Some people hear about the movie “Who Killed The Electric Car” and think that the electric car made it’s big debut in the form of GM’s EV1 in 1996. Others may be sure that the electric car can trace it’s roots to the hippy dippy tree-hugging movement of the 60s and 70s. The truth is, the electric car is well over 100 years old. It predates the gasoline car in fact.
The invention of the electric car has been attributed to several different people. The consensus seems to be however that American Thomas Davenport was responsible for inventing the first viable electric vehicle in 1835 – a small locomotive.
Below is a timeline of the history of electric vehicles. It’s interesting to note that even as far back as the mid-1800s, the major component holding back mass adoption of electric cars was a viable battery pack. Guess what the main thing holding us back from mass adoption of EVs today – an affordable battery pack capable of a respectable range.
Early 1900s Riker Electric Car
1830s – Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is credited with inventing the first crude electric carriage powered by a non-rechargeable battery.
1835 – American inventor Thomas Davenport invents the first viable electric vehicle – a small locomotive.
1859 – French physicist Gaston Planté invents the first rechargeable lead-acid battery.
1883 – England opens the first commercially successful electric tram/trolley engineered by Magnus Volk
1891 – American William Morrison of Des Moines Iowa invents the first successful electric automobile.
William Morrison’s Electric Car
1897 – Electric cars used commercially for the first time. Built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, they were used as taxis in New York City
1899 – Believing that electricity will power the future of transportation, Thomas Edison begins his quest for a long-lasting, powerful battery suitable for use in commercial vehicles. Although his work resulted in improvements on the battery technology of the day, he ultimately abandoned his quest a decade later.
1900 – Electric cars have gained traction in the United States. Nearly 40% of all vehicles in America are fully electric.
1907 – Electric Vehicle Company, which had bought out several other small electric car manufacturers, suffers a fatal blow from a bank crash.
1908 – Henry Ford introduces the mass-produced, gasoline-powered Ford Model T. This car has a profound effect on the American automobile market and is the beginning of the end for production electric cars. Thanks Henry!
1908 Ford Model T
1912 – Charles Kettering invents the electric starter. This is significant as the hand-cranking required to start gasoline cars was a big part of why many people, particularly women, chose to drive electrics.
1920s – The electric car, after decades of success, ceases to be a viable commercial product and production stops completely. There are many factors that contribute to the downfall of EVs. Consumers wanted the longer range and higher speeds offered by gasoline-powered cars. In addition to this, most of the major concerns about gas cars had been addressed by this time. Gearboxes were becoming less complicated and easier to use and gasoline was widely available by the 20s. Really, the issue with electric cars was the same as it is now, people wanted to be able to drive as long as they wanted, and fill up their car quickly.
1920s-1960s – Electric cars are more or less forgotten during this period. It’s the golden age for gas-powered vehicles.
1973 – The Arab oil embargos of ’67 and ’73 have left Americans waiting for hours at gas stations and fuel prices skyrocket. A moderate interest in alternative fuels is rekindled during this period. The US Department of energy funds efforts to try and produce a cost-effective electric car.
1974 – The awkward looking CitiCar makes it’s debut at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Washington, D.C. Built by Vanguard-Sebring, it boasts a top speed of just over 30mph and a respectable warm-weather range of 40 miles. By 1975, Vanguard-Sebring is the 6th largest automaker in the US. Unfortunately, the company is dissolved only a few years later.
Italian car maker Zagato, starts producing the Zele. An electric microcar with an all fiberglass body. It is sold in the US under the name Zagato Elcar. This and the CitiCar are two peas in a pod, both tiny and awkward-looking!
1975 – The US Postal Service buys 350 all-electric delivery Jeeps from AMC to be used in a test program.
1988 – General Motors agrees to fund research for a practical consumer electric car. GM teams up with AeroVironment to produce what would become the EV1. The EV1 is the first serious attempt at a modern, long-range electric car. It was only leased, not sold to consumers. Even though the reviews for the EV1 were almost universally positive, when the leases were up, General Motors took back every unit without offering the leasers an opportunity to buy the car. Every single one was crushed. Some electric car enthusiasts have argued that GM never intended the EV1 to be a serious commercial venture.
1990 – California passes the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate requiring 2% of the state’s vehicles to be zero emission by 1998 and 10% by 2003. The law is repeatedly challenged and weakened to reduce the number of fully electric cars required.
1997-2000 – Several major manufacturers release all-electric vehicles. Nissan’s Alta, Ford’s Ranger EV, Toyota’s Rav 4 EV, Chevy’s S10 EV, Honda’s EV Plus are all offered in the US, although most of them only for lease. Many have since ended up on the used market.
2002 – G.M and Chrysler sue the California Air Resources Board to have the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate repealed.
2003 - G.M. announces that it will not be renewing leases on the EV1, nor will it offer the car for sale to leasers. They blame their inability to keep up with parts support.
2005 – All but 40 or so of the EV1s have been reclaimed by G.M. and “recycled”. The remaining vehicles have been disabled and now live at museums and universities.
2006 – Tesla Motors announces their all-electric Tesla Roadster at the San Francisco International Auto show. It is to go on sale for the 2008 model year with a price tag of just under $100,000.
2009 – Nissan unveils it’s new all-electric car, the LEAF. It has a range of over 100 miles, a top speed of 90mph and a battery pack that can be quick-charged to 80% in 30 minutes. Nissan works to set up charging networks in several countries to support charging for the LEAF.
By the end of 2009, several manufacturers have announced new all-electric vehicles. GM’s Volt (actually a parallel hybrid with a 40 mile all-electric range), Nissan’s LEAF and Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV are all to be released over the next two years.
Since the 80s, electric cars have been kept alive thanks to the efforts of regular guys converting vehicles at home rather than by the half-hearted efforts of the major manufacturers. In the late 90s it seemed that some of them were going to take EVs seriously for a while, and then they all cancelled their EV programs.
There is new hope for electric cars on the horizon with Tesla swooping in and quite frankly making the EV effort put forth by the big 3 over the last 2 decades look silly. Tesla, as a new manufacturer has managed to develop and build two commercially viable all-electric cars in the last 8 years, and become profitable in the process (well, sort of).
Because electric cars more or less ceased to exist between the 1920s and 1970s (save for a few exceptions), electric cars missed out on a key period in automotive development. If companies had been investing their research and development dollars into electric vehicles all through the 20th century as was happening with gasoline vehicles, EV technology would be much farther than it is today.