We’ve all heard about some of these crazy new electric cars coming out: the new Tesla Roadster, the Audi e-tron, they’re even making a freakin’ electric Hummer! No, I’m not kidding! Plus, if you haven’t heard, it’s going to be illegal to sell new gas-powered cars in the state of California after 2035! And it’s not just those crazy Californians, the Netherlands will be doing the same by 2025, and Germany and India plan to do away with gas-powered cars by 2030!
I think by now it’s pretty obvious that the future of the automotive industry is going to be fully electric whether you like it or not. But, it might surprise you to know that electric cars aren’t really a new phenomenon. They’ve been around pretty much as long as the internal combustion engine, even back before Henry Ford made the Model T.
So, before we look to the future of electric cars, let’s take a blast to the past and go through a quick history of electric vehicles. This is the history of the electric car!
The Beginning – Anderson’s First Electric Car
The first-ever electric car, or really electric carriage, was built by Robert Anderson some time between 1832 and 1839. While the exact date when this first “horseless carriage” was built isn’t known, we do know some other stuff about it.
Anderson’s carriage worked by attaching a battery to a motor, just like our modern electrical cars. However, the batteries that he used were not rechargeable, which made Anderson’s model extremely impractical as an actual way of getting around town. You’d have to replace every single battery as soon as it ran out. It was more of a magic trick than a mode of transportation, just to make people ooh-and-aah at the fact that it was moving without being pulled by a horse.
Around the same time, the first electric locomotive was built in 1837. This caused a lot of hysteria among steam locomotive workers, who thought that it would cause them to lose their jobs, so they called it a “devil machine” and destroyed it. I guess they were right, though; all trains these days are powered on electricity, and you don’t see people shoveling coal anymore…
The Comeback, Kinda – Morrison’s Rechargeable Car
So, from there, internal combustion and steam-powered cars kind of took over the market, and have been the primary source of automotive power up to the present day. But, EVs never went away completely. Rechargeable batteries came around in 1859, which made electric cars a much more real possibility.
The first car built with these batteries was invented by William Morrison in 1888. It was front-wheel drive, had all of 4 horsepower, and could hit a whopping top speed of 20 miles per hour. Plus, you had to recharge it every 50 miles. Still, this electric carriage was all the rage at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and would inspire many inventors to build off his design.
Things Get Real – The Electrobat
The first actually usable electric vehicle was patented not long after in 1894 with a vehicle known as the Electrobat, which sounds like a Pokemon more than it does a car. But, I guess Pokemon wasn’t a thing back then.
Anyway, the Electrobat actually beat gas-powered automobiles in a series of 5-mile sprint races in 1896. Having proved that the Electrobat was a viable mode of transportation, its creators built fully-electric Hansom taxis and sold the technology to another man who incorporated the Electric Vehicle Company in New Jersey.
The EVC got some big investors and actually started running a fleet of 600 taxi cabs in New York City. They converted an ice rink to a battery recharging station so the Hansom cabs could pull up, swap out their batteries, and wheel away without having to wait for a recharge. Pretty ingenious if you ask me.
But, the USA wasn’t the only place dabbling in EVs. Let’s look at how the French played into this long history.
Speeding Up – The Never Satisfied
Moving abroad, Camille Jenatzy, a builder of electric cars near Paris, made some major waves in 1899 with his electric racecar. Its name was some combination of French words that I’m not going to try to say, but it translated to the “Never Satisfied”.
With two 25-kilowatt motors pumping out 67 horsepower, this was the first car to get going faster than 60 miles per hour. Yes, even before any gas-powered cars had broken that barrier. Talk all you want about the new Telsa Roadster or the Aspark Owl, this was the OG electric supercar killer.
It’s probably good that the Never Satisfied didn’t go any faster than 60, though, because it looks incredibly unsafe, and kind of like a cruise missile on wheels.
Big Brands Begin – Brands You Know
While Oldsmobile and Studebaker are definitely not names associated with EVs, and Porsche just started dabbling with the 2021 Taycan EV, all three of these names were involved in electric cars in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ransom Eli Olds built a run of electric carriages before he started producing his popular Oldsmobiles. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, whose son would go on to found the Porsche company we know and love today, built a one-off electric carriage in 1898 with a whole 5 horsepower. That’s not much compared to the 750 horses in the Taycan Turbo S, but give Grandpa Ferdinand a break; it was over 100 years ago.
Porsche also built the first-ever hybrid back two years later in 1900, called the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid, which had a slightly more respectable 10 to 14 horsepower. Studebaker also made a line of electric vehicles, and one of their 1902 models was owned by one Thomas Edison.
Edison also tried his hand at building an electric car of his own but decided that gasoline was more likely to be popular in the future. Good call, Tommy.
Ford Conquers the Market – Model T Domination
In 1908, Ford built the first combustion-powered Model T, and EVs just couldn’t compete anymore. While many rich people preferred electric cars because they were quiet and clean, electric cars just couldn’t compete with the price of the Model T. By 1923, the Model T was under $300, nearly 10 times cheaper than most electric cars of the time.
Interestingly enough, it was the invention of the electric starter that really put the nail in the coffin for EVs. Before that, gas-powered cars used an uncomfortable and annoying hand crank, but once the electric starter replaced that, gas cars dominated the market.
The Actual Comeback – Things Get Serious
Interest in electric vehicle technology never really went away. It always seemed like it was a possibility, but manufacturers kept running into new problems.
Take the 1966 Electrovair II, for instance. This was an attempt by Chevy to make an all-electric Corvair. So, what did they do? They shoved a 532-volt battery pack under the hood. Unfortunately, that battery pack made the car 800 pounds heavier, and it could only survive 100 recharge cycles. Want that battery pack replaced? That would’ve cost you $160,000. No thank you. They also tried to make an Electrovette several years later, which was based on the front-engine Chevette, but that flopped too.
In 1965, Ralph Nader basically suggested that General Electric was holding out on building a viable electric car because they were in cahoots with Big Oil. So, in 1967, GE built the Delta experimental electric car, perhaps the ugliest vehicle of all time. It could do 55 miles per hour and had a range of 40 miles, but it was clear that EV technology was still just not up to snuff.
More research was put into electric, however, when NASA contracted Boeing to create the Lunar Roving Modules for the Apollo missions. Boeing worked with GM on the project, which cost a total of $38 million dollars, and the module only traveled 17 miles on the Apollo 15 mission, and 22 miles on the Apollo 17 mission!
1974 saw the first production run of the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, which looked like a metal box on wheels, and came in response to the fuel crisis. Despite the fact that no self-respecting car enthusiast would be caught dead in one, they actually sold fairly well. In fact, while they were rolling out of the factories, Sebring-Vanguard actually became the #6 manufacturer in the USA! Unfortunately, or luckily, depending on how you look at it, the CitiCar faded out of popularity, and electric cars kind of fell off the map until the mid-90s.
California made a mandate in 1996 that all auto manufacturers had to sell a small percentage of vehicles that made no emissions, so GM used some of that NASA technology to develop the EV1. But, when California lifted that mandate shortly after, the car didn’t sell, and it proved to be a massive money pit for GM. The fact that it was ugly as sin probably didn’t help either.
It’s Tesla Time – The Revolution Has Begun
Before we look at the Tesla Roadster, there’s another roadster we need to bring up first: the 1997 AC Propulsion tzero. Alan Cocconi, the founder of AC Propulsion, was largely responsible for the technology behind GM’s EV1. But, he had bigger and better things in store. Powered by lead-acid batteries, the tzero made 201 horsepower.
And around that time, lithium-ion batteries were just gaining popularity in the consumer electronics space. As an experiment, Martin Eberhard, eventual co-founder of Tesla, commissioned a special tzero using lithium ion batteries, and the results were mind-blowing.
The result was a car that was even lighter and could go from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds, proving that EVs had the potential to be quick and fun. Using their lithium-ion tzero as a way to pitch the technology to Silicon Valley investors, Martin Eberhard and his partner Marc Tarpenning incorporated Tesla, and a whole bunch of investment capital in their company, most notably from one Elon Musk.
Tesla released the first generation Roadster in 2008, which was basically like the tzero with some Lotus Elise parts slapped onto it. This first-gen Roadster used three-phase four-pole AC induction motors and had a range of 200 miles. Tesla had finally made people believe that electric cars could really be a replacement for internal combustion, and sold 2,400 Roadsters over the four-year run of the first generation.
Before the Roadster was released, car companies were kind of just taking models they’d already engineered and converting them to electric power. Tesla was the first to come around and build cars that were meant to be exclusively electric, cool-looking, and fun to drive.
Since then, we’ve gotten some great offerings from Tesla like the Model S, Model X, and new Roadster. And other companies have followed suit, with ridiculous electric hypercars like the Nio EP9, Rimac C_Two, and Pininfarina Battista hitting the market!
Now, with new legislation pointing to the fact that electric cars might soon replace combustion engines entirely, it’ll be interesting to see how far carmakers are going to take it with electric vehicle technology.
The Future – What’s Next?
It seems pretty apparent that electric vehicles are the future. Since the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance was formed, they’ve made a noticeable shift toward EVs. Recently-formed Stellaris Group just disbanded SRT, creators of gas-guzzling beasts like the Hellcat Redeye, which shows they’ll probably be focusing more on EVs, and the governor of California just signed an order banning the sale of gas-powered cars after 2035.
Yes, you will still be allowed to drive gas-powered cars after that year, and you can still sell them on the used market. But, from the signs that automotive manufacturers are giving us, as well as the way the government’s leaning, the future looks electric for sure.