Despite popular belief, the inception of the electric car dates back to the 19th century. In fact, EVs reached their prime at 33% of all vehicles on the road before World War I. However, after the mass adoption of the internal combustion engine car, gasoline-powered car sales spiked.
It then wasn’t until the 1990s when mass-produced EVs made a comeback. From there on out, electric cars began to materialize into what they’re known as today.
Late 1800’s and Early 1900s
In the late 1800s, electric car brands such as Baker Motor Vehicles and Detriot Electric were the leading players. In this timeframe, consumers found EVs as more compelling options to internal combustion vehicles in cities due to the lack of a noxious exhaust and a far easier driving experience. These early EVs used lead-acid batteries, and the majority of charging was done at home.
However, once gasoline-powered cars became more mainstream, specifically with Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, gasoline cars could easily undercut the price of electric vehicles. For the next several decades, EVs were as obscure as the artist behind Somebody That I Used to Know.
After nationwide gasoline shortages and the formation of then-governor Reagan’s California Air Resource Board (CARB), a spark for the redevelopment of electric cars ignited.
In the 1990s, GM released the well-known EV1 electric coupe as a lease-only option. Early EV1s used a 137 horsepower induction motor and an 18.7kWh lead-acid pack providing around eighty miles of range, according to the EPA. Eighty miles was decent, but lead-acid batteries come with significant drawbacks, specifically regarding their memory effect.
Later models were produced with a 26.4kWh NiMH pack, delivering over 140 miles on a single charge. Even with the larger battery, the EV1 still weighed less than 3,000 lbs, giving it a higher power-to-weight ratio than a 2nd Generation Chevrolet Volt.
While the EV1 was the most prominent, other vehicles spawned due to increased pressure from CARB. Some interesting examples include the Ford Ranger EV, Toyota RAV4 EV, and the Nissan Altra, the first electric car to use a lithium-ion battery pack.
While many of these vehicles were revolutionary for their time, they were short-lived. After a judiciary rollback of CARB’s requirements, automakers decided to stop manufacturing their EVs due to significant costs in the manufacturing domain.
2000s and 2010s
When the legacy automakers relocated assets away from the EV phase, a small Silicon Valley startup was just getting started. In 2008, Tesla released the first 200+ mile EV called the “Roadster.” Tesla’s Roadster cost just under $100,000 and could accelerate to sixty in about four seconds. Unlike nearly every electric car prior, the Roadster was sporty, fast, and cool.
Two years later, Nissan began delivering the Nissan Leaf, another revolutionary electric car at the time. While the Leaf was not exactly as “cool” as a Tesla, it was an incredibly practical daily driver. It cost just over $25,000 with the federal tax credit and could travel 73 miles.
In December 2016, Chevrolet began deliveries of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the first affordable long-range electric car. The Bolt EV only cost $30,000, including the federal tax credit, but, more importantly, it could go 238 miles on a single charge.
The same year, Tesla unveiled the Model 3 compact sedan, which released to the public one year later. The Model 3 had a target price of $35,000. Tesla briefly introduced the $35,000 variant as a special order variant in 2019. Regardless, top trim models can easily go 300+ miles and have truly remarkable performance figures. Despite Tesla’s pricing shenanigans, the Model 3 easily became the best-selling new electric car of the 2010s, only to be succeeded by the Model Y.
2020 and Beyond
If there is anything to be learned about the progress of the electric car revolution, it’s that the technology is evolving so incredibly rapidly. Ten years ago, $35,000 would get you a decently optioned out Nissan Leaf - a car with around 73 miles of range and 107 horsepower. Today, you could order a Chevrolet Bolt EUV with 247 miles of range and 200 horsepower for the same sticker price.
2020 and 2021 have proven themselves to be two highly pivotal years for the adoption of electric vehicles. In this timeframe, Tesla brought out the Model Y, Ford the Mach-e, and Volkswagen the ID.4. All of these vehicles provide over 200 miles of range, and some of which, like the Model Y, can go north of 330. These OEMs made massive strides to advance electric vehicles as these were some of the first highly desirable mainstream electric crossovers built from the ground up.
The industry’s competition is leading to more and more options, and this is only the beginning.