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History of the Electric Car

By • Aug 10th, 2009 • Category: Clean Car Talk Posts

Amidst all this excitement about bailout money, new clean diesel, hybrid and electric cars announcements, joint ventures and collaborations, and battery development progress, I though we’d take a brief look at the history of the electric car. We may learn something from it.

EdisonElectricCar1913 History of the Electric CarAn electric car is a vehicle that uses electric motors for propulsion. It needs electricity to operate instead of an internal combustion engine, or ICE, that runs on fossil fuel such as diesel or gasoline. Despite its long history, electric cars never took off in popularity. Fossil fuels have always been cheap enough so there was no reason to look at alternatives. While the electric car (or its concept) has always been a part of the transportation landscape all along, recent momentum for more efficient energy use and better environmental impact has allow the electric car to quickly become prominent as the search for alternative fuel vehicles plays a more dominant role in the car industry.

Electricity that powers an electric car comes mainly from onboard sources such as a rechargeable energy storage system or battery packs. The energy storage system

  1. can be charged externally by plugging the vehicle into a power source when not in operation, or
  2. it can be charged while the car is in operation via a small engine.

The former is thus called the electric car, or plug-in electric car (among other variations,) and the latter is what we know today as the gasoline-hybrid, diesel-hybrid, or fuel-cell hybrid depending on the fuel source of the ICE. Collectively they are just called hybrid cars or hybrids for convenience.

Electric Cars – the Early Years

Electric cars have been around since the 1830s, dating back to a time even before diesel and gasoline engines were created. Although the exact year is not known, records show that the first electric carriage was created between 1832 and 1839 by Robert Anderson, a Scottish businessman. In 1835, the first electric car was created by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh from the Netherlands. When the 1840s rolled along, two significant contributors, Thomas Davenport and Robert Davidson, invented more advanced electric vehicles using non-rechargeable electric cells.

It took quite some time for this development to be followed. It was only in 1865 that Frenchman Gaston Plante came up with a better storage technology for electric energy. The technology that Plante pioneered made a significant contribution to the flourishing of electric cars. By 1867, a two-wheel cycle created by Franz Kravogl from Austria that used this specific technology was displayed at a Paris World Exhibition showcase. This technology was later on refined by another Frenchman, Camille Faure, several years later in 1881.

In the same year, Gustave Trouve, a French inventor, also revealed a three-wheeled car that ran on electricity at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris. Thanks to the support of France and Great Britain, widespread development of electric cars became possible. It was only later on, around 1891, that the Americans paid attention to the electric cars following the creation of an electric wagon that can hold six people by William Morrison and A. L. Ryker.

The Growth of Electric Cars

During their heyday, electric cars performed rather well in terms of speed, distance, and overall performance. In fact, in 1899, Camille Jenatzy was able to go up to 62 miles per hour (mph) or 100 km/h in an electric car called Jamais Contente, which can even go as fast as 66 mph (105.88 km/h) at maximum speed. Due to the great potential of electric cars in the market, the vehicles increased in number steadily through the early 1900s. By 1897, electric taxis were roaming the New York City streets.

Even with the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles in the picture, the electric cars progressed continuously. For a time, the electric cars sold more than the gas-based cars. The electric cars were warmly embraced by the upper class market and mostly in urban areas where light city driving is the norm. The easy to use nature of these vehicles also made them highly ideal for women drivers. However, due to the various limitations of the early electric cars, especially the limited speed, the electric cars could not prove its usefulness as driver demands continued.

Overall, the automotive industry was very much alive, and soon there came steam- and gasoline-powered vehicles in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Electric cars were found to be greatly advantageous over the other types of vehicles in the market because they produced no vibration, no noise, and no smell. They were also easy to use and to maintain unlike gas-powered cars that required gear shifting and steam cars that required longer start-up time and had less range. But since the electric cars were mostly sold to the upper classes, some of the vehicles featured luxurious and ornate carriages and very extravagant materials. All the way until the 1920s, the electric cars enjoyed great popularity.

Early 20th Century Decline of Electric Cars

The electric cars soon met their downfall, brought about by several factors. As more roads were developed, long distance travel became widespread, and the electric cars, which had limited range, could not match up to the needs of the new age. At around the same time, the Texas crude oil was discovered, and gasoline prices significantly fell, making gas-powered vehicles easily within reach of regular consumers. The gas-powered vehicles also received several various improvements (including the invention of the electric starter for automobile by Charles Kettering in 1912) that made them almost as easy to use as the electric cars. Gone were the days of hand-cranking the engine just to be able to drive somewhere.

Soon enough, the demand for ICE, or internal combustion engine, vehicles rose at such a rate that car companies started mass-producing the vehicles to answer to this growing demand. Led by Henry Ford, consumers welcomed several ICE vehicles into the market, and these vehicles were just more affordable and practical than the electric cars.

Despite its fate, the electric cars did not fade into oblivion. They were still used in special cases where the range is expectedly limited. However, when the 1930s came, the electric cars have all but disappeared and cease to be a viable commercial product.

Modern Revival of Electric Cars

It wasn’t until 1966 that U.S. Congress introduced a bill recommending electric cars as solutions to reduce air pollution What followed were a period of hits and misses that included various congressional laws and mandates, car industry attempts at making electric cars viable for consumers, and fleet operators trying out several electric car options in test programs. None proved successful enough as electric cars struggled against yet-ready electric drive technologies, fossil-fuel conglomerates including fuel producers and unwilling car manufacturers, and the general political environment that did not see strong values in electric cars.

In the early 1990s, California passed its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate that required two percent of the state’s vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. But the law did not hold its mandate and became weaker over the years with lower and lower number of ZEVs it required.

nissan leaf History of the Electric Car

During this time frame, a few thousand electric cars were made available from various manufacturers. There were the Chrysler TEVan, the GM EV1, the GM S10 EV, the Honda EV Plus hatchback car, the Ford Ranger EV, the Toyota Rav4 EV, and the Nissan Altra EV. The Toyota Prius sold nearly 18,000 units during its first production year in 1997. Despite this, the car makers did not strongly market the electric cars. The mandate was eventually revoked, faced by the protests of major oil companies, and most electric cars released were recalled and destroyed except for some Toyota Rav4 EV models that still circulated in the used market.

This brings us to the present day.

The Prius is now in its third generation after 12 years on the market; undeniably a great achievement! The Prius now has a true and serious competitor in the Honda Insight 2010. Other hybrid, electric and clean diesel cars by both new and existing carmakers have been announced to hit the market in the next several years. We may now have the perfect environmental, financial, political and technical conditions to truly foster an explosive growth of electric cars.


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is a marketing communications consultant working in the San Diego area. Cuong is dedicated to helping individuals and companies maximize their presence on the Internet and efficiently take products and services to market through SEO and network marketing. Cuong also maintains a blog on Marketing at You can also find Cuong Huynh's profile on LinkedIn. For fun he maintains a blog on Vietnamese pho, soccer and do storyboards for movie and film projects. Follow Cuong on Twitter @CuongHuynh, @LovingPho, @CleanCarTalk, @BlockbusterFilm, @SoccerUSA.
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