Are electric cars a 21st-century fad? Nope! EVs have a nearly two-century-long history.
Before the advent of gas-powered cars, the first electric vehicles were a common sight on the roads. They shared the road with steam-powered and horse-drawn carriages for many years. As technology improved and electricity became more accessible, their popularity grew.
EVs were popularised by the availability of cheap gas in the first half of the 20th century. However, many automakers worked on similar technology over the years. The modern electric car was on the verge of reemergence thanks to advances in battery technology and efforts to reduce vehicle emissions.
The First EVs
Over the past two centuries, electric vehicles have travelled a long and winding route. Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the history of electric cars began, the basic idea was there right alongside the first electric motors.
1828 – 1839
Anyos Jedlik, a Hungarian physicist, is credited for creating the first practical DC motors in 1827. He also used one of his early motors to create what could be called an electric car model in 1828.
Robert Anderson, a Scottish inventor, came up with an idea for an early electric carriage sometime between 1832-1839. Although the details are not very clear, it is apparent that the design was plagued by a problem with limited battery power. Anderson’s electric carriage was powered by non-rechargeable batteries which made it less practical.
France was the first country to develop EVs in 1859. Gaston Plante in France invented the lead acid battery. The battery was further developed by Camille Alphonse Faure in 1881. It has been improved and refined over the years. Practical electric vehicles were finally possible with the advent of the lead-acid battery.
1890 – Early 1900s
Gustave Trouve, a French inventor of an electric tricycle, demonstrated it in 1881. Thomas Parker, an English builder of the first electric car production line, created the traditional horseless carriage-like electric vehicle in 1884.
Andrew Riker and a friend raced an electric car circa 1901.
Smithsonian/Museum of American History
William Morrison, an American inventor of electric cars, developed one in 1890. It could carry six people and travel at a blistering speed of 14 MPH. Six years later, Riker Electric Vehicle Company’s electric vehicle won the horseless carriage race. This was the first American automobile race.
Electric vehicles gained popularity towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. They were quieter than earlier gas-powered vehicles and offered a more comfortable ride.
In the late 1800s, more people in more countries were able to develop practical electric vehicles after the introduction of better lead acid batteries with higher storage capacities.
Electric taxis were seen in London, Paris and New York. Thomas Edison even tried to join the action in 1906, when he developed alkaline batteries that could hold more power and weigh less than lead acid batteries.
20th Century EVs
At the beginning of the 20th Century, electric vehicles were still very popular. Around 1900, about one-third of all vehicles on roads were electric. However, this popularity began to decline over the years. Despite advancements in battery technology, gasoline-powered vehicles still enjoyed a high popularity despite the lack of electricity and the availability of cheap gasoline.
Original image courtesy of Smithsonian/National Museum of American History
In terms of speed and range, early electric vehicles could not keep up with gas counterparts; automobile manufacturers switched almost entirely to gasoline-powered vehicles in 1935.
However, the automotive industry has not forgotten about electric cars and quiet research continues into related technologies.
1959: A key year
One of the most important turning points in modern electric vehicles’ history is the 1959 invention of the MOSFET at Bell Labs. This was the catalyst for the creation of the power MOSFET from Hitachi, as well as microprocessors and microcontrollers. These are all essential components of modern electric vehicles.
Modern electric vehicles are more efficient than early electric vehicles, which simply connected a lead-acid battery to an electric engine. Instead of using simple connections to connect a battery to an electrical motor, modern electric cars use technologies such as the power MOSFET or microcontrollers to extract ever greater efficiency from new battery technologies and components of electric drive trains.
1971 – 1996
These newer battery technologies were the catalyst for the invention of lithium-ion cells in the 1980s. They are an important component of modern electric cars. The first electric vehicles were powered by inefficient, heavy lead acid batteries. However, lithium-ion batteries proved to be a lighter and more efficient option. Both NMC and NCA, the main batteries used in electric vehicles today, are based on lithium-ion.
All of this background research was ongoing, but electric vehicles kept appearing in many places throughout the 20th Century. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (or the moon buggy) was both an electric vehicle, and the first human-operated vehicle to operate on the moon in 1971. In the same decade, Florida-based Sebring-Vanguard sold over 2,000 all-electric CitiCars with a range of approximately 50-60 miles.
Other automakers weren’t totally unaware of EVs either. Many large automakers displayed a variety of prototype electric vehicles, but none made it into production. GM’s EV was the culmination. Although this all-electric vehicle wasn’t sold to the public directly, it was available for lease in limited markets beginning in 1996.
The return of electric vehicles was a great thing. Battery technology had almost caught up with modern times.
Modern Day Electric Vehicles
Early attempts with modern-day EVs, such as GM’s EV1 mid-nineties, had mixed results. Although the technology was almost ready, there were many stumbling blocks along the way.
All major automakers saw electric cars on the horizon. However, the consensus before the 21st Century was that the battery technology wasn’t advanced enough to give enough range and reliability for at least two decades.
1999 – 2001
In 1999 and 2001, technologies that would eventually shake up the industry were created. The first was NCA battery technology, and MNC followed shortly after. Both are variations on older lithium-ion batteries and would be able to power modern electric cars.
These improved battery technologies opened up new opportunities for electric vehicles (EVs) that were unmatched anywhere else in the world. Electric vehicles have seen a resurgence in popularity.
2003 – 2014
Tesla was founded by Elon Musk in 2003. It started as a startup that aimed to create an affordable, practical electric vehicle. In 2006, prototypes of the Tesla Roadster was revealed and the first Roadsters were delivered in 2008. The Roadster was powered by NCA battery technology and had a range that was 244 miles. This was significantly more than other all-electric vehicles.
Many major automakers soon followed Tesla’s lead with electric vehicles. Mitsubishi’s iMiEV electric car was launched in Japan in 2009. It was also available for lease in limited markets in Japan the next year.
The Nissan Leaf, which was launched in Japan and the US in 2010, was a close second for Nissan. There were 23 models of electric cars on the US market by 2014. In the ensuing decade, each major automaker produced at least one electric car.
The US Department of Energy began investing in infrastructure to support the development of electric cars. The Energy Department spent over $115 million between 2009 and 2013 to build a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
This program resulted in more than 18,000 charging stations being installed. However, the construction of charging infrastructure continues through private and public initiatives.
Future of EVs
Battery technology has been a driving force in the history of electric vehicles. This trend is likely to continue unless new technology is developed that can replace them. Electric vehicles will soon be comparable to gas-powered vehicles in terms of cost, range and other factors, with the cost of batteries falling and technology improving.
Driving an electric vehicle over long distances will become easier as the infrastructure for charging grows and speeds improve. Hot swappable batteries, which can be used to “refuel” an electric car faster and more efficiently, are also possibilities.
Instead of waiting and plugging in, it’s possible to swap your battery for a new one in a matter of minutes. Although other energy storage technologies like hot swappable fuel cells could be used, they are so much less efficient that modern batteries make it seem unlikely.
2018 and Beyond
In 2018, electric cars on the roads in the United States surpassed one million for the first time. This number had reached 1.8 million by 2020. Other locations like Europe and China have seen even greater growth.
These numbers will likely rise further with the advancements in battery technology and charging technology, as well as a better charging infrastructure and legislation aimed at reducing vehicle emissions.
Although electric vehicles have been on a long, winding road for the past couple of centuries, the 21st Century is beginning to look like the end.