The Evolution of Electric Cars

Carlos Huerta

Table of Contents

    You may be thinking that the history of electric cars is quite short and that it started after Tesla Motors was created, but believe it or not, electric cars have been around in the industry for more than a century. In fact, for a long time, the electric car was the preferred choice over the gasoline-based vehicle.  

    All of this brings to the question: What changed? And why did we end up driving gas-powered vehicles? Let’s find out. 

    Fig 1. Evolution of the electric vehicle.

    The First Steps of the Electric Mobility 

    The first idea to use electricity as a source of energy to power a vehicle can be traced back to sometime between 1832 and 1839 when the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson launched the first-ever prototype of a vehicle running with electricity. The idea was groundbreaking and even though the vehicle was more of an electric-powered carriage than a car, this was the first step that inspired others to think about new relatable innovations. 

    The issue with Anderson’s prototype was that it was powered by non-rechargeable batteries as the technology was in its early stages at the time. Nearly 40 years later, in 1860, Frenchman Gaston Planté invents the first practical version of a rechargeable lead-acid battery giving electric vehicles a potential beginning. 

    Then, in 1880 Thomas Alva Edison developed the first light bulb patent, paving the way in the years to come for the electricity industry and the required infrastructure to power electric cars. 

    The First Electric Car and The Competition to Rule the Transportation Sector

    Ten years after Thomas Edison developed the technology for the first light bulb, William Morrison built the actual first four-wheel electric road car in the world using a lead acid battery in 1890. 

    Now, if you were someone living back in 1900, you would have three main options available to buy a car. 

    The first option was buying a steam-powered car that relied on gas-powered boilers with very low efficiency. This type of vehicle required to be refueled with water constantly and sometimes required 30 minutes for the engine to heat up. Despite the downsides of this technology, due to the large industrialization and the invention of the locomotive in the 19th Century, this was probably the most matured technology and accepted option among buyers in the US with nearly 40% of the market share.

    Fig 2. Steam automobile in early 1900s. Source: NCpedia

    Another option was the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle or typically known as the gasoline-based car.  This option was probably the last one anybody would choose since ICE vehicles back then required a dangerous (and also annoying) hand-cranking to start the vehicle every time you stopped. Besides, this type of vehicles released an incredible amount of smoke with funny smell that were not pleasant for anybody. Due to this and other factors, ICE vehicles only represented 22% of the US vehicle market.

    Fig 3. Bradley Gasoline Runabout automobile in 1900. Source: Pinterest

    Finally, the third option was the battery electric car. Barely 10 years after the first electric car was invented, the electric vehicle became the second most popular option with almost 38% of the US market share. The reasons were many: Quick to start, clean and quiet, smooth brake, fast acceleration and especially no exhaust or explosions underneath your seat. Several electric car models were released such as the Electrobat, the electric Taxicab, and the Studebaker, among others.

    Fig 4. Thomas Edison beside a battery electric vehicle in 1914. Source: NYTimes

    The difference between the electric vehicle and the ICE vehicle was so big, that in 1908 a race was carried out in Philadelphia under real city conditions to find out what was the best vehicle of all. At the end of the race, the Studebaker electric car surpassed the gasoline-powered vehicle and won by a difference of 10 minutes. The result was simply astonishing.  

    Fig 5. The Studebaker. Source: Classic AutoMall

    The Rise of the Internal Combustion Engine

    Despite ICE vehicles were far behind the other two options, they were able to quickly catch up thanks to the intervention of a man, Henry Ford. In that same year after that race was carried out, he released his Model T. This ICE car was quite cheap, had a higher quality than its predecessors had, and the manufacturing process was done relatively fast.

    Fig 6. Ford Model T. Source: Smithsonian

    Then, in 1912 the electric starter came up and this meant drivers no longer had to use manual hand-cranking to start the vehicle. That, in addition to the large oil discoveries (which lowered the price of gasoline) made Ford’s revolutionary vehicles the new preferred choice for the average American.

    But, what happened to the electric battery vehicle? Wasn’t it able to fight back?

    Well, back then the battery technology was simply not able to provide a long range with a single charge, which meant electric car owners had to stay within the city boundaries with access to electricity in order to use the vehicle. This was an important downside since many roads connecting major cities in the US were developed at the time and there was no charging infrastructure set for recharging electric vehicles on the road. This in addition to the much higher cost of a pure electric vehicle when compared to Ford’s version (about a third of the electric car cost) simply left electric vehicles out of range.

    For the next 60 years, internal combustion engines would rule the entire transportation sector without any real competitor on sight.

    A New Hope: Electric Vehicles

    ICE vehicles continued to rule the roads across the world with a few exhibition exceptions like the Renault Henney Kilowatt or the Chevrolet Electrovair, none of them actually capable of making an impact that would change the tides.

    That was until the 1970s when the Arab Oil Embargo occurred and the US government realized the importance of energy independence for energy and national security purposes. This is why in 1976, the U.S Congress approved an act (known as the Electric Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act) that incentivized the research and development of new technologies that were not dependent on foreign fossil fuels to power a vehicle. This is when hybrid and electric vehicles came back to the scenario.  

    Then, in 1989, concerns about the environment started to rise and some research including the California Energy Commission (CEC) reports warned about the potential negative effects that California could be experiencing in the coming years due to Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG), effects that California is actually experiencing today. Among other things, emissions coming from the transportation sector, powered by fossil fuels, were directly linked to the causes of climate change.

    Fig 7. Simulation of temperature anomalies between 1959 and 2017. Source:  Axios

    Shortly after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) released the Zero-Emission Vehicle Program in 1990, which required that auto manufacturers had at least 2% of their vehicle fleet emissions free by 1998 and up to 10% by 2003.  General Electric took the lead in 1996 and released the first electric vehicle in many years, the futuristic EV1. This vehicle was capable of reaching 80mph and had a range of 70-100 miles.

    Fig8. The EV1. Source: Car and Driver

    Other initiatives such as the 1992 Energy Policy Act and later on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, confirmed the CEC statements for the need of a more sustainable technology for power generation and also for the transportation sector that would allow us to minimize GHG emissions before climate change devastating effects begin to occur.

    Ironically, due to economic pressures and personal interests from auto manufacturers, the EV1 and other similar releases at the time, were taken out of the market, even the CARB Zero-Emissions Program was adjusted.

    The truth is that the battery technology (working under nickel metal hydride) could still not compete with the internal combustion engine, and restructuring the entire transportation sector was not in the best economic interest of major traditional auto-manufacturers. The change had to come from a new player.

    The Holy Grail of Electric Vehicles: Lithium and Tesla

    Fig 9. Tesla Symbol. Source: ListCarBrands

    Considering everything mentioned before, it seemed that the electric vehicle industry was not actually able to get started again, that until two new players came into the scenario to change the tides forever.

    With the development of power electronics, a new raw material was being considered for the development of battery technology: lithium. Lithium-ion battery technology has a much better performance than its counterparts in terms of efficiency, energy density, and depth of discharge, which made it incredibly attractive for the development of battery-powered electric vehicles.

    The visionary who saw this opportunity first and materialize it in a way that would change the transportation industry forever was Elon Musk. After joining Tesla Motors in 2003, Elon Musk released the first modern commercial competitive, luxury and high quality electric vehicle in 2008: The Roadster. This full-electric vehicle was capable of running at 130 mph with a 4 second acceleration from 0 to 60 mph and had an autonomy of 200 miles. A total game changer.

    Fig 10. Tesla Roadster 2008. Source: Car and Driver

    Electric Vehicles: A Bright Future

    The rest as they say, is history. After the Tesla Roadster, more EVs began to flood the market including models like the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt, the Mercedes Benz A-Class E Cell, and others.

    Today, there are more than 250 electric vehicle models available across the world with over 17 million electric vehicles sold between 2012 and 2021. With nearly 6 million more expected to be sold for 2022 and up to 145 million electric vehicles expected to be on the roads by 2030.

    With this momentum, the future of electric vehicles seems bright and unstoppable. Unlike back in the 1900s, now we have the technology, the electrical infrastructure, the climate change awareness,  cheaper costs than ever, and especially government policies and incentives that are keeping the electric vehicle engine moving forward, this time forever.

    Electric Vehicles Timeline

    • 1839: FIRST ELECTRIC CARRIAGE – Robert Anderson launched the first-ever prototype of an electric carriage.
    • 1890: FIRST ELECTRIC CAR – Using a rechargeable lead acid battery. William Morrison built the first four-wheel electric car
    • 1908: PHILADELPHIA RACE – A race in Philadelphia was conducted to determine the best car model. The Studebaker won the race JJ against the gas vehicle by a 10-minute difference
    • 1912: MODEL T WAS RELEASED – Henry Ford released the Model T gas-powered car, establishing the dominance of fuel-powered vehicles for the next decades
    • 1989: CEC REPORT RELEASE! – The California Energy Commission releases a report warning about the potential negative effects of Climate Change on our planet
    • 1996: The EV 1 – General Electric releases its first electric vehicle model to the public—the EV 1.
    • 2008: THE TESLA ROADSTER – Testa Motors releases its first electric vehicle to the public. The EV revolution begins.
    • 2023: ELECTRIC VEHICLES ARE BACK! – Electric vehicles have positioned themselves as the new mobility option for the foreseeable future.

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