Many of us are of the view that we are witnessing the birth of electric and hybrid vehicles today even though these vehicles were introduced somewhere around 100 years ago. The popularity of hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric has pushed prominent vehicle manufacturers to come out with their offerings as well. At the moment, both Toyota and Tesla take the top spot when it comes to hybrid and fully electric vehicles.
The Birth of the electric vehicle
Although many historians and car experts try to pinpoint and associate the birth of the electric vehicle with one inventor or country but the fact of the matter is that it is not possible. There is simply not enough evidence to associate the entire birth of electric vehicles with a single individual, company, or country.
Instead, historians argue that the birth was basically a series of breakthroughs. Individuals working on different concepts leading to new technologies and ultimately manufacturers jumping in as well to share the interest. It all started with a simple battery that led us to the electric motor. It was in the 1800s when the first electric vehicle was seen on the road.
In the early part of the century, many innovators belonging to Hungary, United States, the Netherlands, and even a blacksmith from Vermont were working and playing around with the concept of a battery-powered vehicle. Since the experiments were simultaneous, it was like a competition of who would come out with it first.
Although many attempts were unsuccessful but at the time, it lead to the development of many first small-scale electric cars. Furthermore, it was Robert Anderson, a British inventor who had developed and introduced the first crude electric carriage around at the same time. However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century when both the French and English inventors had built some of the first practical electric cars.
In the United States, the first electric vehicle made its debut around 1890 thanks to William Morrison who was a chemist by profession and lived in Des Moines, Iowa. He had developed an electric vehicle that was capable of seating six passengers and traveling at a top speed of 14 miles per hour. It was that, there and then, that sparked a worldwide interest in electric vehicles.
Over the next couple of years, manufacturers were in a tug of war about who comes out with the best electric vehicle. As a result, many electric vehicles were seen popping up across the U.S. Even New York’s taxi fleet had 60 electric cars. By 1900, electric vehicles had a strong presence on the road. During the next 10 years, electric vehicles continued to show strong sales.
The early rise and fall of the electric car
To better understand the popularity of electric vehicles circa 1900, it is also important to understand the development of the personal vehicle along with other options that were available. It needs to be noted that around the 20th century, the horse was still the primary mode of transportation. However, as the Americans prospered and took a few steps ahead, they wanted to shift to the newly invented motor vehicle. At the time, the vehicles offered featured gasoline, steam, or electric versions.
At the time, the steam engine was the most popular as it was tried and tested for its reliability. The same engines were used to power factories and trains as well. Infact, some of the first-propelled vehicles in the 1700s relied on steam. However, it would not be until the 1870s for the technology to grab hold in cars. The part of the reason being that steam engines were not that popular and practical for personal vehicles.
Another major reason for steam engines not being used in personal vehicles was that the engine required too much starting time especially when it was cold. Sometimes it would take upto 45 minutes to start. Plus, it needed to be refilled with water, limiting their range.
As the electric vehicles stepped into the market, the influence resulted in the introduction of a few new vehicle types as well such as the gasoline-powered car. It was possible, thanks to the continuous improvements to the internal combustion engine made in the 1800s. They carried their promises but weren’t without faults. They were quite difficult to steer, needed to be started with a hand crank, and even changing the gears was no easy task. Furthermore, they were also noisy and the exhaust was unpleasant.
On the other hand, electric cars did not have the same issues that were persistent with steam or gasoline. They were quite the opposite of the gasoline and steam-powered vehicles. They were quiet, easy to drive, and did not require much maintenance. Another major benefit was that they did not spill out any unpleasant odor or noise that would disturb the neighbors or people living nearby. As a result, electric cars became quite popular amongst urban residents especially women.
These electric cars were perfect for short trips and poor road conditions meant that only fewer cars would be able to venture further. As more and more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, charging electric cars became much easier. At the time, electric vehicles were not just roaming around. They were noticed by many manufacturers who were interested in the vehicle’s high demand and started exploring ways to improve the technology.
For example, the founder of Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, developed an electric car in 1898 called the P1. Somewhere around at the same time, he developed the world’s first hybrid electric car that was a vehicle powered by electricity and a gas engine. Noticing the improvement and progress of the electric vehicles, Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most prolific inventors stated that electric vehicles were far superior and worked to build a better vehicle battery as well. At the time, Henry Ford who was a friend of Edison joined the race as well and explored different ways to come up with a low-cost electric car in 1914.
It was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that gave a huge blow to the electric car. The Model-T was introduced in 1908 and it made gasoline engine vehicles widely available and affordable. Believe it or not, by 1912, the gasoline car would only cost $650 while an electric roadster would sell for $1,750. That very same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, which ultimately eliminated the need for the hand crank and resulted in even more sales of gasoline-powered vehicles.
In addition to that, there were also some other developments that led to the decline of the electric vehicle. By the 1920s, the U.S had a better road network and people wanted to go out and explore. At the same time, the discovery of crude oil led to cheap gas and was readily available for rural Americans. As a result, filling stations also started popping up due to the demand across the country. The decline of the electric vehicle was such that it had disappeared by 1935.
Gas shortages spark interest in electric vehicles
Since the disappearance of electric vehicles in 1935, over the next 30 years or so these vehicles sort of entered the dark stage since there was little advancement being made. Meanwhile, cheap, abundant gasoline was making the rounds since it was readily available and the continued improvement in the internal combustion engine hampered demand for alternative fuel vehicles.
While gasoline along with gasoline-powered vehicles was the most popular but nothing lasts forever. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, oil prices soared and gas was facing a severe shortage. It took a peak with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. It led to the growing interest in lowering the U.S’s dependence on foreign oil and finding homegrown sources of fuel. As a result, congress took note and passed the Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976. This authorized the Energy Department to support research and development in both electric and hybrid vehicles.
This was the time, when many manufacturers both big and small began exploring alternative fuel vehicles, including electric cars. For example, Ford came up with and introduced its concept/prototype that was an urban electric car displayed at the Environmental Protection Agency’s First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development in 1973.
On the other hand, the American Motor Company came up with delivery jeeps that were electric used by the United States Postal Service in a test program held in 1975. It was a time when even NASA joined the bandwagon and contributed to raising the profile of electric cars when it’s Lunar Rover became the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon in 1971.
However, regardless of how much progress the electric cars made, they were still not as reliable as the gasoline-powered vehicles in the 1970s. Part of the reason was that electric cars had limited performance and usually topped 45 miles per hour. Furthermore, their range was just upto 40 miles before they needed to be charged.
Environmental concern drives electric vehicles forward
Fast forward to the 1990s, when electric vehicles struggled to get a hold of the consumer market, there were certain rules and regulations introduced that again sparked an additional interest to pursue the development of new electric vehicles. As mentioned earlier, although gasoline engines were comparatively more reliable but the fact of the matter is that they were both noisy and polluting the environment.
Therefore, as a result, it was felt that the pollution must be controlled and the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment along with the 1992 Energy Policy Act plus new transportation emissions regulations issued by the California Air Resources Board renewed the interest in electric vehicles in the U.S.
During this time, vehicle manufacturers started converting their popular vehicles into electric vehicles. What this meant was that the electric vehicles achieved more or less the same speeds as gasoline-powered vehicles. Plus, many of them even had the range of 60 miles. One of the most popular and well-known electric cars belonged to GM.
The company introduced its EV1 which was built from the ground up instead of modifying its current lineup. The EV1 could drive upto 80 miles and reach from 0 to 50 miles per hour in just seven seconds. As a result, the EV1 was destined to gain a cult following and it did. However, due to the high production costs, the EV1 was never produced and GM discontinued it in 2001.
A new beginning for electric cars
During the 19th and 20th centuries, electric cars had seen enough of the revival and stoppage trend. However, by the 20th century, electric cars were able to showcase their potential and promise to the world. But it was not until the 21st century when the true revival took place. Depending on whom you ask but electric car invention basically involved two events that sparked the interest in electric vehicles.
First, it was the introduction of the Toyota Prius that was released in Japan in 1997. It soon became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. In 2000, the vehicle was released worldwide and it did not take much time to become popular and famous with celebrities that significantly helped raise the profile of the car.
At the time, Prius was powered by Toyota’s nickel-made hydride battery, which was a technology supported by the Energy Department’s research. Since then, the rising concern about gasoline prices and pollution has helped make the Prius the best-selling hybrid worldwide.
Another event that sparked the interest was a small Silicon Valley Startup announcing in 2006 that it would produce a luxury electric sports car that would be able to go more than 200 miles on a single charge. The company’s name was Tesla and it still continues to break records. Tesla received a loan from the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office and has created history since then.
With the world divided between electric, hybrid, and gasoline-powered vehicles, it is hard to tell what the future holds. However, what we know is that electric vehicles have a lot of potential for creating a sustainable future. At the moment, electric technology is expensive and quite out of reach of the middle class. With manufacturers working on something new each day and considering the pace of technology, research, and development, it will be soon that gasoline-powered vehicles become obsolete.