A Brief History of Electric Cars: What A Long, Electric Trip It Has Been

, Senior vehicles engineer | September 16, 2015, 9:29 am EDT
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This week, thousands of people across the U.S. are checking out the future of driving at National Drive Electric Week events. You can find events near you—and get a chance to ride in or drive an electric car—by checking the event website. The event has grown since the first Plug-in Day in 2011 as the number of electric models on sale has gone from 3 to about 20.

So how did we get here? Electric cars have seen big advances in the past five years, but the journey to today’s electric cars stretches back a century, and it’s a fascinating story. The details are laid out in the new book “Car Wars” by John Fialka, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the founder of ClimateWire.

Car Wars book jacketThe Early Electric Cars

In the early 1900s, both gasoline and electric cars shared the nascent automobile market. Ironically, one of the chief reasons that the gasoline car was able to win out over the early electrics was the invention of the electric starter motor. The starter motor eliminated one of the major drawbacks of the gasoline car: the need to start it with a hand crank at the front bumper (which could be tiring, messy, and downright dangerous). Gasoline cars were also cheaper; by about 1920, electric cars virtually disappeared from U.S. roads.

The “Cars of the Future” ?

From there, Car Wars picks up in late sixties, with a bet between MIT and Caltech. The challenge was to race across the country to each other’s campus using electric vehicles. From the West Coast, a VW Microbus loaded with lead-acid car battery headed east, while a Chevy Corvair loaded with state-of-the-art nickel-cadmium batteries set off from MIT. It took almost 9 days for the winner to arrive at MIT. Both teams struggled with technical problems that were bound to arise from pushing batteries and motors to their limits and beyond. However, they did show that electric cars could be the “car of the future”.

It took another race, this one in the late 80’s between solar-powered cars in Australia, to lead to commercial EVs on the road in the U.S. The winning “Sunraycer” entry eventually led to General Motors developing the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle from a major automotive company. While the demise of the EV1 has been documented elsewhere, Car Wars traces how the push for electric cars continued, both in the big car companies and through start-ups and inventors that birthed companies like Tesla. Throughout the book, Fialka does a nice job of both explaining the technologies responsible for the current EV revolution as well as the people and personalities involved.

EVs Are Here to Stay

There are almost as many setbacks as triumphs in the stories told in Car Wars. But by the end, it’s obvious that electrification is here to stay. Sales of EVs in the U.S. now total over 350,000 cars, electric vehicles are starting to make inroads in motorsports like the Formula E races, and research and development in EV technology is moving quicker now than at any other time. Check out your local Drive Electric Week event to see some of the winners from Car Wars yourself!


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  • neroden

    FWIW, the main reasons gas cars won out over electric in the 1920s were:
    (1) gasoline was a waste byproduct of kerosene refining, and as a waste byproduct was *extremely cheap*. Electricity was valuable and expensive.
    (2) Rural areas didn’t even *have* electricity — in the US they didn’t get electricity until FDR installed it as part of the New Deal.

    I read an almanac from 1910 which was trying to predict the future of transportation: it predicted steam cars in the countryside and electric cars in the city. (The downside of steam cars was that they had to heat up for an hour before you could use them!) Gasoline cars simply weren’t good enough to be more than a curiosity.

    Even with the electric starter, they wouldn’t have outcompeted electric cars if gasoline hadn’t been extraordinarily cheap.