Going Places

How We Got To: The Electric Car

Many of the earliest cars were electric, but it's taken more than century for the technology to mature

2 min read

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It’s been well over 175 years since humans first experimented with electric vehicles. But they were slow, unreliable, and their batteries didn’t hold charge. While Henry Ford’s invention of the Model T in 1908 effectively stalled all innovation related to battery-powered vehicles, interest in them never fell out of favor.

Thomas Edison believed battery-powered cars were technologically superior to gasoline-powered ones and devoted some time to building a better electric battery; he even convinced Ford to partner with him to explore options for a low-cost electric car in 1914, saying, “Electricity is the thing “¦ There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine.” And, according to The New York Times, women far preferred electric vehicles, because they were quieter and didn’t require a heavy hand crank to start and operate.

After a long period of dormancy, the 1970s saw renewed commitment to electric with the Arab Oil Embargo, and this century owes its progress to a small Silicon Valley startup, Tesla Motors, which announced in 2006 that it would produce luxury electric sports cars. In the first quarter of 2013, Tesla posted profits for the first time in company history. Should it have continued success, one prediction from the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that replacing all light-duty vehicles with hybrids or electric vehicles could reduce dependence on foreign oil by a whopping 30 to 60 percent, while minimizing current carbon pollution by 20 percent.

Panel 1: "The French government finances Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's self-propelled, passenger-ready steam carriage. Traveling at 2mph, it crashes on its first journey."
Panel 2: "1830s: Robert Anderson of Scotland builds an electric carriage that travels 4mph. It runs on one-time-use, non-rechargeable batteries."
Panel 3: "1886: German Karl Benz, credited as the father of the automobile, brings his gasoline-powered internal combustion engine car to market."
Panel 4: "1908: Henry Ford rolls out the four-seater Model T, effectively dropping the auto's price from US$850 to an affordable US$260."
Panel 5: "1990s: After a long hiatus from electric innovation, Honda, HM, Ford, and Toyota debut all-electric cars in California as per government regulation; no one buys them."
Panel 6: "2008: Following Toyota's Prius hybrid, Tesla introduces the all-electric Roadster; it costs $100k, but its lithium-ion batteries run 200 miles per charge & it comes with comfy, heated seats."
Image credit: Darren Garret


Panel 1: Steam-powered vehicles, despite their risk of explosion and the discomfort they offered passengers seated next to hot boilers, were part of automobile production into the 1920s. Still, they required long startup times in the cold and continuous water refills.

Panel 2: Electric cars are not a new innovation and probably not even one belonging to Nikola Tesla. The electric car, or an auto running on electric cells (batteries), was initially the most popular among developers despite its disappearance from production lines at the beginning of the 20th century. Oh, but oh, how could one keep it charged?

Panel 3: Self-propelled vehicles met backlash from a public concerned with safety and reclaiming its streets. The U.K. Parliament even passed the Locomotive Act of 1865, which required that a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn precede all automobiles. This didn’t stop innovation, though: In 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach abandoned the horse-drawn-carriage-fitted-with-an-engine approach and designed an automobile body entirely from scratch.

Panel 4: At the turn of the century, the auto industry was largely based in Western Europe; France manufactured over 30,000 vehicles in 1903, nearly 50 percent of the world’s production. Committed to large-volume production, Ford opened his plant in Highland Park, Mich., in 1910–though he did not employ the carefully choreographed moving assembly line (and sub-assembly lines for engines and axels) until 1913.

Panel 5: While much commercial vehicle-based innovation paused during the two World Wars as we focused on military might, ever-increasing exports from Europe and Japan threatened the U.S. Big Three (GE, Ford, and Chrysler) and moved Detroit toward collapse. Then, the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo (known as the world’s “first oil shock” during which the petroleum-exporting Arab countries’ six-month-long embargo skyrocketed prices from three to $12 a barrel) prompted Volkswagen to develop a hybrid that drove 8,000 miles and presented at worldwide auto shows. Still, California’s debut of its all-electric vehicles wasn’t exactly done in the name of progress; in 1990 the state passed a law mandating that the seven major car manufacturers in the United States promote electric vehicles if they wanted to continue selling gasoline-powered ones.

Panel 6: Currently, there is a wait list for the 2015 Model S Sedan. To scale-up production and drop prices, Tesla broke ground on a battery-production “gigafactory” in the Nevada desert last month. Tesla CEO Elon Musk anticipates offering an electric car that will cost just U.S. $35,000 by 2017.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Going Places section, which looks at the impact of transportation technology on the modern world. Click the logo to read more.