A History of Electric Vehicles: The Ups, Downs, & Ups
The history of electric vehicles has played out a lot like a Rocky movie. They’ve been around forever and have been beaten by the popularity of other technologies. But they always get up. It may surprise you to know that EVs have been around since the 19th century! While they’re being lauded as the future of transportation, they’ve repeatedly been cast into obscurity.
Early electric vehicles were prevalent in both passenger and commercial transportation. They were extremely practical for getting around urban environments and were used as passenger vehicles, taxis, and delivery trucks.
But at some point, internal combustion engines took over.
To understand what happened, let’s take a comprehensive look at the history of electric vehicles.
Why are EVs popular?
EVs are popular for a reason. They produce zero emissions, don’t need motor oil, have lower maintenance costs, and are developing increasingly longer ranges.
So why haven’t engineers en masse been working on electric vehicles since their inception? Why didn’t the general public go all in on electric cars back in the day?
The fact of the matter is EVs were only embraced because they were the best transportation solution of their time. When other innovations were able to fill the gaps better, EVs went down hard, but amazingly always got back up.
While significant challenges remain, electric vehicles are currently the most viable solution for addressing CO2 emissions, fuel prices, air quality, and sustainability. The history of electric vehicles can be broken down into six distinct periods.
A history of electric vehicles: 6 Periods
1. 1830-1880: Pioneering developments and the first electric vehicle
2. 1880-1914: The first wave of electric vehicles
3. 1914-1970: The fall of EVs and the rise of internal combustion
4. 1970-2003: Reconsidering EVs
5. 2003-2020: The EV boom
6. The rise of electric commercial vehicles
1. The first electric vehicles
In the history of electric vehicles, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first electric vehicle was invented. They emerged as a result of a series of breakthroughs and a confluence of technologies: namely the electric motor and batteries.
Inventors in the U.K., Hungary, the U.S., and the Netherlands had been working on the concept of a battery-powered vehicle.
However, in 1835, British inventor Robert Anderson displayed what is widely regarded as the first electric vehicle at an industrial exhibition. It relied on power from a disposable battery that generated electricity from crude oil and traveled at a speed of 12 kilometers per hour.
Utilizing better batteries
In 1881, pioneering French inventor Gustave Trouvé designed the Trouvé Tricycle, a bizarre-looking 3-wheeled electric vehicle with a giant wheel on one side and two smaller wheels on the other. For power, two engines drew electricity from a lead-acid battery mounted behind the driver.
It traversed the streets of Paris at 11 mph with a range of anywhere between 9 and 16 miles.
In 1890, William Morrison manufactured the first practical electric vehicle. It was basically a horse-drawn carriage fitted with a battery that could carry 6 people at 14 mph.
2. The first wave of electric vehicles
After Morrison’s electrified wagon debuted, electric vehicles started popping up around the U.S. from a variety of manufacturers. They became increasingly popular in urban areas. At one point, there was even a fleet of more than 60 electric taxes in New York around the turn of the century.
By 1900, 38% of all automobiles in the U.S. were powered by electricity, 40% by steam, and just 22% by gasoline.
It’s important to remember that the electric engine predates the gasoline engine and remained a competitor to the internal combustion engine (ICE) until the 1920s.
Steam engines fell out of favor because they constantly needed to be filled with water, had limited range, and required a long startup time (up to 45 minutes!). Electric vehicles on the other hand were easy to drive and were excellent for short round trips in cities.
The challenge with gasoline vehicles
Gasoline-powered vehicles were making advances, but they also had faults. For one, they required a lot of work to drive due to the manual gear shifting required, and the need to be started with a hand crank.
But more than that, early internal combustion vehicles were noisy and belched smelly exhaust! Electric vehicles, on the other hand, were clean, quiet, and easy to handle.
Electric cars lead the way
The potential of EVs attracted many top minds including Ferdinand Porsche who developed an electric model called the P1. He also created the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid car around the turn of the century.
Around that time automobiles soared in popularity and electric vehicles proved to be the preferred choice, especially in urban areas where roads were well-developed and electricity was accessible.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford even teamed up to develop an affordable EV. Ironically, Ford’s assembly line production of the Model T was a major contributing factor to making electric cars obscure.
3. The fall of EVs and the rise of internal combustion
Several main contributing factors led to the downfall of the first wave of electric vehicles.
1. Expanded roads, fueling stations, and infrastructure in the U.S.
2. Lack of electricity in rural areas
3. The cheap price of gasoline
4. Affordability of gas-powered models over electric vehicles
Mass production of gasoline-powered vehicles made them widely available and affordable. In 1912, a gasoline car was $650 whereas an electric one was $1,750.
Batteries were also a big drawback. They were heavy and required a complicated and lengthy charging process that relied on stationary generators.
Another decisive factor was American Charles. F. Kettering’s design of an electric start motor for gasoline cars that did away with the pesky hand crank.
With the discovery of oil in Texas, gasoline prices in the U.S. plummeted, and filling stations became common and accessible. By 1935, electric vehicles had nearly disappeared.
4. Reconsidering EVs
The internal combustion engine’s appetite for gasoline suddenly hit a dry spot when oil prices began surging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo hit the U.S., stoking shortages and massive lines at fueling stations.
The U.S. Congress passed the Electric Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1976, which boosted support for research and development for electric and hybrid vehicles. Several major manufacturers developed electric porotypes. General Motors even developed a prototype and displayed it at an Environmental Protection Agency symposium in 1973.
The American Motor Company manufactured electric Jeeps that were used in a test program for the US Postal Service in 1975.
In the end, electric vehicles produced in the 1970s still suffered from limited performance. Their range was limited to about 40 miles and their top speeds maxed out at 45 mph, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
National & state regulations in the U.S.
Federal and state regulations in the 1990s drove renewed research into EVs. In 1990 the U.S. government passed the Clean Air Act and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a mandate that made the production and sale of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) a requirement for automakers to continue to market their vehicles in California.
The first mass-produced electric car
This led to the first mass-produced EV, GM’s EV1. The vehicle had a range of 80 miles and accelerated from zero to 50 mph in seven seconds. They were never commercially sold but were available for limited lease-only agreements while their viability was evaluated. The program cost GM one billion dollars and it quickly lost popularity within the organization.
With such a price tag, GM judged the EV market to be unprofitable. In the end, all of the vehicles in the lease program were reclaimed and destroyed, despite positive customer reactions.
The move set EV progress back years. Had GM focused on the long-term viability of zero-emissions vehicles, they could very likely have been ahead of where Tesla Motors is now.
Furthermore, regulations in California that helped generate interest in EVs by requiring manufacturers to produce zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV) were successfully challenged in courts allowing for reduced-emissions vehicles instead. This led to a trend away from EVs towards hybrid vehicles as they were cheaper to produce and benefited from not having to develop a new fueling infrastructure.
The release of the first mass-produced electric hybrid vehicle in 1997, the Toyota Prius, coupled with rising gasoline prices and increased concern over carbon emissions led to an appetite for more sustainable solutions.
5. The EV boom
Advances had been growing in lithium-ion battery capacity and performance. In 2003, two entrepreneurs, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning formed Tesla Motor. Three years later their startup announced it would start producing a luxury sports car that could travel more than 200 miles on a single charge.
The rapid success of Tesla thrust EVs squarely into the public, spurring major automakers to focus on developing their own EVs. In 2010, Nissan launched the Nissan Leaf, a ZEV that has become the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.
Continued development in battery technologies has improved the range of EV batteries and dramatically reduced their price by 97% since 1991, leading to cheaper vehicles and increased customer enthusiasm.
6. The rise of electric commercial vehicles
Believe it or not, electric trucks have been around for more than 100 years, and have typically relied on lead-acid batteries. Until recently, the scope of their service has been limited to niche applications like local delivery services and factory logistics.
In the early 1900s, Walker Vehicle Company (not to be confused with the Walker Motor Car Company) built Walker Electric Trucks, and their production continued under different companies for more than three decades in Chicago and Detroit.
They were widely used for milk deliveries and featured a rear axle motor with a range of up to 50 miles and a top speed of 10 to 12 mph.
In fact, an electric vehicle specifically designed for milk deliveries emerged, known as the milk float. It became one of the most common examples of a battery electric truck and was prevalent in the United Kingdom for decades.
The idling issue
Delivery vehicles like milk floats made many stops in a short period making electric technology a more practical option since they spent a lot of time idling.
Idling is an action in which internal combustion engines are extremely inefficient.
Because of this, electric vehicles were implemented in other sectors, like garbage collection, where vehicles have similar driving patterns.
For instance, the city of Birmingham, England utilized four-ton electric garbage trucks in 1938 known as the Electricar DV4 that were active until 1971.
More recently, in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing replaced 3,000 ICE garbage trucks with battery power replacement.
Electric garbage trucks have increased in use around the world, popping up across Europe and the U.S.
Wider implementation of electric commercial vehicles
The rebirth of EVs along with improved battery technology has led to new advances in ZEV commercial vehicles that have expanded the implementation of electric vehicles into more general sectors.
Daimler Truck subsidiary, Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation developed the Canto Eco-Hybrid in 2005 in the light-duty class, which became commercially available in Japan. In 2017, they later developed the eCanter, one of the first fully electric commercial trucks.
Daimler Truck North America unveiled the Freightliner eCascadia, a class 8 tractor in 2022, which has a typical range of 230 miles. In 2023, Freightliner began full-scale production of its eM2, available as a class 6 or class 7 box truck.
Also this year, Daimler Truck unveiled its latest brand, RIZON Truck for the class 4-5 segment during the 2023 Act Expo. RIZON is currently available in the United States.
With ZEV mandates increasing around the world, and an increasing number of companies prioritizing decarbonization, the likelihood of an expanded implementation of electric commercial vehicles is higher than ever.
Are EVs here to stay?
All major auto manufacturers are now in the EV game, with many going further by announcing dates when they will exclusively produce electrified cars, be it plug-in hybrids or full EVs. Many have vowed to do the once unthinkable: discontinue internal combustion engines (ICE). Some have already done so.
According to the International Energy Agency, there were 10 million EVs on roads at the end of 2020.
Concerns over climate change led to the passage of regulatory frameworks to strengthen policies aimed at reducing C02 emissions, including ZEV mandates. At the end of 2020, more than 20 countries announced bans on ICE cars or mandates for new sales to be ZEVs.
In the realm of commercial vehicles, the influential California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently approved the Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) regulation, which is very likely to become state law.
ACF seeks to accelerate the implementation of zero-emission trucks and bus fleets statewide to meet state air quality and climate goals.
To learn more, read our ACF common FAQs article.
The new regulation is already driving the sale of electric commercial vehicles and more mandates are increasingly likely in other states.
The history of electric vehicles has turned full circle and they seem on the cusp of guiding the future away from ICE vehicles in the long term. However, are EVs really here to stay, or are they simply an infatuation that will disappear in time?
This time there is a key difference. Ecological challenges, corporate CO2 goals, and government mandates are pushing electric vehicles to the forefront.
One thing is for sure. Electric vehicles will be embraced as long as they are the best solution to addressing the present challenges.
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