Electric Cars

History of Modern Electric Cars

History of Modern Electric Cars

Through the 1960’s and early ’70’s, electric vehicles (EVs) were only occasionally seen in science fiction movies and as the odd experimental contraption funded by colleges, start-up companies and at the whim of well-heeled automakers like General Motors. In 1973 America was getting 30 percent of its oil from foreign countries. Within four years, that increased to 50% of all oil to the states coming from foreign sources.

Energy Crisis of the 1970s

Then, during the Arab-Israeli war, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on oil to the United States. This was due, in part, to America’s supplying support to the Israeli army. Between 1973 and 1974, oil prices more than quadrupled. A barrel of oil that cost $3 before the embargo, suddenly spiked to $15. Gasoline became scarce and extremely expensive. Consumers had been used to paying 36 cents per gallon and were soon paying $1.20 per gallon, if they could get it. There were long lines at gas pumps all across the country. That’s when the United States started taking steps to become more energy efficient and independent from foreign oil.

Suddenly, electric cars seemed like a good idea again. After all, they use no oil and create no air pollution. General Motors created a concept car called the Electrovette that never got off the ground while General Electric played around with its Citicar in 1974. Top speed was 40 mph and range was 40 miles. A version of the Citicar was produced through 1977 by a company called Sebring-Vanguard and then sold to Commuter Vehicles, Inc. The EV was updated and renamed the Comuta-Car. Over 4,000 of the little cars were sold.

In 1976, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act was passed, giving hopeful EV makers governmental incentives to build green cars. This resulted in the creation of a number of experimental vehicles and a few production cars. For instance, U.S. Electricar sold a car called the Lectric Leopard that was basically a Renault 5 that had been converted to use an electric motor and batteries.

Similarly, Apollo Energy Systems produced a number of different EV models based on American Motors Company (AMC) and Renault vehicles. Jet Industries did the same thing with a number of vans and trucks. Interestingly, the most famous electric vehicle of the 1970s was the Lunar Rover that was used on the Apollo 15 mission to the moon.

The list of would-be EV companies was long and hopeful but the bottom line was that the technology was still not where it needed to be to create a vehicle with enough speed and range to make it a practical alternative to the gas-powered car. At about this time AMC partnered with Gulton Industries to work on the development of a new battery that used something called lithium. Invented by John Goodenough, Rachid Yazami and Akira Yoshino in the 1980s, the lithium-ion battery is responsible for today’s long-distance, powerful electric cars.

Time to Clean the Air

As time marched on and the great gas crisis waned, governments all over the world became more and more interested in curbing harmful air pollution. This was due, in part, to an announcement on May 16th, 1985 by three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey who detected a hole in earth’s protective ozone layer over Antarctica. It was revealed that the ozone layer was depleting due to human beings use of industry and automobiles that emit carbon dioxide (CO2). It was also discovered that CO2 in the atmosphere contributes to 81 percent of “greenhouse gases” that traps heat in our atmosphere, thus thickening the atmosphere and warming the planet to dangerous levels.

As the world began to react to this new threat to our health and wellbeing as well as that of our planet, new federal and state regulations began to change things in the United States. The Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992 helped to create interest in renewable energy and electric cars. At the same time, a clean air agency called the California Air Resources Board (CARB) began to push for lower-emissions vehicles. The idea then, and now, is to eliminate the use of fossil fuel vehicles that pollute the air in exchange for zero emission vehicles (ZEVs). We’re primarily talking about cars powered by electricity or hydrogen.

The next big EV push began in the early 1990s with the development of such vehicles as the Ford Ranger EV pickup truck, Honda’s EV Plus hatchback, Nissan’s lithium-battery-powered Altra station wagon, Chrysler’s TEVan, and General Motors’ EV1.

Instead of modifying an already existing car, GM developed the EV1 from scratch. To maximize performance, the car was a two-seater roadster that managed a zero to 60 mph time of about seven seconds and had a range of 80 miles. It was produced from 1996 to 1999 and 1,117 units were sold. Inspired by GM’s commitment, CARB passed a mandate that made the production of ZEVs a requirement for the seven major U.S. automakers in order to market their vehicles in California. As part of a real-world engineering evaluation, the EV1 was available as a lease-only car to places like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles, California.

The Birth of Tesla

A small start-up company in San Dimas, California, called AC Propulsion, owned by EV1 design contributor Alan Cocconi, developed an EV called the tzero in 1997. The body of the tzero was basically a fiberglass kit car that used lead-acid batteries and a 150kW, 201 horsepower electric motor. As the story goes, Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard had AC Propulsion build him a tzero that used a lithium-ion battery pack. The lithium cells were only then becoming available, and Eberhard wanted to know how they’d work in a car.

The resulting lithium-ion powered car was much lighter, producing a zero to 60 mph time of just 3.7 seconds! But the cost of the batteries would make production of the car too expensive. Estimates ran to $220,000. So when AC Propulsion refused to put the new car in production, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning started Tesla Motors in 2003. Named after the genius inventor Nikola Tesla, the new company pitched various venture capitalists, one of whom was Elon Musk who has acted as the company’s CEO since 2008.

Inspired by the AC Propulsion tzero, Tesla Motors’ first EV was the Roadster, a two-door sports car that was basically an all-electric version of a Lotus Elise. Tesla was the first company to put lithium-ion battery pack in a production electric car. Suddenly, everyone’s idea of what an EV could be changed. Here was a great-looking two-seater that was wicked fast and managed a 200-mile driving range. Basically, Tesla made EVs sexy.

Elon Musk has been quoted as saying that the purpose of Tesla is, “to help expedite the move to sustainable transport and energy, obtained through electric vehicles and solar energy.” The company began production of the Model S sedan in 2012 (MSRP $69,420), the Model X SUV in 2015 (MSRP $79,990), the entry-level Model 3 sedan in 2017 ($37,990), and the Model Y crossover SUV in 2020 ($39,990). The more affordable Model 3 is the best-selling all-electric car in the world with over 800,000 sold. In 2020 Tesla surpassed one million of its electric cars produced.

Legacy of the Prius

At the same time that AC Propulsion was testing its Roadster, Toyota came out with a car that transformed the world’s thinking of EVs. First offered in 1997, the Prius is a “Hybrid Electric” vehicle that uses an electric motor and battery pack to augment a gasoline engine in order to produce superior fuel efficiency. In 2007, the EPA and CARB rated the Prius the second most fuel efficient gasoline-powered car available, right behind the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.

By 2017, Toyota had sold over 10-million of its hybrid cars worldwide. The success of the Prius created a huge market for hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. While these vehicles still use a gas-engine, and therefore still pollute the air, they aid in the reduction of CO2. You just can’t call them a zero-emission vehicle. Yet the majority of Americans who drive a Prius or other hybrid, have used these cars as a “stepping stone” towards a ZEV. A recent poll suggests that 79% of Americans currently see electric cars as the future of transportation.

The Road Ahead

The cost of lithium-ion battery packs has come down in price significantly since Tesla’s first Roadsters. In fact, the price of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by 50 percent in the last four years. This has allowed the development and success of many of today’s most popular EVs. Other than Tesla’s Model 3 and Model Y, the world’s best-selling electric cars include the Hyundai Kona Electric SUV, the Volkswagen ID.3, the Nissan Leaf, and the Audi e-Tron.

Of that list of best-sellers, the Nissan Leaf (MSRP $31,670) is special in that it is the first modern all-electric vehicle to be produced for the masses by a major automaker. The Leaf first appeared in 2010 and to date, the compact five-door hatchback family car has sold over 500,000 units globally.

Another big hit EV in America is the Chevy Bolt (MSRP $36,500) that gives you a driving range of over 200 miles between charges and will take you from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. The Bolt debuted in 2015. The following year, global sales of EVs crossed the one million mark. To further inspire Americans to “go green” Chevy offers the Bolt as a lease for just $107 per month.

EV technology has improved quickly in the last ten years and electric car prices continue to drop. It is estimated that EVs will cost the same as conventional gas-powered cars by 2023. As of this writing, there are over 10 million electric vehicles on the roads worldwide. By 2030, many automakers will stop producing gasoline-powered vehicles altogether, making the switch to EVs complete by 2050.

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