There are some things in the world that feel like they’ve been around forever – but when you actually dig down into it, you find they’re barely old enough to vote. Take airport security, for example. Today, a TSA patdown and a full-body scanner seems not just normal, but necessary before a flight. Ask anyone old enough to have traveled before 9/11, though, and they’ll tell you how they used to stroll up to the gate minutes before departure, carry on basically whatever they wanted with only a simple metal detector to walk through – they didn’t even need to show their ID to any TSA agents, since the TSA did not, in fact, exist.
On the other end of the scale are the things that feel super-modern, but are actually hundreds of years old. Things like super high-definition movies, and calling things “cool” to show your approval of them. And firmly in this second camp, you can find electric cars: not, as they’re often presented, the vehicle of the future, but one whose history stretches back almost 200 years – and something we’re only just coming back to.
The earliest version of what could arguably be called an “electric car” came in 1828 – and that’s not a typo. When Ányos Jedlik, the Hungarian physicist and Benedictine priest who invented one of the first electric motors, built his little model car around his creation, the UK was still in the Georgian era, Germany didn’t exist yet, and Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander, was still kicking about in New York’s East Village.
It was also around this time that a Scottish inventor, Robert Anderson, created an electric carriage that he could drive – but for various reasons, it would be another few decades before any practical electric vehicles made it to production.
In April 1881, in Paris, an engineer named Gustave Trouvé made history when he trundled down the street in his latest invention: the world’s first human-carrying electric vehicle with its own power source. It was made out of a Siemens electric motor attached to a tricycle, and it was powered by a relatively new and game-changing gadget – the rechargeable battery. Within the decade, the scene had exploded: electric cars were being developed in the UK, France, Germany, and, by 1891, the USA.
The first electric car in the US came out of Des Moines, Iowa, and like everything in America, it was bigger than its European rivals – it had six seats, and could reach a top speed of 22.5 kilometers per hour (14 miles per hour). It was hardly a sophisticated vehicle, but it was enough to inspire other auto makers in the country, and the industry flourished.
There was the Fritchle Electric Automobile: an early, fully electric car designed in Denver in the early 1900s that ran on a 28-cell, 180- to 270-kilogram (400- to 600-pound) battery pack. It must have been astonishing to those who saw it, driving along with an eight-horsepower motor for up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) on a single charge. In fact, in 1908, Oliver Fritchle himself made a 2,100-kilometer (1,300-mile) trip in one of the vehicles, driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City in a show of power to his competitors.
So electric cars had proven themselves on the road, but they had other advantages too: they were cleaner, quieter, and easier to drive than their gasoline counterparts. As the number of cities becoming electrified went up, they were increasingly easy to charge, too, adding to their convenience. It's no surprise they were popular, then – there were electric ambulances; New York and London were served by fleets of electric taxis; even the first ever speeding ticket was issued to a driver of an electric car – a man named Jacob German, who was clocked going at the heady speed of 19 km/h (12 mph) and chased down by a policeman on a bicycle.
And it wasn’t just scrappy inventors now lost to history who were pushing the vehicles: even Henry Ford and Thomas Edison got in on the act, announcing a team-up to create a cheaper electric car – a venture that was ultimately ill-fated – in the mid-1910s.
In the US in 1900, close to one in three new cars were powered by electricity – they were outselling, and the industry was worth more, than all other types of cars available. Today, fewer than one in 20 new cars are electric – even after a decade of exponential market growth.
Why did electric cars fall so far out of public favor? There are a few reasons. Ironically, their ease-of-use eventually worked against them, as they became seen as a feminine object – suitable for women going to see their friends, but not for a burly American man dreaming about conquering the wilderness.
But even more than that, the problem turned out to be one of power – and short-sightedness. Engineers – and drivers – found that liquid fuel simply gave out more energy per unit mass than a lead-acid battery could. Meanwhile, anybody outside of a city was unlikely to have access to electricity: any long journey in an electric car would prompt visions of getting stranded in some Podunk town with a flat battery and no way to recharge it.
Gasoline, on the other hand, was powerful and plentiful. The Texas Oil Boom was only just starting, and it must have seemed unthinkable that liquid petroleum could ever run dry. Gradually, the electric vehicle industry died out into near-extinction – while gas-powered cars took over the whole world.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, a century after their high point of popularity, that electric cars started seeing a resurgence in popularity. The world was just starting to wake up to the problem of climate change, and states were starting to bring in regulations around vehicle emissions. More importantly, the lithium-ion battery had been invented in 1985, and commercialized in 1991, and finally the heavy, bulky, and inefficient lead batteries that powered early electric vehicles could be upgraded.
In 1996, General Motors released the EV1 – the first modern electric car from a major auto company to be mass produced. Just a year later, Honda released the EV Plus, which was the first not to use lead-acid batteries. But it wasn’t until 2003, when engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning launched an electric sports car company named Tesla Motors, that things really took off.
“All the geniuses here at General Motors kept saying lithium-ion technology is 10 years away, and Toyota agreed with us – and boom, along comes Tesla,” Bob Lutz, the vice-chairman of G.M, told The New Yorker back in 2009, after the release of the Tesla Roadster, the world’s first higway-legal all-electric mass-produced car.
“I said, ‘How come some tiny little California startup, run by guys who know nothing about the car business can do this, and we can't?’” he recalled. “That was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam.”
From that point on, the industry went from strength to strength – you’d be hard-pressed to find a car manufacturer today that doesn’t offer an all-electric option. We ride in electric buses, we can fly in electric planes, and electric speedsters face each other in airborne drag races in the desert.
But as popular as electric vehicles are today, they’re still a long way from the wild popularity they enjoyed more than a century ago. In their heyday in the 1900s, you were nearly twice as likely to encounter an electric car in the wild than a gas-powered one. Today, less than one in one hundred cars on the road are electric.
But things are changing. Last month, California banned the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, and other states are poised to follow. Such measures will likely be crucial to meeting the Biden administration’s stated goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Five years from now, it should be as cheap to buy an electric car as a gas-fueled one, and there are some pretty novel solutions being put out there to make the eco option even greener.
So will e-vehicles ever be as popular as they once were? Only time will tell. But perhaps the real question is: given the environmental advantages of battery-powered vehicles over the now-standard fossil fuel versions – can we really afford for them not to be?
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.