From the moment Elon Musk introduced Tesla to the roads, a worldwide frenzy for electric cars began. Electric vehicle models have significantly increased recently, with an array of manufacturers preparing to release their own electric vehicles soon. Contrary to popular belief, the electric car is not merely a modern trend. Since cars first appeared in the late 19th century, there have been various efforts, some successful and some not, to replace internal combustion engines, leading to numerous conspiracy theories.
The First Electric Cars
Early experiments in electric vehicle development date back to a time before cars existed, during a period when it was feared that London and Paris would be overwhelmed by horse manure. In 1828, Hungarian engineer Ányos Jedlik created the world's first electrically powered engine, which he used in a motorized toy. This was followed by other inventors experimenting with electric motors and small toys, leading to a breakthrough in the 19th century that initiated the golden era of electric cars.
In 1859, French chemist Gaston Planté developed compact rechargeable electric batteries, paving the way for electric vehicles. Initial developments were seen in France and the UK, with Germany introducing its first electric cars in 1888. These early models resembled horseless carriages and had a top speed similar to today's electric scooters, marking a significant advancement over the cumbersome and complex gasoline-powered cars of the time.
In the early 20th century, the United States diverged from its iconic image of Detroit cruisers with large engines. William Morrison introduced the first American electric vehicle in 1890. His six-passenger wagon, faster than most gasoline cars at that time, could reach speeds of 23 km/h, surpassing the 15 km/h speed of internal combustion engine cars.
By 1900, electric cars represented a third of all vehicles in the U.S. Interestingly, New York City had already operated 62 electric taxis that year, debunking the notion that its future shift to electric cabs is a modern concept. In 1897, London witnessed the launch of 12 electric cabs by Walter C. Bersey. This era marked the golden age of electric vehicles. A 1911 New York Times article noted significant advancements in electric passenger vehicles, highlighting their growing popularity among both men and women.
The Rise and the Fall
Electric cars gained popularity in the past due to their simplicity, quiet operation, and the absence of a manual crank for starting, unlike early gasoline cars. This user-friendliness made them especially favored by women in high society, though their high cost limited ownership to wealthier individuals. As the industry evolved, the technical performance of electric vehicles significantly outpaced that of their smoke-producing, internal combustion engine counterparts.
Until 1902, an electric vehicle held the land speed record and was the first to exceed 100 km/h. This record was then broken by a steam-powered vehicle. Electric cars also saw improvements in range. Initially, they could travel a few dozen miles, but by 1899, two American engineers achieved over 100 miles on a single charge. In 1909, Emil Gruenfeldt managed 160 miles in a Baker Motor Vehicle Company electric car, a range challenging for some modern electric cars to match.
Just as electric vehicles were gaining traction, Henry Ford's introduction of the affordable Model T in 1908, priced at $850, changed the automotive landscape. The advent of the electric starter and the widespread discovery of oil made gasoline cars more appealing and practical. This shift in the market, coupled with the significantly higher cost of electric cars (around $2,000 in 1912), led to the decline of electric vehicles, leaving none on U.S. roads by 1935.
For four decades, electric vehicles were relegated to niche applications like trolleybuses and bumper cars. The oil crisis sparked renewed interest, leading American Motors Corporation (AMC) to experiment with electric-powered Gremlins. However, they didn't gain traction due to the superior range of conventional cars. Under Ronald Reagan's presidency, low fuel prices and the return of high-capacity engines slowed electric vehicle progress. It wasn't until the mid-1990s, with growing concerns over air pollution from internal combustion engines, that interest in electric vehicles revived.
The Unexpected Discontinuation of the GM EV1 Project
In a groundbreaking move, the world's largest automaker, General Motors, launched the first modern production electric car in 1996 – the EV1. Its design echoed the GM Impact concept showcased by GM CEO Roger Smith at the 1990 LA Auto Show. Encouraged by the positive public response, Smith announced the Impact's production in April of the same year, marking a significant shift in the automotive industry's approach to electric vehicles.
The EV1, GM's first electric vehicle, was launched in 1996 following a prototype testing program. Leased to users for about $500 per month, GM retained ownership of the vehicles. By 1999, only 288 EV1s were leased. Despite its futuristic appearance, the EV1's outdated battery technology and its relatively powerful engine (137 hp) resulted in a modest range of 70-90 miles (about 150 km).
The second-generation EV1, released in 1999, could cover over 200 km on a single charge. Despite high demand and a waiting list, General Motors abruptly cancelled the program and reclaimed all EV1s. Most were destroyed, with a few preserved in museums under the stipulation they never be operated.
The unexpected conclusion of the EV1 project led to various conspiracy theories. The most prevalent one accuses GM of yielding to oil industry pressure to suppress the electric car in favor of gasoline vehicles. Another theory suggests GM deliberately created an inferior electric car to permanently tarnish the concept, again benefitting oil companies.
However, these theories don't seem to reflect the true situation. Despite the initial challenges faced by electric cars and the discontinuation of the GM EV1, electric vehicles are now enjoying a resurgence and appear to have a promising future ahead.
How General Motors Killed the First Modern Electric Car