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Electric Vehicle History

In the late 1890s electric vehicles (EVs) outsold gasoline cars ten to one. EVs dominated the roads and dealer showrooms. Some automobile companies, like Oldsmobile and Studebaker actually started out as successful EV companies, only later did they transition to gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, the first car dealerships were exclusively for EVs.

Early production of EVs, like all cars, was accomplished by hand assembly. In 1910, volume production of gasoline powered cars was achieved with the motorized assembly line. This breakthrough manufacturing process killed off all but the most well-financed car builders. Independents, unable to buy components in volume died off. The infrastructure for electricity was almost non-existent outside of city boundaries – limiting EVs to city-only travel.
Another contributing factor to the decline of EVs was the addition of an electric motor (called the starter) to gasoline powered cars – finally removing the need for the difficult and dangerous crank to start the engine. Due to these factors, by the end of World War I, production of electric cars stopped and EVs became niche vehicles – serving as taxis, trucks, delivery vans, and freight handlers.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a rebirth of EVs prompted by concerns about air pollution and the OPEC oil embargo. In the early 1990s, a few major automakers resumed production of EVs – prompted by California 's landmark Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. Those EVs were produced in very low volumes – essentially hand-built like their early predecessors. However, as this mandate began to weaken over the years, the automakers stopped making EVs – Toyota was the last major automaker to stop EV production in 2003. Thanks to the efforts by some of these production EVs were saved from the crusher.

Sources: EAA historical archives, "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History”, David A. Kirsch. "The Lost Cord: The Story Tellers History of the Electric Car”, Barbara E. Taylor. "Taken For a Ride”, Jack Doyle.

Electric Vehicle Timeline

1834: Thomas Davenport invents the battery electric car. Or possibly Robert Anderson of Scotland (between 1832 and 1839). Using non-rechargable batteries. Electric vehicles would hold all vehicle land speed records until about 1900.

1859: Gaston Plante invented rechargeable lead-acid batteries.

1889: Thomas Edison built an EV using nickel-alkaline batteries.

1895: First auto race in America , won by an EV.

1896: First car dealer – sells only EVs.

1897: First vehicle with power steering – an EV. Electric self-starters 20 years before appearing in gas-powered cars.

1898: NYC blizzard, only EVs were capable of transport on the roads. First woman to buy a car – it was an EV.

"System Lohner-Porsche" created as first gas-electric hybrid, displayed two years later at the Paris Exhibition. First delivered with a 44-cell 80-volt lead-acid battery, four electric motors on pneumatic tires, later as a less expensive two motor model. Over 300 Lohner-Porsche vehicles were sold through 1906. The Lohner-Porsche's design was studied by Boeing and NASA to create the Apollo program's Lunar Roving Vehicle. His series hybrid concept underpins many modern railway locomotives.

1899: Pope Manufacturing Company forms the Electric Vehicle Company, the first large-scale operation in the US automobile industry.

1900: NYC's huge pollution problem – horses. 2.5 million pounds of manure, 60,000 gallons of urine daily on the streets; 15,000 dead horses removed from the streets each year. All US cars produced: 33% steam cars, 33% EV, and 33% gasoline cars. Poll at the National Automobile Show in NYC showed people's first choice for automobiles was electric followed closely by steam.

1901: Oldsmobile EV (Walt Disney's). William McKinley, 25th US President, takes his final ride in an electric ambulance.

1903: First speeding ticket – it was earned in an EV. Krieger company makes a hybrid vehicle — using a gasoline engine to supplement a battery pack.

1904: America has only 7% of the 2 million miles of roads better than dirt – only 141 miles, or less than one mile in 10,000 was "paved”. Here's a 1904 Curved Dash Olds (replica). Henry Ford begins assembly line production of low-priced gas-powered vehicles.

1908: Henry Ford buys his wife, Clara Ford, an EV. Many socialites of that time gave this rousing endorsement for EVs, "It never fails me.”

1910: Motorized assembly produces gas-powered cars in volume; reducing cost per vehicle.

1912: 38,842 EVs on the road. Horse drawn "tankers” deliver gasoline to gas stations. EVs perform well in snow.

1913: Ford creates experimental EVs [1, 2] . Self starter for gas cars (10 years later for the Model-T).

1915: The Detroit Electric Automobile.

1921: Federal Highway Act. By 1922, federal match (50%) for highway construction and repair (for mail delivery). Before this, roads were considered only "feeders” to railroads, and left to the local jurisdiction to fund.

1956: National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Funded 90% by states, and 90% by the federal government.

1957: Sputnik is launched. The US space program initiates advanced battery R&D.

1966: Gallup poll: 36 million really interested in EVs. At the time EVs had a top speed of 40 mph, and typical range less than 50 miles.

1967: Walter Laski founds the Electric Auto Association.

1968-1978: Congress passes more regulatory statues than ever before due to health risks associated with cars: collisions, dirty air.

1972: First Annual EAA EV rally.

1974: CitiCar debut at Electric Vehicle Symposium in Washington , DC. Full production also ramps up. By 1975, Vanguard-Sebring, maker of the CitiCar is the 6th largest auto maker in the US. EAA member Roger Hedlund sets first world speed record for EVs at Bonneville Salt Flats.

1976: EAA members assist US Congress in creating the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976.

1977: EAA member Frank Willey developed a transistorized speed controller and earned the IEEE Outstanding Engineering Award. First named the Willey-9 controller, later became the Curtis 1221C.

1983: A fleet of EVs drove from San Jose, CA to San Francisco, CA, 100 mile round trip, on a single charge.

1985: Saied Motai drove 230 miles on a single charge.

1990: California establishes the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate; requires 2% of vehicles to be ZEVs by 1998, 10% ZEVs by 2003. GM shows their production EV initially named, Impact; later it was re-named the EV-1. (US government spent $194 million on all energy efficient research. Much less than the $1 billion for a single day of Desert Storm, or the $1 billion per week of 2003 Iraq conflict.)

1991: First Phoenix Solar and Electric 500 race.

1992: EAA supports California $1,000 tax credit for EVs.

1993: EAA member Bob Schneeveis races over 100 mph in a custom-built electric car named "Snow White". The EAA's EV Showcase exhibit is featured at WESCON Electronics Trade Show in San Francisco. GM estimated that it would take 3 months to collect names of 5,000 people interested in the EV-1 – it only took one week!

1994: Twelve additional states adopt the California ZEV mandates. The GM Impact EV (later to be named the EV-1) sets a 187 mph speed record.

1995: Renaissance Cars, Inc begins production of the Tropica.

1996: EAA helps to hatch CALSTART incubator (for EV research) in Alameda , CA. Solectria Sunrise breaks the 300 mile range at the NESEA Tour de Sol. GM begins production of the EV-1 (formerly called the Impact).

1997: Toyota Prius hybrid gas-electric vehicle unveiled at the Tokyo Auto Show as the first production hybrid vehicle. First National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) event in Woodburn, Oregon.

2000: Ford offers the Th!nk City EV, it's version of the Pivco, in California.

2001: CARB upholds the ZEV Mandate of between 4,000 and 15,000 EVs starting in 2003. Dr. Andy Frank and his UC Davis Team Fate produce demonstration plug-in hybrid vehicles.

2002: EAA launches the 1st annual Chapter's meeting in Washington, D.C. Toyota RAV4-EV retail sales begins; their estimated 2-year supply sold out in 8 months. Ford sells the Th!nk City Group.

2003: ZEV Mandate weakened to allow ZEV credits for non-ZEVs. Only requires 250 fuel-cell vehicles by 2009. Toyota stops production of the RAV4-EV; Honda stops lease renewals of the EV-Plus; GM does the same for the EV-1.

2003: AC Propulsion's tZero earns highest grade at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum; tZero specs: 300 miles per charge, 0-60mph in 3.6 seconds, 100 mph top speed.

2004: The Ford Ranger EV and Th!nk are saved from the crushers. Unfortunately, the GM EV1 could not be saved from the crusher. CalCars demonstrates modifications to a Toyota Prius to enable plug-in capabilities.

2005: Commuter Cars' Tango begins shipments in fall of 2005. Myers Motors introduces the MM NmG (formerly the Corbin Sparrow). saves EVs from the crusher — including the Th!nk City, Ranger EV, RAV4-EV. The EAA launches a Plug-In Hybrid Special Interest Group. Hybrid sales are through the roof. EDrive Systems brings their plug-in hybrid to the EVS-21 Auto Conference in Monaco. Launch of PlugInAmerica, a coalition of EV drivers, clean air and energy independence advocates working to promote the use of plug-in vehicles.

2006: The Wrightspeed X1 demonstrates ability to go from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds, and has a range of 100 miles in "normal" city driving. President Bush describes plug-in hybrids (video). EAA launches the first special interest chapter, the PlugInAmerica chapter.

Historical Archives