How the First Electric Cars Shaped Modern Transportation

Remember this car? The EV1 electric car was produced by General Motors in the late 1990s. GM miscalculated the market and abandoned the car. Photo by RightBrainPhotography (Rick Bowen)
Remember this car? The EV1 electric car was produced by General Motors in the late 1990s. GM miscalculated the market and abandoned the car, despite good press reviews and favorable feedback from lessees.

Did you know that the first electric cars have been around since the early 1800s? Or that people preferred them to gasoline-powered vehicles in the early 20th century? So what happened between then and the advent of today’s advanced electric cars, like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S? And could we have been even further along if policy folks and car makers had gone about things differently?

In this article, we’ll take a brief look at some of the progress to date in the development of how the first electric cars shaped transportation today.

By almost anybody’s account, most of today’s electric cars aren’t quite where they need to be to foster widespread adoption. Some critics, often those with a vested interest in supporting the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, say electric technology will never be ready for prime time. But what the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd overlooks is how far electric passenger vehicle technology has advanced in just a few short years, and how rapidly it will continue to progress.

Early Electric Cars

Depending on what you consider a “car” the first electric cars had many inventors and was not so much born as it was evolved. As early as 1828, Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik built a model car powered by an electric motor; bigger and more powerful designs from subsequent inventors soon followed.

By 1900, when horse-drawn carriages still freely plied (and polluted) city streets, electric cars were seen as a godsend by those who could afford them. Unlike horses or gasoline-powered cars, they didn’t stink up the place. They also didn’t call for the difficult and dangerous hand-cranking procedure required to start gasoline engines of the era.

The beginning of electric cars’ disappearance from the market began in 1912, with, ironically, the invention of an electric device. Charles Kettering’s electric starter motor, used on gasoline engines, eliminated the need to crank the fossil fueled beasts by hand. With the petroleum-powered cars’ greater speed and range, plus the heavyweight machinations of companies like General Motors and Ford Motor Co., electrics were edged from the mainstream automotive scene within a couple decades.

 

Late 20th Century Electrics

While the internal combustion engine was benefiting from decades of dedicated development and infrastructure building, electric vehicle technology saw mere fits and bursts of attention.

Electrics found themselves the objects of experiments and design exercises throughout the mid- to late-20th century, but not as mass-produced competitors to fossil-powered transportation.  Despite the energy crisis of the 1970s, leading nations like the United State lacked the political will to implement electric vehicles on any meaningful scale. Electrics did find refuge in niche applications  like warehousing equipment, golf carts, and non-freeway transports called neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs).

In the United States, things took an interesting turn in the 1990s, when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) put in place a mandate for low and zero-emissions vehicles. The tough standards required certain manufacturers to offer vehicles that produced no tailpipe emissions – by technological default, that almost certainly meant electric vehicles. Not wanting to be left out the large California car market, big and notable manufacturers complied (they also sued to have the mandate struck down).

Another view of GM's ill-fated EV1. Photo by RightBrainPhotography (Rick Bowen)
Another view of GM’s ill-fated EV1.

Reluctantly, Ford and GM converted some existing vehicles in their line-ups to run on electric batteries. And infamously, GM produced between 1996 and 1999 the EV1, a sleek, decently performing electric that was offered to a select couple thousand drivers in Arizona and California under a closed-end lease. That meant that even well-heeled Hollywood actors could not buy the cars outright, even though they wanted to. GM wound up crushing most of the EV1 inventory and disabling others. For an entertaining and shocking account of how electric vehicles were suppressed from the market in the 1990s and shortly thereafter, it’s worth checking out the movie Who Killed the Electric Car?

 

Modern EVs

Entering the 2000s, mainstream automakers trudged through an extreme innovation slump. Intoxicated by profits from SUVs and large trucks, the pre-Recession “Big Three” Detroit firms saw little need and little feasibility for developing electric cars.

Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, thought differently and founded Tesla Motors. By 2008, the Tesla Roadster sports car had proven the big guys wrong on many fronts. Mass-produced electric cars were feasible and could be made desirable. Later models such as the Tesla Models S and X (to be released in 2014) proved to be every bit as capable, and even superior, to fossil fuel cars.

The Tesla Model X is an all-electric, high-performance SUV scheduled for release in 2014. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors
The Tesla Model X is an all-electric, high-performance SUV scheduled for release in 2014.

Bob Lutz, a veteran GM executive and longtime critic of alternative fuel vehicles, became the person who spearheaded development of GM’s Chevrolet Volt. The rampant computerization of cars made possible a fine-tuning of battery management and driver interface information, the likes of which earlier car builders could only dream.

GM redeemed itself, in a fashion, by building the Chevrolet Volt, which is classified as an "extended-range electric vehicle." The about-face on electrics came only after a back-breaking recession sent SUV sales over a cliff. Photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz
GM redeemed itself, in a fashion, by building the Chevrolet Volt, which is classified as an “extended-range electric vehicle.” The about-face on electrics came only after a back-breaking recession sent SUV sales over a cliff.

So do these latest designs represent the permanent pinnacle of achievement for electric cars? Not by a long shot. Technologies still in the lab promise to make electrics safer, farther-ranging, and more convenient than ever. In the meantime, we can show support for this cleaner way of getting around by choosing electric cars, demanding more of them be built, and appreciating just how far we’ve come.

  • Newton

    Considering that our nation has relied on one basic engine technology and one fuel for more than a century, the switch to electric-drive vehicles may feel more like evolution than a revolution—but it is high time we face the challenges of climate change and America’s oil dependence by moving our transportation system into the twenty-first century.