The electric vehicle (EV), also known as BEV (battery electric vehicle) is a type of vehicle which uses electric motors for propulsion rather than an internal combustion engine (ICE). Although EVs have only recently become common amongst modern vehicles, the first EV was actually made in Scotland in the early 1830’s! This was just a few years after the first electric motors were developed and around the same time that the first electric locomotives were built. These were simple carriages with galvanic cells which were not rechargeable. Rechargeable batteries weren’t available until 1859 when a French physicist named Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery. This invention brought EVs one step closer to becoming a reality for everyday travel.
At this point EVs were still impractical and remained a rare sight, but by the 1890’s the first somewhat practical EVs were developed and began to sell alongside steam and ICE powered vehicles. In the United States, the first EV was introduced around 1890 in Iowa. Around the same time, several other countries had similar EVs introduced. In fact, in 1897, electric taxis were introduced in London. But where did cars get their start? Let’s go back to the late 17th century to take a look…
Believe it or not, the first automobiles were made around the year 1680 by a Belgian missionary in China. These were small steam-powered vehicles which couldn’t carry a driver. This eventually led to the creation of a steam powered car which could carry people, which was made in 1769. By the early 1800’s there were several inventors working on internal combustion engines and electric motors. This work would lead cars to their next stage where they could become larger and more practical. Many people know about the development of mass manufactured gas powered vehicles such as the Model T, but what about EVs?
By 1899, (4 years before Ford’s first car – the Model A and 9 years before the better known Model T) the Baker Motor Vehicle Company had started to sell their electric car. It was the first EV in the US that truly competed with other types of vehicles. When President William McKinley was shot in 1901, he was transported to the hospital in an electric ambulance. His successor Theodore Roosevelt’s first public car ride was also an electric car. This was all done in a time period where horse drawn buggies were still a primary mode of transport. Steam powered cars were still common as well. It wasn’t until around the 1910’s that steam powered vehicles began to disappear. Horse drawn vehicles were only surpassed by cars in the 1910’s; trucks in the 1920’s!
Back then, battery technology was one of the biggest limiting factors with EVs, and the reality is that battery technology is still a limiting factor to this day. That being said, even back when the Baker electric car was first sold, it had an advertised range of 70-100 miles! Not bad for 1899! If that doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind that the Model T range was only 20-40 miles per tank, and that came out nearly a decade later than the Baker! Back then, vehicles were much lighter and slower than they are today, which is the reason why this range was achieved with such a limited battery technology.
Even with this impressive range, the EV was bound to fail back then because other vehicles were quickly becoming bigger, faster, and more powerful. EVs just couldn’t keep up as they couldn’t get any larger with the limited power that batteries provided at the time. Their original benefits such as ride comfort and the lack of fumes and noise were not enough to compete with the larger and more useful cars of the time. There were still some very creative and useful EV projects though.
Battery exchange programs in were introduced in 1896 making EV trucks more popular. These programs allowed truck drivers to buy an electric vehicle without a battery. They would then pay a per-mile rate plus a maintenance fee in exchange for swappable batteries. The truck and battery were both designed with this swapping in mind. These programs had disappeared for the most part by the 20’s. Battery swapping is still an idea that has been tossed around with current EVs, although in the US there are currently no large scale swapping programs available. Tesla introduced a battery exchange pilot program in late 2014, but ended the service shortly after. While Tesla did not find the program to be suitable for widescale use, their Chinese rival Nio currently (as of 2022) offers a battery swapping program to their customers.
Back to the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s; The battery swap programs were still not enough to keep up with the rapid changes to transportation at that time. So, as time went on, EVs dropped in popularity. There were still some EVs around, especially in cities, but overall they hadn’t taken off like ICE vehicles had. In cities EVs were more popular than rural areas due to the limited range and speed needed for city driving and the better availability of charging infrastructure in cities. Keep in mind that back then most homes still didn’t have electricity. It wasn’t until 1925 that half of homes in the United States had electricity and took until 1945 for 85% of homes in the US to have electric power. Even in cities though, the primary vehicle had become the ICE vehicle.
By around 1910 EV development and sales slowed, and by the 20’s was slowed further to a crawl. Electric vehicles seemed to be fizzling out. Many electric vehicle manufacturers came and went; over 300 EV Makers by 1942. In cities EVs could be found, although not nearly as commonly as ICE vehicles. It wan’t until the 1960’s that EVs really got a second look as more people became environmentally conscious and battery technology advanced. Well known car manufacturers such as American Motors Corporation (AMC) and General Motors (GM) started to work on EV concept cars. This was the beginning of the revival of electric cars. By the early 60’s the electric powered lunar roving vehicle (LRV) was already in development. In 1971 the LRV became the first manned vehicle to drive on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission.
In the 70’s and 80’s even more focus was placed on environmental concerns. Additionally, oil supply concerns became an issue during the energy crisis of the 1970’s with the oil supply shortages and increased prices. This accelerated the shift to more efficient use of energy and in turn brought cleaner and cheaper options for travel. This was a good time for travel to become cheaper with two recessions in the 70’s and two more in the 80’s. Still, the industry wasn’t quite ready to commit to EVs. Development and manufacturing hurdles ensured that nearly every electric vehicle would simply be another modified ICE vehicle. Manufacturers and modification companies stuck to this strategy for years. Then came the 90’s and another push for cleaner transportation.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) began to promote the idea of cleaner vehicles with the eventual goal of zero emissions vehicles with new regulations. With California being such an important market for car manufacturers in the US, this plan pressured automakers to develop these vehicles, including electric vehicles and hybrid electrics (vehicles with an internal combustion engine and a battery powered electric motor). Most of these new EVs were once again ICE vehicles which were turned into electric powered versions, but there was one exception. The first true EV which was built as an electric car from the start is the GM EV-1 which was introduced in 1996. Two different battery systems were available, a lead-acid or a NiMH (nickel–metal hydride) with a 55 or 105 mile range respectively. So it seemed that finally someone was taking electric cars seriously, or were they?
There are a lot of theories on the exact reason for the eventual demise of EVs of this era. Some accuse GM of sabotage and other blame a lack of practicality. Each version had plenty to back their story. We all know that the oil industry has a lot of lobbying power in the US, so there was already a lot of pressure to kill electric cars once and for all. Additionally, the added costs to develop an EV would be a big undertaking for car companies. GM only offered the EV-1 as a lease with no option to purchase. Production ended in 1999 with just 1,117 of the EV-1s built in total. By 2002, GM notified lessees that they would be taking back all of the cars. By the end of 2004, all EV-1s were off the road for good. For years after people expressed interest in the EV-1, but it would never return.
Once again it seemed that the electric car was just not viable. There were some attempts at EVs, but none were ever mass produced other than smaller vehicles such as golf carts and similarly sized utility vehicles. Then one company came along with a goal to finally bring electric cars to the masses.
When Tesla introduced their first car in 2008, it was another conversion car. It was based on the Lotus Elise, a small two seat sports car. It was the first mass produced electric car to use lithium-ion batteries and the first to achieve a range of over 200 miles. About 2,450 roadsters were produced between 2008 and 2012 before production ended. Later in the same year that production ended, Tesla released their second vehicle, the Model S. When it was first introduced in 2012, the Model S was offered in two versions – the base model and a long range model. The had a range of 208 and 265 miles respectively. The electric car had proven that it could compete with any car on the road. The range and speed provided by this new generation of EVs even showed that electric cars could very well surpass ICE vehicles one day. This was the start of an EV revolution which continues to this day.
Tesla was so successful that they were able go public, create more mass market cars, and become the most valuable car company in the world. Many more electric cars have been introduced since Tesla revived the industry. Nissan introduced the Leaf in 2010 and GM once again returned to EV development and introduced the Bolt in 2016. Everything about electric cars has improved to the point where they are more than just practical. The current longest range EV is the 2022 Lucid Air which gets up to 520 miles of range. The quickest mass production car is the Tesla Model S which does 0-60 mph in 1.98 seconds. Charge speeds from high speed chargers are as fast as 20 miles per minute making recharging on roadtrips painless. Because most EVs are charged at home, electric car drivers can start every drive with enough mileage to get through the day without the need for charging on the road. With gas prices at such high levels and the cost of charging being so much lower, charging at home looks even better.
2022 has already started as the year of the electric car with sales taking off and a wave of new vehicles being introduced. Government incentives which are available for many EVs make these new vehicles even more attractive. battery technology is advancing and charging infrastructure is being introduced at a faster rate than ever before. The future of EVs is finally looking bright. While electric cars still aren’t very practical for some uses such as long distance towing where diesel pickups still reign supreme, for most drivers EVs are a great option worth looking into. EVs are a great way to save money versus gas or diesel vehicles and they are also a great way to reduce our impact on the environment.
So is this all good news or is there a dark side to electric cars? Are EVs really better for the environment when you look at the whole picture? Find out by reading our article comparing the impact of electric vehicles versus gas and diesel vehicles. We will take a look at the various factors that must be considered to arrive at an informed conclusion.