The evolution of the electric car

The idea of the electric car has finally reached maturity, with electricity becoming a feasible way of getting around. The Tesla Model S has become a pretty common sight around many large American cities, and has received heaps of praise from the automotive press for its blistering speed, autonomous features, and usable range. Other manufacturers have also released more accessible electric cars, like the Chevy Bolt with a 200-mile range, and the more city-focused Volkswagen e-Golf with an 80-mile range. It may seem like the future is on our doorstep with the plethora of clean and renewable transportation now available.

Electric Car 1991_mwmbwls
Electric Car 1911

What you may not realize is that the idea of the electric car is much older than you think. In fact, the idea of electrically powered transportation actually predates the idea of a car powered by a gasoline engine. Automotive companies around the world started to look into electric transportation as early as the 1880s, with France and the United Kingdom promoting their widespread use. Early electric cars enjoyed many advantages over their gasoline- and steam-powered competitors, with much easier starting systems, no unpleasant noise or fumes, and the wide availability of power due to an ever-spreading power grid.

Chevy Bolt_Dave Pinter
Chevy Bolt

This popularity declined sharply after 1910 as people the world over discovered that petroleum was both widespread and easily accessible. At the same time the expansion of national road networks in the 1920s meant that people wanted a vehicle with a greater range than an electric car could provide. Electric car companies went bust left and right, as gas-powered cars gained popularity after the electric starter and muffler were invented and Ford’s mass production revolution decreased prices. Companies continued to experiment with electric cars until the 1990s, but nothing could be made affordable or practical enough to compete with the gasoline motor, even during the 1973 Oil Crisis.

96 General Motors EV1
General Motors EV1

The idea of the electric vehicle picked up again in the 1990s after the California Air Resources Board mandated that fuel-efficient, clean automobiles become widespread. Automakers that wanted to sell cars in California were forced to meet arbitrarily high average mpg requirements across their range, so they came up with basic electric vehicles that were only sold in California to bring that average down. Most of these cars were just conversions of cars the companies already made, like the Ford Ranger EV and Toyota RAV4 EV, and many were only sold to fleets. GM, on the other hand came out with the EV1, a revolutionary electric car that was famously sold through closed-end leases and returned to GM to be destroyed.

For the most part, people weren’t that interested in the more expensive and less practical electric vehicles, so it merely cost the companies a lot of money. Several automakers joined together and sued California over the regulations, and eventually they were cut back significantly. This caused the electric car market to die again.

Telsa Roadster_Lummi Photography
Tesla Roadster

It wouldn’t be dead for long, though. Throughout the 2000s, the price of oil climbed steadily due to geopolitics and natural disasters, peaking in 2008. Consumers who had grown used to driving large, gas-thirsty SUVs found themselves increasingly unable to afford to fill their vehicles up. At this point, Toyota introduced the second generation of their Prius hybrid (the first generation was essentially a bare-bones Toyota Echo with a very expensive hybrid system, so very few people bought them). The market was in Toyota’s favor and people bought the Prius in droves, both to save gas and to show how much they cared for the environment. Other automakers saw the market demand for the Prius, so they raced to get their own hybrids on dealer lots.

Tesla Model S Charging
Tesla Model S Charging

Advances in battery technology eventually allowed Tesla to release their Roadster in 2008 — essentially a Lotus Elise with batteries and electric motors. It was still hampered in range, but it proved that an electric car that could compete with a modern gas-powered car. The success of the roadster pushed other companies into developing their own electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. In 2012, Tesla released the Model S luxury car, which had a 200-mile range and was a widespread success. The range of the Model S, along with a nationwide infrastructure of charging stations, was enough for consumers to buy into the idea of an electric car, and it has largely caused the concept to stick. The Model S remains king of the electric car world, but many companies now have their eyes on conquering this new market.

One thing is for sure: the next ten years will be an interesting time for the electric car.


Photos by: mwmbwlsDave Pinter, Greg GjerdingenLummi Photography, Jeff Cooper

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *