The History of EVs: A Future Paved From Past Ideas

Winds of Change: 1912-1920

It was the beginning of the 20th century and the second wave of the Industrial Revolution was taking place in the United States. Changes in traditional thinking lead to disruptive innovations altering the course of history. Advancements in vehicle manufacturing would fuel the disruption caused by the automobile while forever changing the world’s concept of mobility.

In 1912, Henry Ford’s manufacturing genius brought about affordably priced automobiles with the introduction of his $650 ($15,875.49 in 2017) Model T. A Model T Ford was a significant savings compared to its electric counterparts priced upward of $1,750 ($14,741.69 in 2017).  Also in 1912, the electric starter was introduced eliminating the need for a hand-crank when starting your vehicle. The combination of innovation and price made the automobile available to the common man and would eventually lead to mass adoption of gas powered vehicles.

By 1920, the road infrastructure had improved in the U.S allowing vehicles to travel further and achieve  greater ranges than offered by EVs. 1921 brought about the Federal Highway Act permitting state governments to receive 50% road funding from the Federal government if they could raise the matching funds (50%) themselves (FHA, 1996). The Federal Highway Act served as the momentum needed to build an interstate system connecting people and places across the nation.

Early 20th century crude oil discoveries in Texas made fuel more affordable, reaffirming gas powered vehicles as the cost effective choice of long distance drivers. Petroleum filling stations soon began popping up across the country making gasoline readily available, especially for rural Americans. Increased speed and range would soon became important criteria when choosing a vehicle- these were not strong attributes for electric vehicles which offered speeds of 15–20 mph with a range of 30–40 miles per charge limiting EVS to a life of urban driving (DOE, 2014).

A limited power grid to charge electric vehicles, paired with the use of mufflers, electric starters, and powering steering on gas powered cars further pushed electric vehicles into obsolescence. By 1935, electric vehicles were passed up and forgotten due to innovations in their gas powered competitors. The next 30 years would become the “dark ages”  for EVs in which electric automobiles would be nothing more than a memory of days gone by.

A New Hope: 1960-1990

For nearly 30 years EVs were out of sight and out of mind; however, the late 1960s and early 1970s brought a revival of EVs prompted by air pollution and oil shortage concerns (DOE, 2014).

The 1960s ushered in a new battery technology as sintered plate nickel-cadmium batteries were now recognized for their lightweight and rapid charge abilities, contrary to traditional lead-acid batteries. Further breakthroughs in 1960’s battery technology lead to research and development of lithium-ion technology as an alternative (or replacement) for traditional battery power sources (Clean Technica, 2015).

The 1970s began as a decade of promise for EVs when NASA’s (battery electric) Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon in 1971 (DOE, 2014). The Lunar Rover strengthened the reputation and furthered the cause of electric vehicles giving a much needed boost into a new era of mobility.

In 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo (OPEC) caused oil price surges and gasoline shortages sparking a growing interest in lowering the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil. In response, congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976, giving the Energy Department authority to support research and development efforts toward the advancement of electric and hybrid vehicles (EAA, 2016). Also at this time, automakers such as General Motors (GM), Ford, Nissan, AMC, and Toyota began exploring alternative fuel options- electric power being one of them.

Even with the new found attention EVs received, electric automobiles developed and produced in the 1970s still suffered limited performance of 45 miles per hour and a 40 mile range per charge (DOE, 2014). However, this renaissance was not a reflection of the past as the new millennium was to spark a renewed interest in electric autos.

 In 1988, Roger Smith, CEO of GM agreed to fund research efforts geared towards building a practical consumer electric car. GM and various partners would later come together to design the EV1, an electrical car that was practical as it was promising (DOE, 2014). Only time would tell if the renewed vision for the electrical car would shape its place in history or prove to be another valiant attempt.

For more on EVs, be sure to like us on Facebook to get the most up to date news and happenings. Check back soon for part 4 of our History of EV series covering the technological breakthroughs of the 90’s and the continuous race to build an electric car for everyone.


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