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Worth the Watt: A Brief History of the Electric Car, 1830 to Present

By: · December 16, 2015

-Electric cars have been around a lot longer than today’s Tesla Motors or even the General Motors EV1 of 20 years ago. In fact, electric cars appeared long before the internal-combustion sort, and dreamers have never stopped trying to make them work both on the road and as a business proposition. A lack of historical perspective sometimes leads to misunderstandings of how things came to be as they are now, so let’s take the long view of the road that got us here.   Start in the 1830s, with Scotland’s Robert Anderson, whose motorized carriage was built sometime between 1832 and ’39. Batteries (galvanic cells) were not yet rechargeable, so it was more parlor trick (“Look! No horse nor ox, yet it moves!”) than a transportation device. Another Scot, Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named -Electrobat! Is that not a great name? It belongs to the first commercially viable EV effort. Philadelphians Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris adapted technology from battery-electric street cars and boats and got a patent in 1894. At first very heavy and slow (like a trolley car, with steel “tires” and 1600 pounds of batteries onboard), their Electrobat [at left] evolved to employ pneumatic tires and lighter materials so that, by 1896, their rear-steer carriages used two 1.1-kW motors to move 25 miles at a top speed of 20 mph. Electrobats and another electric by Riker won a series of five-mile sprint races against gasoline Duryea automobiles in 1896.---Morris and Salom incorporated that year and moved on to the “cash-in” phase of a successful startup. Having built a few electric Hansom cabs [upper right] to compete with the horse-drawn vehicles then serving New York, they sold that idea to Issac L. Rice who incorporated the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) in New Jersey. He in turn attracted big-money investors and partners and by the early 1900s, they had more than 600 electric cabs operating in New York with smaller fleets in Boston, Baltimore, and other eastern cities. In New York, the downtime it took to recharge batteries was addressed by converting an ice arena into a battery-swapping station where a cab could drive in, have its spent batteries replaced with a recharged set, and move on out. Brilliant, but like many a startup, it expanded too quickly, ran into unforeseen conflicts among investors and partners, and the whole taxi venture had collapsed by 1907. ---EVC’s battery supplier (which was an investor and partner) became what we know today as Exide. Its manufacturing partner, Pope (also a gasoline-car pioneer), took the technology and applied a name from its thriving bicycle business, Columbia, to a run of cars for public sale. Columbia [bottom right] reached the 1000-units-built milestone well before those visionary mass-manufacturers in Detroit, Ransom Olds and Henry Ford, got up to speed.-Electric cars proved their mettle in early motorsports. Belgian Camille Jenatzy, a builder of electric carriages near Paris, engaged in several speed stunts to promote his firm’s engineering acumen, the highlight of which came in the spring of 1899. Driving his racing special, La Jamais Contente (“the Never Satisfied”), he became the first to break the 100-km/h and 60-mph barriers. A pair of direct-drive 25-kW motors, running at 200 volts drawing 124 amps each (about 67 horsepower), propelled the torpedo-shaped machine crafted from a lightweight aluminum alloy called partinium. La Jamais Contente ran on Michelin tires; the French tiremaker adopted a reproduction built in 1994 to serve as a sort of mascot for the company’s Challenge Bibendum series of sustainable mobility rallies from 2004–2014.-The late 19th and early 20th century simply bubbles with automotive invention all over the globe. The limited market for cars, still mostly expensive toys for rich folk, saw steam power dominant, electric cars next, and gasoline vehicles bringing up the rear. Some brand names still familiar today dabbled in electrics during this era.---Ransom Eli Olds built a short run of electric horseless carriages before devising the first mass-market Oldsmobile cars—the one known electric survivor [bottom right] is in a museum in Lansing, Michigan, which became home to Oldsmobile after a fire in Mr. Olds’s Detroit factory. He built no electrics in Lansing, but General Motors would . . . nearly 100 years later.---Another one-off museum piece is the Egger-Lohner C.2 Phaeton [top right] engineered by 23-year-old Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, whose son would found today’s Porsche company after World War II. The 1898 car’s electric-drive system weighed 286 pounds, made 5 horsepower, and could push the buggy to 22 mph. On spec, it doesn’t look more impressive than Morrison’s 1893 World’s Fair “car,” but it won a 25-mile race for electric vehicles at a Berlin exhibition on September 28, 1899.---And then there’s Studebaker, which had built wagons and carriages in the 19th century but entered the 20th as an electric-car manufacturer. That’s Thomas Edison aboard his own 1902 Studebaker Electric in the  left photo. Edison and his camping buddy Henry Ford also tried their hand at an electric car and built at least one prototype before both decided that the gasoline engine had a more promising future. One factor was that electricity was not yet widely available outside city centers, severely limiting the market for cars tied to that infrastructure. Drivers could carry spare cans of gasoline for long journeys, but spare batteries were a lot heavier per unit of energy.-President William McKinley was assassinated while touring the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. He was rushed to the hospital via electric-powered ambulance, one quite similar to what’s seen in this photo, which has recently featured in the HBO/Cinemax television series The Knick, about a New York City hospital in 1900–1901. McKinley survived the gunshot but developed gangrene in the wound and died eight days later. The trip to the hospital wasn’t his first in a motor vehicle—he had become the first U.S. president to ride in a car when he took a demonstration ride in a Stanley Steamer. This distinction is often ascribed to Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president and successor, because TR was the first to take a public ride in a car, a Columbia electric in 1902. McKinley’s electric ambulance ride alone should secure the Ohioan’s place in history as the first motorized president.-It could go 25 mph with a range of 80 miles, but by the time this 1923 Detroit Electric was built (in, yes, Detroit), the writing was on the wall for the early electric business and this company in particular. The company started in 1907 and did well in competition against Baker and Milburn electric cars, even though those two companies were more innovative. Even as internal-combustion cars began to win the technology race, electric cars maintained a market particularly in the cities where their silent operation and ease-of-use appealed to many. Often, the drivers were women who didn’t want to hand-crank an engine to start it, so city shopping districts had charging stations to attract these affluent customers.--- The Ford Model T, though, was far more affordable and kept getting cheaper—the first Model T cost $850 in 1908, when most electric cars were at least twice that expensive. The Model T price was under $300 by 1923 and many electrics were 10 times as costly. In the mid-1910s, a Detroit Electric upgrade battery pack (with Edison’s nickel-iron cells) cost $600 all by itself. This didn’t matter much to wealthy folks like Clara Ford, wife of Henry, who found her husband’s product dirty and noisy and instead drove a succession of Detroit Electrics from 1908 to 1914. ---Ironically enough, it was an electric motor that became the real enemy of battery-powered cars and helped overcome Clara’s objections: The advent of the electric starter (invented by Charles Kettering at Dayton Engineering, first for the 1912 Cadillac) did away with the hand-crank problem for gas cars once it spread through the industry. Electrics got a bit of a boost during World War I when gasoline prices rose and fuel availability was sometimes spotty, but by the mid-1920s, Detroit Electric’s “new” cars were often constructed on bodies that had been built years earlier and unsold. All the same, it built more than 35,000 vehicles between 1907 and 1939.-Gasoline won the technology battle before World War II, and most electric-car makers had either converted to internal combustion or gone out of business. But EVs still had their strengths, especially for the low-speed, short-range uses typical of urban centers. Britain maintained a fleet of electric “milk floats” for home delivery into the 1980s and beyond, while in postwar Japan gasoline was scarce and expensive. The government encouraged production of electric cars, and this 1947 Tama resides in the Nissan museum today (the Tama company became Prince, which became Datsun/Nissan). It could do about 20 mph with a range of 40 miles on lead-acid batteries, good enough for taxi duty just as electric cars had done in New York 50 years earlier.-The old-car experts are looking at this photo and saying, “Isn’t that a Renault Dauphine?” Yes, it is, but no, it isn’t at all, it’s a Henney Kilowatt. Interest in electric cars never really disappeared, and this was one result of people thinking it should work. Henney, a custom coachworks that produced hearses, ambulances, and limousines, often for Packard, was casting around for more diversified business when Packard was dying. Henney acquired Eureka Williams in 1953 and then became part of a conglomerate (National Union Electric Co.) that included Emerson radio and Exide batteries. Put a battery company and a coachworks under one roof and what's more natural than to give electric-car production a shot?---Consulting with Caltech scientists and engineers to help develop a speed controller and drive system, Henney’s first Kilowatt for 1959 had a 36-volt system and could go 40 miles at up to 40 mph. This was upgraded to 72 volts for 1960, raising speed to a more practical 60 mph and range to 60 miles. Henney built the bodies using tooling and parts purchased from Renault—these weren’t converted French cars but, rather, nearly identical U.S.-built chassis. The speed controller, employing diodes and relays, was pretty advanced for the time.---What Henney didn’t have was a good distribution, sales, and dealer system. It built about 100 chassis, but only 47 completed cars were sold. The promoted price was $3600 (a Dauphine listed for $1645) but it appears that was a profitless target. Sales mostly went to utility-company fleets. A handful survive in collections today.-General Motors kept experimenting with electric cars, and this 1966 Electrovair II was one result. The earlier Electrovair of 1964 was also Corvair-based but found to be wanting, so they did it over for ’66. ---Exotic silver-zinc batteries gave it 532 volts to feed into a 115-hp AC induction drive motor. This latter was a big deal, making as much power as the Corvair’s flat-six in some configurations, so performance was said to be “similar.” This battery pack in the nose surely redistributed the car’s weight; the total was 800 pounds heavier than the standard Corvair. Top speed was 80 mph and range 40 to 60 miles, but the real killer from a marketing standpoint was that the batteries could survive only 100 recharge cycles and the pack cost $160,000. That’s not a projection of what it’d cost now—it’s what it cost in 1966. So there’s only one, and GM’s still got it.-In 1965, Ralph Nader testified before a U.S. Senate committee and complained that electric cars were viable, that he knew General Electric could produce a car that would go 200 miles on a charge at up to 80 mph. He suggested GE was in cahoots with the auto and oil industries to hide this technology. ---In 1968, GE showed us what it could do: The Delta experimental electric car was repulsively ugly, but it could achieve 55 mph and had 40 miles of range using nickel-iron batteries. The same year, Ford showed an experimental electric car with even more expensive nickel-cadmium batteries that could do little better. Everyone agreed that what was needed was a battery technology “breakthrough” to improve everything—cost, recharge-cycle time, capacity, durability, range, and tolerance for hot and cold weather.-When NASA contracted Boeing to produce a “car” for use on the moon, electric was the obvious choice for an airless environment. General Motors’ Delco division was a major subcontractor for the drive-control system and the motors on the Lunar Roving Vehicle. There were four DC motors, one in each wheel, making one-quarter horsepower apiece and capable of up to 10,000 rpm.---Four LRVs were built at a cost of $38 million, an overrun of 100 percent on the original $19 million projection. Driven nine times (three excursions on each of three missions), it was the most exotic “car” ever. First deployed on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 (as shown here), the LRV used non-rechargeable silver-zinc potassium hydroxide batteries with a stated capacity of 121 amp-hours. Steering at both axles also was by electric motor drawing on the same batteries. Built of aluminum tubes and foldable in the center to stow onboard the Apollo lunar lander, it weighed 460 pounds (in Earth's gravity) without passengers, whose space suits had to be redesigned so they could sit in it. ---The LRV could go 8 mph in theory, but the lunar surface demanded more cautious speed. On Apollo 15, it moved about 17 miles over 3 hours, averaging less than 6 mph. On Apollo 17, the last lunar mission, the LRV traveled about 22 miles total and the astronauts got nearly 5 miles away from their landing module.-That these cars actually found a market is what stopped us from calling the earlier GE Delta “unsellable” despite its ugly-osity. When OPEC imposed an oil embargo in 1973 and per-barrel prices quadrupled to $12 overnight, electric cars started looking like a better idea. The nightmare for car enthusiasts was the threat that we’d all soon be driving something like the vehicles that came from Sebring-Vanguard of Sebring, Florida, starting in 1974. ---Truly a glorified golf cart, the 1974 Citicar [left] had two doors, two seats, a 2.5-horsepower DC motor from GE, and 36 volts worth of lead-acid batteries. Top speed: 25 mph. It got “better” in later model years, with a 48-volt pack that could move a Citicar to nearly 40 mph. Range was said to be 40 miles. Sebring-Vanguard built 2300 of these cheesy wedges through 1977, when founder Robert G. Beaumont sold to Commuter Vehicles, Inc., which rebadged it as the Commuta-Car and slightly updated it to comply with federal bumper and safety standards.---The Commuta-Car [top right] had batteries in its bumpers and a 6-hp motor. The most capable was built to meet a government contract for postal delivery—featuring right-hand drive with a sliding door [bottom right], it got a 12-hp motor, a 72-volt battery pack, and a transmission (with three speeds).---All told, the Sebring-Vanguard and Commuter Vehicles companies produced 4444 units, making it the largest electric-car producer in America since the end of World War II, a distinction it would maintain until 2013.-As unlovable as a Chevrolet Chevette was in 1977, GM researchers decided to see what it could do if converted to electric propulsion. The Electrovette was supposed to have had the latest nickel-zinc batteries, but the prototypes used standard lead-acid. These were installed in place of the rear seat. ---At 30 mph, it could go as far as 50 miles, but the newer batteries were supposed to double that range. What were they thinking? Some GM internal economists were projecting gas prices could go to $2.50/gallon by 1980 (that’d be about $8 now). They tested the Electrovette for three years, but when gas prices didn’t get that high even during the 1979 round-two OPEC oil crisis, the car got shelved.-In answer to a California mandate effective in 1996 that automakers sell a small percentage of vehicles that made no emissions (only electrics met the standard), General Motors didn’t go down the Electrovair/Electrovette trail of converting an existing model. While other automakers did just that, making the likes of the Toyota RAV4 EV, GM shot for the moon, applying all the technology it could bring to bear with aims of establishing industry leadership with the Impact concept car.---The production version, the GM EV1, had all the latest tech except for relying on lead-acid batteries to keep costs within reason after splurging on alloy this and magnesium that, an induction-charging system, and seriously advanced electronics to manage the efficient AC motor. A lot went into the inverter, which managed changing DC battery power to AC for the motor to use and AC back to DC to recharge batteries in regeneration mode. ---To maximize performance, EV1 was a tiny two-seater, but it launched into a marketplace surging on giant SUVs. Aside from true believers, people did not embrace it. About 800 were leased in Los Angeles, Tucson, and Phoenix between 1996 and 2003 (the last cars were built in 1999). ---Adding a nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery option that delivered the 70-to-160-mile range promised for the lead-acid version didn’t fix the facts that, A) the EV1 was a NASA-scale money pit for a company that subsequent events suggest could have better spent its resources on its core products, B) the California “mandate” was lifted in response to intensive lobbying from automakers including GM but also, C) many others who were devoting no resources to encourage consumers to embrace electric cars. GM took a big hit on public image when it refused to sell the cars to the leaseholders and crushed most of them (somehow, Francis Ford Coppola held onto his), but the technological experience was brought to bear on current models like the extended-range EV Chevrolet Volt and the upcoming fully electric Bolt.-Alan Cocconi founded AC Propulsion in San Dimas, California, in 1992. He provided GM with much of the electric-related genius that made the Impact concept and subsequent EV1 work properly, including contributions to its inverter.---In 1997, AC Propulsion revealed the tzero seen here, with 150 kW (200 horsepower) and lead-acid batteries (Johnson Controls Optima Yellow Tops). The body and chassis were basically the pre-existing Piontech Sportech fiberglass kit car. Lithium-ion cells were just becoming available (thanks in large part to consumer electronics and investment from both governments and industry into basic battery research in this era), and eventual Tesla Motors co-founder Martin Eberhard commissioned a tzero using these instead. Lighter and more energy-dense, they produced an eye-opening zero-to-60-mph time of 3.7 seconds. Hey, these things could be fun! Not cheap, being estimated at $220,000, but so what? ---When Cocconi and partner Tom Gage resisted putting the car into production, Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning incorporated Tesla Motors in 2003. Borrowing the lithium-ion tzero as a demonstrator, they pitched Silicon Valley venture capitalists on their idea. Details of their accounts differ (and became the subject of a lawsuit), but one potential investor approached was Elon Musk, who first tried to get AC Propulsion to go into production of tzeros, just as Eberhard had. Instead, Gage and AC Propulsion opted to do electric conversions on the Scion xB (they called it the eBox) and pursue contract work, like helping electrify the Mini. So Musk wound up pouring his money into Tesla Motors and Eberhard’s idea gained momentum. The rest is becoming electric-car history, but just remember that you can draw a line from EV1 to Tesla—and that the line goes through San Dimas.-The Corbin Sparrow does not get to 60 mph in less than four seconds. Mike Corbin made his fame and fortune as a motorcycle-seat manufacturer. The half-car/half-bike he introduced in 1999 under the name Corbin Sparrow could do 70 mph, tops, and had a range of about 40 miles. It’s more of a commuter-oriented third-car thingy—imagine a Citicar you could maybe actually use to get places, sometimes—than  anything Tesla has done, but also much less successful. ---Corbin Motors sold fewer than 300 electric Sparrows before it went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2003, but the idea won’t die. Its intellectual property has passed through several subsequent owners, the most recent of which is a British Columbia–based outfit called ElectraMeccanica Vehicles promising an upgraded, lithium-ion-battery version by 2017. Hold onto your bike seat, this ride may not be over yet.-Tesla Motors entered production in 2008 with the Roadster, the first generation of which could be fairly described as an AC Propulsion tzero with the kit-car bits replaced by one-grade-above-kit-car Lotus Elise components. Later models (like the 2011 Roadster 2.5 shown here) use proprietary drivetrain technology developed at Tesla, but the first run depended on licensed AC Propulsion power system and reductive charging systems. ---First to put lithium-ion batteries in a production car and the first to demonstrate a 200-mile driving range (although not if you drove it as hard as you might an Elise), the Roadster used three-phase, four-pole AC induction motors. These gradually got stronger as the production run continued through 2012. Selling more than 2400 units over four years, despite a price of $109,000 in 2010 (the middle model year), Tesla finally got enough people to start thinking of electrics as attractive alternatives and replaced the Citicar as the image the general public brought to mind in response to the words -Cars like this Smart Fortwo Electric Drive are how the world’s big automakers largely still think about electrics and fulfilling their need to produce zero-emissions vehicles: Take a car you’ve already engineered, convert it to electric power, and call it a day. That’s not necessarily dumb. The market is still limited and the cost of clean-sheet car design is still high while fuel prices remain stubbornly affordable. Tesla impresses everyone but has yet to show an operating profit for its auto sales.---So we get the likes of the Smart, and the Chevy Spark EV (which is a lot more fun than the gas version), and lots of halfway-there plug-in hybrids. Lithium-ion cells like those found in this Smart have come down a long way in price—they’re about one-quarter what they cost when the tzero was built. They take a fast charge and, supposedly, endure, but it’d take another round of improvement on charging times, more cost reduction, and higher energy density to really go head-to-head with the efficiency, cost, convenience, and performance of today’s internal-combustion cars.-Nissan is one of a few major automakers making its battery-powered EV on a dedicated platform. The Leaf came to market as a 2011 model with a 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack under the seats, and the revised-for-2016 version can be ordered with a 30-kWh pack in the same space. Built in Japan, the U.S., and Great Britain, it’s sold worldwide and fully capable of highway speeds, although only the latest model can be relied upon to do 100 miles between charges. Nevertheless, the Leaf became the bestselling full-use electric in history (Tesla is fast closing on that honor) with total sales nearing 200,000 units through December of 2015. The U.S. has taken 88,000 of them, most built in Smyrna, Tennessee. Others may perform better, look better, and do a better song and dance, but the Leaf already has earned its place as the EV that makes EVs seem as normal as they did in 1901.-History being written by the victors, we often forget that failure is far more common among startup ventures. This is particularly so in the auto industry, where the list of not-quite-spectacular EV ideas has of late included Coda, Aptera, and Venture Vehicles. A recent case study in the way high-profile, promising initiatives can evaporate into so much dream dust was Better Place. ---The dreamer was Shai Agassi, who founded Better Place in 2009. More than $850 million invested in Better Place was barely enough for its ambitions to endure through 2013 when it went belly up, but it got far along the road with backing from the nations of Israel (where it was headquartered) and Denmark, a partnership with Renault that resulted in a car built with a battery pack to suit its standards (the Fluence Z.E. shown here), and an outside-the-proverbial-box business plan that relied on the notion of a standardized battery pack that could be swapped out rather than recharged onboard (shades of the early 1900s and those New York cabs). ---Agassi excelled in selling the idea, but also in offending other automakers, whose willingness to build EV battery packs to a standard that could be quickly yanked out and reinstalled was a necessary element of the long-range plan. Better Place’s battery-swap recharging stations popped up at roadsides, ready to service cars that, um, few were buying. Oops. All told, there supposedly were fewer than 1500 Renault Fluences sold. At least the battery-car industry now has its own modern flameout stories to rank with such notable adventures as those of Tucker, DeLorean, and Bricklin.-Introduced in 2012, it made our 10Best Cars lists for 2015 and 2016. It’s both a large luxury car and a performance car with an available, aptly named “Ludicrous Mode.” At 4600 to 5000 pounds packed with 70 to 90 kWh of lithium-ion cells, the Tesla Model S is its own kind of moonshot with an entirely different take on what that means than did the GM EV1. There’s even an optional Autopilot system that goes most of the way toward autonomous driving ability.---Thirteen years since its incorporation and eight orbits of the sun since introducing its first production car, in those terms, Tesla has outlasted nearly every other new startup auto company since Porsche and Ferrari and Lamborghini were born after WWII. It has 20 years of battery and electronics development beyond EV1 to draw upon with its latest products. But range anxiety and the need for careful trip planning around recharge locations are still issues for this electric car, as has been cost (it starts at $71,200 but it’s easy to spend much, much more). --The Model S, despite its price disadvantage, is outselling the Leaf nearly every month. It’s a “halo car” for the entire class, and credit goes to Elon Musk for making it happen, even if his mouth sometimes speaks as loudly as the big money he's been spending. Next on the docket for Tesla: the Model X crossover and the more-affordable Model 3 sedan.

                    

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