Photo credit: Jim Heaphy
By now, almost everyone in the US has at least seen an EV drive down the street, and in some places you can’t cross the street without a silent, often speeding Tesla whizzing past. But we can remember when seeing an EV that wasn’t a golf cart was a big deal. EVs are so new even teenagers can remember when they weren’t really a thing.
Or are they really that new? Turns out that electric cars, with their clean, simple and reliable operation have been around a long time. How long? And who invented them? Let’s find out.
EVs: the Early Years
Even though he looked like an 18th-Century hippy and did a lot of hippy things like invent free public libraries and sit naked in his living room, Benjamin Franklin didn’t invent or discover electricity. That was way before his time. Archeologists think the ancient Persians and Romans may have had batteries, perhaps to use in electroplating. Electricity was mostly a curiosity until the 1740s, when experimenters showed an electromagnetic field could make a mechanism turn – the first electric motors. Still, it wasn’t until the 1830s that something recognizable as an electric motor was powering crude models and carriages capable of very slowly carrying a human passenger.
Over following decades, more sophisticated and larger vehicles made news, but it wasn’t until the first practical, mass-produced direct current (DC) motor came along in 1886 before an electric vehicle could be practical transportation. But shortly thereafter, starting in 1887 electric taxis were operating in London and New York City. Electricity was transforming (get it?) the world, with electric trolley lines altering cities, electric lights improving air quality and safety and the electric car promising trouble-free, comfortable transportation.
So What Happened?
At the turn of the 20th century, self-propelled vehicles were clearly the future of transportation—the only question was what kind of power source would they use? The main contenders were steam, gasoline (or diesel) internal-combustion, and battery electric. All three systems had advantages and disadvantages.
Steam engines were light, could provide tremendous power for their size and had a century’s worth of development behind them. Maybe because of the speeds (for which period brakes, suspension and wheels were no match) and the risk of boiler explosions, steam-engine cars got a reputation for danger. That plus their expense and slow warm-up times shrunk the steam engine’s market share until the last “steamer” factory closed in 1930.
Electric vehicles were (as we all know) cheap and easy to operate, reliable, safe and very quiet, making them popular with genteel post-Victorian gentlepersons, including Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, who was happy with her 1914 Detroit Electric’s 20 mph top speed and 80-mile range. Most inter-city roads were unpaved, so people didn’t drive far, making these early cars’ 15-80 mile range competitive with early steam and gasoline cars.
And then…Henry Ford. And cheap gasoline. And pavement. Lots of pavement. Soon, millions of Model-T Fords were choking up the roads, gasoline-filling stations popped up like mushrooms and city planners, developers and the burgeoning throngs of motorists demanded roads, parking lots and houses with garages. The EVs of the era were slow, expensive and had limited range. Buh-bye, EVs, sleep well, and hello worldwide adoption of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles
Just as industrialization, changes in urban geography and cheap oil killed the EV (the first time), the space race, changes in social consciousness and rising energy costs paved (ha, ha!) the way for the EV revolution we’re seeing today.
By the 1960s, smog and other pollution was becoming enough of a problem in big American cities to spur a political movement, laws limiting emissions and cleaner, more efficient transportation like mass transit. Also in 1960? The formation of OPEC and a sharp rise in fuel prices that culminated in two embargoes on oil that badly scared Western Europe and the United States, sparking (get it?) the early development of a new generation of EVs, mostly experimental or prototype models. The tech hadn’t moved that much from the 1920s, with heavy lead-acid batteries limiting the range and carrying capacity of these vehicles.
Luckily, this period saw massive strides in all kinds of technologies, some that weren’t used right away. Lithium-ion batteries, microprocessors and high-tech materials and manufacturing techniques—fruits of massive defense and space-exploration programs—made modern EVs possible, but geopolitical changes torpedoed oil prices and suddenly EVs were moved to the back burner.
Gas was a buck a gallon, but that smog, though. In 1990 California mandated automakers sell a certain percentage of zero-emissions vehicles to sell ICE vehicles, which led to both GM and Toyota building small numbers of “compliance” cars in the 1990s, including the RAV4-EV and the GM EV-1, subject of the controversial documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The (later model) EV-1’s capabilities aren’t far from newer EVs, with a top speed of 80 mph and a range of up to 142 miles. Thousands of people got on waiting lists to lease the 1,100 cars GM built before pulling the plug (somebody stop me!) on the program, citing unprofitability and lack of consumer interest.
The First Modern Mass-Market EVs
GM may have stopped building the EV-1, but global interest in EVs rose through the 2000s, spurring new start-up companies as well as established auto makers to invest lots of money into EVs. Some manufacturers, like Think, didn’t make it, but others, like Tesla and Nissan, became synonymous with EVs and foreshadowed the projected sale of six million electric cars worldwide in 2022.
Nissan’s Leaf, introduced in 2010, brought affordable and practical electric motoring to the family car. Its familiar hatchback shape and easy, smooth, fun characteristics made it a hit—well over 500,000 have been sold, and the car, which can now go 220 miles on a single charge, is in its 12th model year.
Though not a pure EV, GM’s Volt built on GM’s EV-1 program and provided a gateway to EV ownership for thousands of drivers. With an efficient gasoline engine whose main role was to charge the battery when it was discharged (range was about 50 miles, more than enough for most daily commuters), the Volt’s affordability, reliability and low cost to operate made it very popular, and more importantly made GM one of the leaders in EV technology.
Tesla made a splash with its Roadster sportscar. Founded in 2003, the company wanted to build a premium sportscar before designing and building a competitive mass-market car. Based on the two-seat British Lotus, the first Tesla Roadster got on the road in 2008. With over 200 miles of range and a lithium-ion battery pack, a top speed of 125 mph and a 0-60 time under four seconds, the $112,000 car set the formula for production EVs and proved EVs could be as sexy and desirable as the most exotic European supercar.
Second-Gen Modern EVs
By 2013, several manufacturers had affordable, but short-range EVs for sale, and though these cars did well in “compliance” markets like California, it was clear consumers demanded longer ranges and shorter charge times at a competitive price. In the US, federal legislation created a $7,500 tax credit for EVs, subsidizing and spurring long-range EV development.
The first was the stunning 2012 Tesla Model S. It was fast, beautiful, could go 265 miles or more on a charge and could recharge from empty to 80 percent in a stunning 45 minutes—for free on Tesla’s network of “Superchargers.” It was spendy, starting at around $60,000, but it offered the performance and exclusivity of ICE cars costing much more. Tesla couldn’t make enough.
On the other end of the market was the cheerful, peppy Chevrolet Bolt EV. GM built on its success with the Volt and brought the Bolt (confused? You’re not alone.) to market in late 2016. With 238 miles of range, a fast-charge time that was a fraction of prior charge times and an MSRP just below $40,000 ($32,500 with incentives, $30,000 or less in states with additional incentives), the Bolt changed the EV market as much, if not more than the Model S. It was soon followed by similar models from Hyundai and Kia and an improved second-generation Leaf . The affordable, mass-market long-range EV was no longer a dream.
Today and Tomorrow
The second generation of EVs were important, but had limitations. Tesla lacked an affordable mass-market car, the Bolt’s onboard charging was maybe too slow for long trips, and battery degradation and other issues were turn-offs to many consumers.
Tesla always had plans to dominate the EV market, and the smaller, less-expensive Model 3 (priced as low as $27,500 after incentives, at least briefly) made it happen. The Model 3 (and its sibling SUV, the Model Y) were designed for volume—huge volume—production and by 2019 Tesla’s production rate was nearing 400,000 cars annually. By 2021, the Model 3 was one of the best-selling cars—EV or ICE—in many markets around the world.
Another advance was in charging networks. In 2010, the Department of Energy reported just 506 charging stations, almost all of them in California. By 2021, there were 109,307 (only a third are now in California), with 19,000 of them DC fast-chargers. One of the largest and fastest-growing networks, Electrify America, was funded by Volkswagen as part of a legal settlement and is indicative of that company’s complete cultural switch to building EVs.
And it’s not just Volkswagen. Almost all the major global manufacturers have committed (to one degree or another) to reduce or halt the development and sale of ICE vehicles, announcing major “platforms” that will be the basis of dozens of new electric models through the 2020s.
These EV-only platforms like GM’s Ultium or VW’s MEB offer great improvements in pricing, efficiency and charge times, and the technology will only improve from here. Hyundai’s 800-volt electrical system allows much faster charging (so fast existing chargers don’t come close to its speed limit) and motor performance, but that’s just the beginning. Several start-ups promise solid-state batteries that may prompt huge leaps in charge time, affordability and range, developments in autonomous driving can make the cars safer and more desirable, and advancements in charging technology that could allow EVs to become part of the power grid itself, with myriad advantages.
Predicting what happens more than a few months from now, when it comes to tech, the environment or politics is a tough game, but that EVs will be playing a huge role in the coming decades is something most of us can agree on.