Electric Cars: Past and Present

Written by Carly Hallman

Electric Car Charger

Electric vehicles (EVs) are vehicles that use electricity as a power source rather than the fossil fuels typically used in modern automobiles. Within this class of vehicles, there are two main types: Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) run completely on electric energy stored in the battery, while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are powered by a combination of electricity and another fuel source, such as gasoline.

The concept behind the electric vehicle dates back to the early 19th century, when Robert Anderson devised the first electric carriage in Scotland. Anderson’s carriage used batteries that could not be charged, limiting the carriage’s mobility and practicality. With the invention of the rechargeable battery in 1859, the electric car took a major step toward becoming a practical vehicle. An electric vehicle was a prominent display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exhibition), introducing the concept to consumers.

Breaking into the consumer car market was difficult, however, as steam was the most common power source at the time. Steam-powered vehicles had been in use for nearly 50 years, and the invention of the internal combustion engine introduced another competitor, the gasoline-powered vehicle, into the market. But automakers of the era still saw potential in the electric vehicle. Electric cars didn’t require long start-up times like steam-powered vehicles, and they were much cleaner and quieter than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

The development of electric vehicles hit its greatest obstacle in 1908 with Henry Ford’s Model T and the introduction of assembly-line manufacturing into the automobile industry. Ford’s car could be produced efficiently and inexpensively, making it ideal for the consumer. Gasoline was also a more readily available energy source at time, as access to electricity was mostly confined to urban areas. The combination of inexpensive production and an available power source made gasoline-powered vehicles the most popular choice for consumers, and by the 1930s, the electric vehicle was virtually extinct.

The electric car remained dormant over the next few decades. High production costs and low consumer interest didn’t encourage manufacturers to develop new electric models. But several key events in the 1970s led to the modern resurgence in electric vehicle production. The Arab oil embargo and the gas crisis that followed increased the need to find different energy sources. This led the U.S. Congress to pass the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976.

Little developed in electric vehicle research in the years following the passage of this law. These vehicles were still expensive to produce and did not have the mobility or speed capabilities of gas-powered vehicles. But the 1990s saw a new focus on environmental issues and their root causes. New legislation and restrictions passed during this time period increased the public focus on electric-powered transportation once again. Automakers began researching improvements to electric vehicle technology and producing new electric-powered models. The first true consumer hybrid vehicles began to appear near the turn of the 21st century.

Today, more drivers are choosing electric and hybrid options than ever before. However, these only account for about 1% of car sales worldwide. The majority of consumers still prefer to drive gasoline-powered vehicles, clouding the electric vehicle’s prospects for the future. Many consumers are still unsure of the viability or durability of hybrid vehicles, while others are searching for more inexpensive options. Still, automakers across the globe are creating new electric models every year, and the number of electric vehicles in production is estimated to continue to grow.

Electric vehicles are considered by many to be the future of the automobile industry. Sales of electric vehicles are at an all-time high and increased more than 30% in both 2016 (38%) and 2017 (32%). Consumers value the low emissions and fuel-efficiency that an electric vehicle provides. As car manufacturers produce more hybrid and full-electric options, an estimated 127 different models by 2023, an increasing number of cities have begun providing charging stations to welcome the shift in consumer vehicles on the road.

Modern electric cars are between $4,000 and $6,000 more expensive over the lifetime of the vehicle when compared to similar gas-powered options. But researchers believe that electric vehicles will achieve price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2029, meaning that gas-powered vehicles may no longer be considered the less expensive choice. This is seen by many as a catalyst to increase the demand for electric and hybrid vehicles in the future. Although experts tend to disagree on the future demand for electric vehicles, research has proven that a move toward electric and hybrid vehicles would have a vast impact on the health of our environment.

Gas-powered vehicles emit dangerous pollutants into the air through their tailpipes. Fully electric vehicles produce no direct emissions, while hybrid vehicles produce far less emissions than gas-powered vehicles. When considering the environmental impact of a vehicle, however, it is important to view life-cycle emissions. Life-cycle emissions are the emissions created through the entire life cycle of a vehicle, including production, creation of the fuel source, and disposal of the vehicle. Electric and hybrid vehicles still produce far smaller amounts of life-cycle emissions than a gas-powered vehicle.

Electricity is produced in many ways. The largest source of electricity is currently natural gas. Electric grids using natural gas as an energy source are considered “clean” grids. Grids using coal, another material used in the creation of electricity, are considered “dirty” grids. Recent data suggests that even electric vehicles charged on the dirtiest grids still produce lower quantities of greenhouse gases than gas-powered vehicles. Meanwhile, battery-electric vehicles charged with a renewable energy source such as wind or solar power produce virtually no emissions.