the ground up. With an 80-mile range and a seven-second acceleration from 0 to 50 miles per hour, the EV1 immediately garnered a cult following. However, the EV1 was never financially feasible because of its high production costs, and GM canceled it in 2001.
In the late 1990s, when the economy was flourishing, the middle class was increasing, and gas costs were low, many customers were unconcerned about fuel-efficient automobiles. Even though electric cars received little public attention at the time, scientists and engineers – aided by the Energy Department – were working behind the scenes to advance electric vehicle technologies, particularly batteries.
A new era for electric vehicles
While the industry's ups and downs in the second half of the twentieth century demonstrated the technology's promise, the actual resurgence of the electric car did not occur until the early twenty-first century. According to whoever you ask, one of two events precipitated the current surge in interest in electric automobiles.
Many have stated that the first tipping point occurred with the advent of the Toyota Prius. The Prius was the world's first mass-produced hybrid electric car when it was introduced in 1997 in Japan. In 2000, the Prius was debuted globally, and it immediately became a celebrity favorite, helping to enhance the car's popularity. Toyota developed the Prius using a nickel-metal hydride battery, a technique sponsored by Energy Department research. Since then, increased fuel costs and growing concern about carbon pollution have contributed to the Prius being the world's best-selling hybrid during the last decade.
The other event that shaped electric cars was the 2006 announcement by a small Silicon Valley company, Tesla Motors, that it would begin building a premium electric sports car capable of exceeding 200 miles on a single charge. Tesla secured a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy's Debt Programs Office in 2010 to develop a manufacturing plant in California – a loan that Tesla returned nine years early. As a result, Tesla has quickly gained widespread recognition for its automobiles and has grown to become California's most significant auto sector employment in the short period after that.
Tesla's announcement and subsequent success prompted many of the world's largest manufacturers to speed their electric car development. As a result, in late 2010, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF were introduced in the United States. The Volt is the first commercially produced plug-in hybrid car. It has a gasoline engine that supplements the vehicle's electric drive when the battery runs low. It allows users to drive electric for most of their journeys and use gasoline to extend the vehicle's range. By contrast, the Nissan LEAF is an all-electric vehicle (often referred to as a battery-electric vehicle, an electric vehicle, or just an EV for short), which means it is propelled only by an electric motor.
Other automakers began bringing out electric vehicles in the United States over the following few years. However, buyers were still confronted with one of the early issues of the electric car: where to charge their automobiles on the move. The United States Department of Energy contributed more than $115 million to the Recovery Act to develop nationwide charging infrastructure, building more than 18,000 home, business, and public chargers across the country. Automobile manufacturers and other private firms have also erected their chargers at strategic sites around the United States, increasing the total number of public electric car chargers to more than 8,000 locations with over 20,000 charging outlets.
Simultaneously, new battery technology – backed by the Energy Department's Car Technologies Office – began to enter the market, assisting in extending the range of a plug-in electric vehicle. Along with the battery technology included in practically all first-generation hybrids, the Department's research contributed to developing the lithium-ion battery technology found in the Volt. Recently, the Department's investment in battery research and development has resulted in a 50% reduction in the cost of electric car batteries over the previous four years while concurrently boosting vehicle battery performance (meaning their power, energy, and durability). This has resulted in a decrease in the cost of electric vehicles, making them more accessible to customers.
When it comes to purchasing an electric vehicle, consumers today have more options than ever. Today, 23 plug-in electric vehicles and 36 hybrid vehicles are available in various sizes, ranging from the two-passenger Smart ED to the midsized Ford C-Max Energi to the premium BMW i3 SUV. In addition, as gasoline prices continue to increase and electric car prices continue to fall, electric vehicles are gaining popularity in the United States, with over 234,000 plug-in electric vehicles and 3.3 million hybrid vehicles on the road today.
The electric automobile's future
It is difficult to predict where electric cars will go in the future, but it is apparent they have a lot of potential for fostering a more sustainable future. For example, suppose we converted all light-duty cars in the United States to hybrids or plug-in electric vehicles utilizing today's technological mix. In that case, we could cut our reliance on foreign oil by 30-60% while reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector by up to 20%.
To assist in achieving these emissions reductions, President Obama launched the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge in 2012 – an Energy Department initiative that brings together America's best and brightest scientists, engineers, and businesses with the goal of making plug-in electric vehicles as affordable as gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022. The Department's Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory addresses the major scientific and technological impediments to large-scale battery development on the battery front.
Additionally, the Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is developing game-changing technologies that have the potential to shift our perception of electric cars fundamentally. From developing new types of batteries that can go longer on a single charge to developing cost-effective substitutes for essential elements used in electric motors, ARPA-programs E's have the potential to revolutionize electric vehicles.
Finally, only time will tell which roads electric vehicles will eventually take.