After facing extinction several times, EVs have progressed to become the future of the automotive industry. Let’s check out the history of electric vehicles and how they’ve evolved over time.
How it Started: a Cleaner Way to Travel
Electric vehicles are hardly a modern concept. You may be surprised to learn that they pre-date gasoline-powered cars.
Pop quiz: When was the first electric car made?
If you guessed the 1800s, congratulations!
Robert Anderson developed the first “horseless” carriage around 1832. It was powered by galvanic cells.
With a range of just a couple of miles and a battery that couldn’t be recharged, it wasn’t exactly practical, especially when compared to steam-powered vehicles.
The Perfect Vehicle for Moving People Around Cities
As battery technology developed, inventors saw the value of electric vehicles in bustling cities, creating early electric-powered mass transit trams.
As you might imagine, these carriages were much quieter and, compared to horse-drawn carriages, didn’t leave behind a lot of mess. And, like their steam-powered cousins, electric trams didn’t add to the heavy coal-polluted air in larger cities.
In the late 1800s, inventors Henry G. Morris and Pedro Salom took streetcar technology and scaled it to work in smaller, personal-sized carriages. A creation that came to be known as the Electrobat.
Around the same time, in Germany, Karl Benz was competing with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach to patent the automobile powered by an internal combustion engine, which had a massive impact on the history of electric vehicles.
Morris and Salom driving the 1895 Electrobat
The Invention of ICE
While it took several years—and several trips back to the drawing board—the first internal combustion engine-powered cars were hitting the market before the turn of the century.
Automakers including the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, Olds Motor Vehicle Company, Cadillac, and Ford began mass-producing these internal combustion-powered automobiles and marketing them to consumers.
Compared to electric/battery-powered vehicles, which weren’t produced in nearly the same numbers, these ICE automobiles:
- Cost a fraction of the price of electric vehicles
- Went farther and faster
- Were easier and cheaper to refuel
And once the electric starter was invented and eliminated the need to crank-start them, automobiles gained mass appeal.
But no one was counting out the electric vehicles just yet.
They were still preferred in urban areas because, compared to gasoline-powered cars, they were quiet and didn’t leave a lingering gasoline odor. And since city dwellers typically traveled shorter distances, “range anxiety” wasn’t as much of a concern.
This made them a much better option for transit-oriented services such as rail cars and taxis.
Post-War Flight to the Suburbs
The impact of two World Wars on the automobile industry cannot be overstated.
First, an entire infrastructure of interstate highways was created to transport soldiers and supplies from one part of the country to another more efficiently than by rail.
Then, after World War II, families began leaving the crowded cities as suburban neighborhoods exploded. With housing being built far from the cities—where the jobs and stores were—people needed cars that could travel longer distances.
Although battery technology was improving vehicle range and speed (important in freeway traffic), they added hundreds‑and sometimes thousands‑to the cost of an electric car.
With gasoline prices falling after the war, it was hard to justify the cost of driving an electric vehicle. Not even the gas crisis in the 1970s was enough to spur demand for electric cars.
Were it not for the space race in the 1960s, EV technology might have gone the way of the dinosaur.
How many of you remember the EV1?
Now, how many of you remember seeing one “in the wild?”
This two-seater was GM’s response to California’s 1996 mandate that automakers manufacture at least some zero-emission vehicles. Neither the mandate nor the EV1 was long for the world.
General Motors’ EV1
California’s Early Response to the Climate Crisis
By the late 1980s, there were days where it was nearly impossible to see California’s large urban areas from nearby mountains because the smog was so thick.
In an urgent attempt to clear the air of their smog-choked cities, California came up with a mandate that would spark a tremendous change in the history of electric vehicles: its 1996 zero-emissions mandate.
Along with GM, who also produced an S10 electric pickup as well as the EV1, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Honda, and Toyota all developed electric vehicles since alternative zero-emission technology such as hydrogen wasn’t being developed for consumer vehicles.
But, while they grudgingly made these vehicles, the automakers, along with the oil industry, lobbied California lawmakers who kneecapped the mandate.
A List of some of the First Modern Electric Vehicles
Down, But Far from Out
Many of the vehicles developed under the California mandate were scrubbed, with GM not only shelving the EV1 but going so far as to repossess or disable the vehicles that they did sell.
But even though production stopped, savvy automakers recognized that there was a burgeoning demand for alternative fuel vehicles, particularly in places like California, where drivers often paid the highest prices for fuel in the continental United States.
One of the biggest reasons why automakers (and oil companies) fought California’s regulations was the growth in popularity of trucks and Sport Utility Vehicles.
The Rise of the SUV and Big Trucks
The other fallout from the flight from urban centers to the suburbs was that Americans wanted everything bigger.
Bigger homes with bigger yards. And bigger cars and trucks.
Although many drivers switched to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars in response to the gas crisis, once stability returned to the fuel market, people moved toward larger wagons and SUVs.
The demand for these vehicles has remained so steady that automakers scaled back production of cars or ceased production altogether, practically putting a pin in the development of the history of electric vehicles for as long as it could.
What sedans and hatchbacks remained in production?
Alternative fuel cars, including electric and hybrid models like the Toyota Prius and Nissan LEAF.
EV’s by Country and the Challenges They Faced
Governments—and Consumers—Increase the Pressure on Automakers
European countries have led the way in demand for plug-in electric vehicles, with Norway reaching a milestone in 2014 of having 1 in 100 vehicles on the road be PEV.
Later that year, the European Union adopted the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive designed to minimize reliance on oil while putting in place infrastructure, including recharging as well as natural gas and hydrogen refueling stations, to make alternative fuel vehicles easier to own.
Facing a pollution crisis of its own, China has also seen a tremendous upswing in demand for plug-in electric vehicles.
And with the realization setting in that fossil fuels are a finite resource and that fuel prices and availability may be subject to the whim of a ransomware attacker, Americans are embracing alternative fuel vehicles in increasing numbers.
Not surprisingly, California leads the way, accounting for nearly half of all American PEV sales in 2020.
But fuel costs and the social clout of “going green” aren’t the only reasons why people are turning to EVs.
A California Startup Causes a Seismic Shift
Two things needed to happen to make EVs appeal to a wider market:
- Range needed to go up
- Prices needed to come down
Okay, three, if you count style.
Tesla nailed style and range with their roadster in 2008. It was the first serial-produced all-electric car in the history of electric vehicles to use lithium-ion battery cells approved for highway use.
This super-sexy roadster could travel over 200 miles on a charge, but at over $100k, it wasn’t within reach of budget-conscious drivers looking for an economical ride.
The California startup’s success with developing practical lithium-ion technology delivered a wake-up call to major automakers, who were convinced such advances were at least another decade off.
With other small and startup manufacturers jumping into the fray, including Smart, France’s Mia Electric, and China’s Wheego Whip LiFe, the big automakers recognized the pent-up consumer demand for cars that didn’t rely on gasoline.
Nissan introduced the Leaf at the end of 2010, becoming the first large automaker to mass-produce a fully electric hatchback to the American and Japanese markets.
Nissan’s gamble on this technology paid off: the Leaf became the best-selling PEV in history. It was only recently knocked from the #1 spot by Tesla’s Model 3 sedan.
General Motors found great success with the Chevrolet Bolt. Introduced in 2017, the Bolt quickly won accolades as the 2017 North American Car of the Year, Motor Trend Car of the Year, and was one of Time Magazine’s Best 25 Inventions of 2016.
The History of Electric Vehicles Timeline
How it’s Going: The Times They Are A-Changin’
Although consumers interviewed by Cox Automotive still lean toward gasoline-powered SUVs and trucks, alternative fuel continues to make steady progress.
But with the undeniable impact of climate change around the world—from massive wildfires to “100-year” floods occurring year-round—governments are putting increasing pressure on industries to try to reverse climate change, or at least mitigate its impact.
The 2021 Paris Climate Agreement (COP-21) is pushing industries across several sectors, including transportation, to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030.
In late 2020, California Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed an executive order that stipulates all new car and truck sales in the state be electric by 2035. Other states, particularly those in the west, are expected to follow.
What’s Happening in 2021
Major manufacturers continue to compete with Tesla to drive consumers to showrooms by offering a wider variety of body styles, including plug-in SUVs and trucks. But as the competition was ramping up, the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only were production lines shut down for a time, but computer chip makers pivoted away from making chips for automobiles to focus on personal computers and devices for home offices.
A Cox Automotive study provided insight into what consumers and auto dealers expected in 2021. Among the predictions:
- Competition will slow Tesla’s growth in the EV market, but it will remain on top.
- Auto dealers expect more states to follow California in requiring all new passenger car and truck sales to be electric in the coming years.
- The lack of available electronic parts will continue to slow the production of all vehicles through 2021.
Investing in EV Technology
Government mandates plus a steadily increasing demand have prompted automakers to shift their focus toward Electric Vehicles, with many pledging to go all-electric within the next decade.
- Volvo announced earlier this year that they plan to offer a fully-electric lineup by 2030.
- Mercedes-Benz announced on July 22 a plan to invest more than $47 billion to go all electric by 2030.
- General Motors intends to replace all gasoline-powered models with electric vehicles by 2035.
The Ford F-150 Lightning Boasts an Electrified Lifestyle
Consumer Favorites Get an Electric Makeover
With upstart makers like Rivian and Atlis Motors, as well as Tesla jumping into the mix, Ford, GMC, and RAM pushed production on their own electric pickups and SUVs, adding a completely different shape to the upcoming history of electric vehicles.
The F-150 Lightning is expected to show up in showrooms in 2022. Ford has also created an all-electric version of the classic Mustang as an SUV called the Mach-E and has brought back the Maverick as a hybrid mid-size pickup.
GMC will begin producing the Hummer EV in the fall of 2021, and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler) is pushing several battery electric vehicles, including a RAM 1500 and a Dodge muscle car, into development by 2024.
This comes as Tesla is set to release its wild-looking Cybertruck in 2022, and new American companies, including Lordstown Motors, Bollinger Motors, and Rivian Automotive, are releasing fully electric trucks and SUVs.
The latter two are clearly taking aim at serious off-road vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco.
Tesla Announces the 2022 Cybertruck
Where It’s Headed: Coming Full Circle
Thanks to advances in technology and infrastructure, EVs are gaining in appeal to consumers, quickly changing the history of electric vehicles into the future of the automotive industry at large.
Modern lithium-ion batteries are far more efficient and offer greater range.
Instead of taking up valuable real estate in the passenger cabin or cargo area, the elimination of the internal combustion engine gives people even more space to fill (did someone say, “frunk?”).
Modern technology also allows today’s EVs to come fully loaded with creature comforts, including heated and ventilated seats, a large suite of driver assistance and safety features, and many include tablet-size touchscreens to access the onboard infotainment system.
With automakers committing to an all-electric (or mostly electric) lineup in the next decade and new auto manufacturers pushing the old guard toward more innovation, consumers can expect EVs to become even more available, desirable, and affordable.
And, working together with governments, charging stations should become as ubiquitous as gas stations as we transition from internal combustion to battery electric vehicles.
Nearly 200 years since they first hit the roads, electric vehicles will once again replace old technology.