Timeline: History of the Electric Car
Scottish inventor Robert Anderson invents the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.
American Thomas Davenport is credited with building the first practical electric vehicle — a small locomotive.
French physicist Gaston Planté invents the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery. In 1881, his countryman Camille Faure will improve the storage battery’s ability to supply current and invent the basic lead-acid battery used in automobiles.
William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa builds the first successful electric automobile in the United States.
A handful of different makes and models of electric cars are exhibited in Chicago.
The first electric taxis hit the streets of New York City early in the year. The Pope Manufacturing Company of Connecticut becomes the first large-scale American electric automobile manufacturer.
Believing that electricity will run autos in the future, Thomas Alva Edison begins his mission to create a long-lasting, powerful battery for commercial automobiles. Though his research yields some improvements to the alkaline battery, he ultimately abandons his quest a decade later.
The electric automobile is in its heyday. Of the 4,192 cars produced in the United States 28 percent are powered by electricity, and electric autos represent about one-third of all cars found on the roads of New York City, Boston, and Chicago.
Henry Ford introduces the mass-produced and gasoline-powered Model T, which will have a profound effect on the U.S. automobile market.
Charles Kettering invents the first practical electric automobile starter. Kettering’s invention makes gasoline-powered autos more alluring to consumers by eliminating the unwieldy hand crank starter and ultimately helps pave the way for the electric car’s demise.
During the 1920s the electric car ceases to be a viable commercial product. The electric car’s downfall is attributable to a number of factors, including the desire for longer distance vehicles, their lack of horsepower, and the ready availability of gasoline.
Congress introduces the earliest bills recommending use of electric vehicles as a means of reducing air pollution. A Gallup poll indicates that 33 million Americans are interested in electric vehicles.
Concerns about the soaring price of oil — peaking with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 — and a growing environmental movement result in renewed interests in electric cars from both consumers and producers.
Victor Wouk, the “Godfather of the Hybrid,” builds the first full-powered, full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark provided by General Motors (G.M.) for the 1970 Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. The Environmental Protection Association later kills the program in 1976.
Vanguard-Sebring’s CitiCar makes its debut at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Washington, D.C. The CitiCar has a top speed of over 30 mph and a reliable warm-weather range of 40 miles. By 1975 the company is the sixth largest automaker in the U.S. but is dissolved only a few years later.
The U.S. Postal Service purchases 350 electric delivery jeeps from AM General, a division of AMC, to be used in a test program.
Congress passes the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. The law is intended to spur the development of new technologies including improved batteries, motors, and other hybrid-electric components.
Roger Smith, CEO of G.M. , agrees to fund research efforts to build a practical consumer electric car. G.M. teams up with California’s AeroVironment to design what would become the EV1, which one employee called “the world’s most efficient production vehicle.” Some electric vehicle enthusiasts have speculated that the EV1 was never undertaken as a serious commercial venture by the large automaker.
California passes its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, which requires two percent of the state’s vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. The law is repeatedly weakened over the next decade to reduce the number of pure ZEVs it requires.
Toyota unveils the Prius — the world’s first commercially mass-produced and marketed hybrid car — in Japan. Nearly 18,000 units are sold during the first production year.
1997 – 2000
A few thousand all-electric cars (such as Honda’s EV Plus, G.M.’s EV1, Ford’s Ranger pickup EV, Nissan’s Altra EV, Chevy’s S-10 EV, and Toyota’s RAV4 EV) are produced by big car manufacturers, but most of them are available for lease only. All of the major automakers’ advanced all-electric production programs will be discontinued by the early 2000s.
G.M. and DaimlerChrysler sue the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to repeal the ZEV mandate first passed in 1990. The Bush Administration joins that suit.
G.M. announces that it will not renew leases on its EV1 cars saying it can no longer supply parts to repair the vehicles and that it plans to reclaim the cars by the end of 2004.
On February 16, electric vehicle enthusiasts begin a “Don’t Crush” vigil to stop G.M. from demolishing 78 impounded EV1s in Burbank, California. The vigil ends twenty-eight days later when G.M. removes the cars from the facility. In the film “Who Killed the Electric Car” G.M. spokesman Dave Barthmuss states that the EV1s are to be recycled, not just crushed.
Tesla Motors publicly unveils the ultra-sporty Tesla Roadster at the San Francisco International Auto Show in November. The first production Roadsters will be sold in 2008 with a base price listing of $98,950.
A Better Place charging spot A Better Place charging spot
The Israeli government announces its support for a sweeping project to promote the use of electric cars in Israel. The effort will be a joint venture between Better Place, a Palo Alto start-up founded by software maven Shai Agassi, and French automaker Renault-Nissan. Agassi’s plan is to create an extensive network of charging spots and to sell EV drivers mileage in their cars like minutes on a cell phone plan. The first Renault electric cars are scheduled to hit the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities in 2011. Better Place announces a host of partnerships to support electric vehicle projects in Denmark, Canada, Japan, Australia and the U.S.
Gas prices reach record highs of more than $4 a gallon and car sales drop to their lowest levels in a decade. American automakers begin to shift their production lines away from SUVs and other large vehicles toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Barack Obama says he will push to have one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on America’s roads by 2015.
Struggling to remain profitable during the economic downturn, executives from the Big Three American automakers go to Washington to make the case for a $25 billion Federal bailout of the U.S. automotive industry.
BYD, a Chinese battery manufacturer turned automaker, releases the F3DM, the world’s first mass produced plug-in hybrid compact sedan. Though they pack less energy than more conventional lithium ion batteries, BYD opts to power the F3DM with a more stable lithium iron phosphate battery. BYD plans to release the F3DM in the U.S. in 2011, but some industry insiders have doubts about whether the car is ready for the U.S. market. Though sales of the car remain sluggish, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway purchases a 10% stake in the company.
The National Bureau of Economic Research states officially that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007. The economic downturn is global in scope and will continue to exert financial pressures on the already battered U.S. auto industry.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocates $2 billion for development of electric vehicle batteries and related technologies. The Department of Energy adds another $400 million to fund building the infrastructure necessary to support plug-in electric vehicles.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces that the British government will promote the use of electric vehicles in the U.K. by offering a £2,000 subsidy to purchasers. A high-ranking government official estimates that 40% of all cars in Britain will need to be electric or hybrid for the country to reach it’s goal of cutting 80% of its CO2 emissions by 2050.
Chrysler files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As part of its restructuring, Chrysler forms a partnership with the Italian car maker Fiat.
President Obama announces a new gas-mileage policy that will require automakers to meet a minimum fuel-efficiency standard of 35.5 miles a gallon by 2016.
The Tesla Roadster The Tesla Roadster
The Department of Energy awards $8 billion in loans to Ford, Nissan, and Tesla Motors to support the development of fuel-efficient vehicles. The automaker loans are the first distributions from a larger $25 billion fund created under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
General Motors, the leading producer of automobiles for most of the 20th Century, files for bankruptcy protection. While strong GM brands such as Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC are slated to continue, smaller names like Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac will be sold or closed. The federal government will hold a 61 percent stake in the reborn General Motors.
Nissan unveils its new electric car, called the LEAF (“Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable, Family Car”). The LEAF is capable of a maximum speed of more than 90 mph, can travel 100 miles on a full charge, and has a battery that can be recharged to 80% of its capacity in 30 minutes. Similar to the Better Place initiative in Israel, Nissan plans to work with the Japanese government and private companies to set up charging station networks across several countries. The first production LEAFs are scheduled to go on sale in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. in the fall of 2010.
Though a few electric cars and plug-in hybrids are currently available on the market, several new models including the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt, and Mitsubishi i MiEV are scheduled to hit the streets in the near future. Toyota, creator of the popular Prius hybrid, has thus far declined to deliver a fully electric car.
Despite promising signs, the electric car will need to navigate a bumpy road before it can become a viable option for many drivers. Challenges to mass adoption include high sticker prices, limited battery life and travel range, and building charging stations and other infrastructure to support electric vehicles.
Sources: Hybridcars.com: History, Electric Auto Association: Electric Vehicle History, IEEE Power Engineering Society: “Electric Vehicles In The Early Years Of The Automobile” by Carl Sulzberger, About.com: The History of Electric Vehicles, Econogics: EV History, Smithsonian Institution: Edison After Forty, Who Killed the Electric Car?