I always thought electric vehicles (EV) were a fairly recent innovation – I could not have been more wrong! Who knew that the history of electric cars goes back over a hundred years? Not me, but I find that amazing! And if you didn’t know this either, please read on.
At TechFlow, we’re doing some innovative things with EVs and out of curiosity I did a little research to see where it all started. Looking back and marching forward, the rise, demise, and reincarnation of EVs today is truly fascinating. It all started with William Morrison, a chemist from Des Moines, Iowa, who developed the first successful U.S.-made electric car way back in 1890 – a six passenger electrified wagon with a top speed of 14 miles per hour! Over the next few years, EVs from a variety of manufacturers accounted for one third of all vehicles on the road – competing with steam engines, gas powered engines, and the horse & buggy. It’s interesting to note that currently, while on the rise, less than 1% of the cars, light-duty trucks, and SUVS in the U.S. are electric!
These early EVs were very popular in cities. They were quiet, easy to drive, and did not produce stinky exhaust like steam- or gas-powered vehicles. Women preferred these EVs and they were purchased for city driving. Road conditions at the turn of the century outside of the cities was not great – so cars were designed for short trips within the city.
It was interesting to learn that Ferdinand Porsche, who founded the Porsche AG, developed an electric car called the P1 back in 1898. At the same time, he also developed the world’s first hybrid electric car (powered by both electricity and a gas engine). Even Thomas Edison, who was inventing and innovating at a frantic pace, made the statement at the time that he thought electric cars were the real deal and worked to design a better EV battery. Henry Ford, who was friends with Edison, partnered with him to try to create a low-cost option for electric cars, in 1914.
But it was also Henry Ford, in 1908, with the Model T that caused the industry to shift from electric to gas. The Model T’s success at driving a lower cost by being produced on an assembly line made them highly available and was the death blow for the electric car. In 1912, a gas-powered car cost $650 while an electric car was close to $1800. Adjusting for inflation, that would make a gas-powered car cost $20K compared to $55K for an electric in today’s dollars – quite a difference for the average American. And in 1912, Charles Kettering developed the electric starter which eliminated the difficult hand crank and made gasoline-powered vehicles even more usable by a wider audience.
In the 1920s, U.S. roads and connections between cities became a national priority resulting in better roads and a public that wanted to get out and explore. The discovery of crude oil in Texas made gas cheaper and even more available which led to more gas stations popping up between cities. By the mid-1930s, EVs had pretty much disappeared. With gas being cheap and investments being directed to popular gas-powered vehicles, EV technology stagnated.
Jump 70 years to the early 1990s when California and environmental concerns once again raised interest in EVs for their green footprint. GM’s EV1 was an electrical vehicle designed to be electric from the ground up, but production costs and re-tooling were too expensive, and the car, despite having a cult following, was discontinued in 2001.
Behind the scenes, the federal government, led by the Department of Energy, continued to invest in EV technologies with a desire to free themselves from foreign oil needs. However, it was Toyota with the Prius, released worldwide in 2000, that truly launched renewed interest in electrical-powered vehicles. With rising gasoline prices, international power struggles over oil, Hollywood celebrity interest, and a growing concern over worldwide pollution, the Prius became the best-selling hybrid and established a cult-like following among owners.
Next enter Tesla, who in 2006 out of Silicon Valley, produced an electric sports car that could go more than 200 miles on a single charge and with it, interest in EVs was reincarnated.
Today, more than half of all new car buyers are looking at electric or hybrid vehicles. Gasoline prices are near record highs and don’t look to stabilize anytime soon. Battery and EV technology is innovating at an incredible pace. From rise, to demise, to rebirth – electric vehicles look to be here to stay! It took more than 100 years and a lot of external factors to prove Thomas Edison’s instinct about the technology right…but here we are!
I hope you enjoyed that little bit of history and innovation. Sometimes things just take the right mix of pushes with the right innovations to deliver the right solution!
At TechFlow, we are very interested in helping our nation develop the electric charging infrastructure necessary to keep up with the demand for EVs. With on-going projects at DoD, Federal Civil agencies, and in the commercial space, we are doing our part to support the evolution to EVs!