History of Electric Cars

History of Electric Cars

Despite popular belief, the history of electric cars is quite extensive. While electric vehicles (EVs) have only just broken into the mainstream, EVs were invented in the early 1800s.

At first, EVs were quite popular amounting to one third of the vehicle market. However, the development and performance couldn’t quite keep up with the combustion engine throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Then, shortly after the milenia, Silicon Valley car maker Tesla was born. Then, everything with EVs and the auto market changed. 

Here is a recap of the history of electric cars:

Electric Horseless Buggy

In 1832, Robert Anderson invented a horseless buggy with an electric motor and batteries. This was the first electric car ever made. Later in 1889, William Morrison invented an electric car for the American market. Morrison’s goal was to replace the horse-drawn carriage with an electric car as he claimed it was more practical.

By the early 1900s, EVs accounted for ⅓ of the vehicles in the U.S. Even in the early 1900s, manufacturers advertised the electric car as cleaner and quieter than the gas guzzling counterparts (a positive case for EVs still held today). 

In 1901, Ferdinand Porsche, founder of Porsche, invented the first hybrid electric car–a mix of gasoline and batteries which generated electricity to power the vehicle.

Also in that year, Thomas Edison worked on improving EV batteries. Altogether, the consumer’s interests in EVs remained constant for the next few years. 

However, in 1912, Henry Ford created the first mass-produced vehicle–the Model T. At an affordable price, the ICEV quickly became the ubiquitous powertrain in the U.S.

Then, from 1920-1935, the advancements in oil discovery, refinement, and distribution eventually killed any further developments of EVs for the next several decades.   

Renewed Interest

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when consumers started looking for an alternative to oil products. Due to gas shortages that significantly increased prices and development of the NASA electric rover that was used on missions to the moon, EVs made a brief comeback.

Despite the regained interest, the superiority of the ICE outweighed the stagnant EV battery development. Without any breakthroughs in batteries or electric motors, the limited range and long charging duration faded when compared to the pervasive gas car. 

Then in 1990, new Federal and State air quality regulations mandated vehicle manufacturers to limit vehicle tailpipe emissions. As such, car makers invested in EVs once again since they were the cleaner alternative. Most famously, GM developed the EV1 in 1996.

The EV1 was a small sedan with only 70 miles of all-electric range by using lead-acid batteries. Despite this, a resurgence in electrified vehicles began. Unfortunately, a few years later the clean air mandate was reversed. All production in electric cars immediately halted and all EVs that were on the road were eventually destroyed (the EV1 was lease only). 

Things for EVs quickly changed in 2000. Toyota invented the Prius in 1996. The Prius was truly the first mass-produced hybrid. To be clear, a standard/conventional hybrid like the Prius is an electrified vehicle rather than a true electric vehicle; nevertheless, the hybrid still sparked interest in EVs in general.

The hybrid powertrain used a small battery combined with a gasoline engine. Together, they propelled the vehicle with an incredible boost to vehicle efficiency. At an affordable price tag, the Prius quickly became the select choice for eco-friendly and financial-savvy shoppers. Throughout the 2000s, hybrids rose in popularity thanks to the iconic Prius.

By 2012, Toyota sold over 200,000 units per year. At the same time, scientists continued battery research and development for the next attempt at making a market successful EV. 

Modern Day Electric Vehicle

In 2006, Tesla was born, which began the modern day EV era. Tesla first created the Roadster with over 200 miles of all-electric range via lithium ion batteries.

This was the first time an EV could travel over 200 miles as well as use lithium-ion batteries. Compared to lead-acid, lithium-ion batteries were much more energy-dense. Higher energy density means more energy is packed into the same amount of space. Since batteries are generally heavy and expensive, the less battery a vehicle has the haul around the better.

The Tesla Roadster, while only a few thousand copies produced, became a big hit with consumers. Additionally, the federal government invested millions over the next several years in EVs through charging infrastructure and the $7,500 Federal Electric Vehicle Tax Credit for new buyers. In just a few short years, as Tesla grew and released a few more models, other legacy car makers started investing in their own EV development.

In 2011, Nissan and Chevrolet released the Leaf and Volt, respectively. The Leaf was the much more affordable, but limited range (80 miles) all-electric car. On the other hand, GM invented the first plug-in hybrid: the Chevy Volt. Unlike the conventional hybrid, like the Prius, the Volt could travel on electricity alone before switching automatically to gas. The on-board battery was rechargeable as well just like a BEV. 

History of Electric Cars: Chevy Volt
2016 Chevrolet Volt
Image credit: Chevrolet

For the first time ever, EVs began selling in the multi-thousands. Popularity in EVs spiked as more and more manufacturers released EVs of their own. Some were BEVs while others were PHEVs.

Regardless, worldwide EV research and development greatly increased to keep up with consumer demand. By 2015, total U.S. EV sales reached 117,000. 

EVs in the Mainstream

In 2015, Tesla shocked the world by announcing a 200+ mile electric car for $35,000. Hype around Tesla, and EVs in general, amounted to over 500,000 pre-orders.

Since then, EV sales have skyrocketed. In 2019, Americans purchased over 300,000 EVs in the U.S. Market share also rose to 2% nationally. In California, the largest EV market, market share rose to 8%. 

Today, legacy automakers are finally releasing their multi-billion dollar EV investments. Models like the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model Y, VW ID.4, Hummer EV, Rivian R1T, and Toyota RAV4 Prime are just a few new electric vehicles.

Tesla Model Y
Image credit: Tesla

Analyst predict EV sales and market share will only grow throughout the next few decades. By 2030, analysts predict market share will reach 30% nationally. While it did take over 100 years for the electric car to return, it is finally here to stay. 

Closing Thoughts

Throughout the many decades, EVs have made significant improvements in performance and affordability. Most of which have occurred in just the last 10 years. For example, in 2013 battery pack costs $663/kWh. In just six years late, battery pack costs just $156/kWh in 2019. That equates to a 12% cost decrease per year. 

To learn more about the recent history of EVs, check out the documentaries Who Killed the Electric Car and Revenge of the Electric Car. These documentaries are highly recommended for those looking to learn the deep (and secret) past of electric cars. They are available for rent or purchase from Amazon.

Interested in EVs? Check out the Comprehensive Electric Car List. The table includes key metrics such as price, range, and maximum charging rate! Plus, it is available as a PDF by signing up to the email list. Subscribers also receive the monthly newsletter to stay up to date with the latest articles.