The 2021 Tesla Model 3, 2021 Chevy Bolt and the 2021 Nissan Leaf are on pace to be the best-selling electric vehicles this year. Charging infrastructure is improving, which is leading to Americans embracing this new technology. There’s only one problem. Electric vehicles are not new at all.

Electric vehicles (EVs) made up about 1.6% of cars on U.S. roads in 2019, according to USAFacts, a nonprofit initiative. That includes battery-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids (e.g. Fiat 500e), and hybrid electric vehicles. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimated that EVs accounted for 3% of all automobile sales across the globe that year. Legislative initiatives will accelerate these numbers over the next decade. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last September that will ban sales of all new gasoline-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. The United Kingdom Prime Minister and Transportation Secretary announced last November that sales of all new gasoline-powered vehicles would end in 2030. Japanese public broadcaster NHK cited government sources in November saying the country would end gas-powered vehicle sales in 2030. 

The Bloomberg data estimates that 28% of global vehicle sales will be electric by 2030. That number still does not equal the proportion of EVs on U.S. roads in the early 20th century.

Electric vehicle origins

Horses and buggies were still the primary mode of transportation in the United States in the early 20th century. Steam-powered vehicles existed, but were few and far between due to inefficiency. Several inventors around the world were conceptualizing electric vehicles in the early 19th century. Chemist William Morrison is typically credited as the first American to bring the EV concept to fruition. Batteries and their storage capacity always piqued his interest. 

Morrison constructed an “electric carriage” in his secret Des Moines, Iowa laboratory. He debuted his invention in an 1890 parade that drew 100,000 spectators.

Morrison’s electric carriage. Public domain photo.

The American Battery Company in Chicago took notice. They purchased one of Morrison’s vehicles for $3,600 (well over $100,000 in today’s dollars). Morrison patented his battery technology in 1890. But he never found a way to efficiently mass-produce his EVs. But that didn’t stop the phenomenon from spreading to other vehicle enthusiasts.

Moto-cycle racing

The first auto race in the U.S. was held in 1895 on Thanksgiving Day. The terms “car” and “automobile” were not regular parts of American vernacular at the time, so all participating vehicles were called “Moto-cycles.” The round-trip race from Chicago to Evanston (about 54 miles) originally called for 80 participants to show off their novelty horseless carriages. But freezing temperatures and snowy roads led to only six drivers showing up for the event. Four of the vehicles were gas-powered, while two were electric. Frank Duryea, who built the first American gas-powered car in 1893, won the race. Neither of the electric vehicles (EVs) finished the race and only one other gas-powered car reached the finish line in the harsh conditions.

One year later in the second auto race in American history, EVs dominated. Seven vehicles, five gas and two electric, faced off in Cranston, Rhode Island on September 7, 1896. Most expected the vehicle designed by Duryea to win the contest because of its success in the previous year’s event. But 60,000 spectators witnessed an EV built by the Riker Electric Motor Company come in first place. Another EV built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, came in second place. The Duryea gas-powered vehicle finished third. 

EVs come of age, then quickly die

Morrison’s electric carriage maxed out at about 14 miles per hour. Horses gallop at a steady 25 mph. Still, the draw to electric vehicles and more streamlined manufacturing processes made them the preference for those who could afford them.

New York City had at least 60 electric taxi cabs on the road in the late 1890s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. EVs accounted for at least 33% of all vehicles on the road by 1900. Gas and steam-powered vehicles made up the rest. But they were very inefficient to drive. It took 30 to 45 minutes just to start steam vehicles. Gas cars were started with hand cranks, were very loud and difficult to shift gears.

Henry Ford ultimately ended the EV’s momentum. Not only did he come up with streamlined methods of mass-producing gas-powered cars, but also electric starters came about, eliminating the need for crank starting. Further, Ford’s Model T was 60% less expensive than electric vehicles on the market. Gas got cheaper after World War I, essentially eliminating all the benefits of EVs. They practically disappeared by the 1930s in the United States.

EV Revival 1970s to today

There were three major developments in the 1970s that renewed interest in electric vehicles. First, President Richard Nixon proposed via an Executive Order the creation of a government agency that oversaw “environmental protection matters.” Reorganization Plan No. 3 established the Environmental Protection Agency on December 2, 1970.

Second was the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. The world’s largest oil exporters sanctioned several countries, including the United States. Oil prices rose nearly 300% and caused shortages in the embargoed countries. Finally, the 1976 Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act hastened EV manufacturing. President Gerald Ford vetoed the bill, only for Congress to override the veto a few days later. It authorized guaranteed federal loans for doing research and development on EVs.

The pyramid-shaped Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar was brought to market in the mid-1970s.

Photo via Klaus Nahr; WikiMedia.

It had top speeds of around 44 mph with a range up to 60 miles. But EVs still didn’t really take off “again” until the 1990s and the Energy Policy Act. GM produced the EV1 in 1996. The car was leased to 1,117 customers in Arizona, California and Georgia. But GM decided that the car was unsustainable and unprofitable due to high production costs. It recalled most of the cars and demolished them, despite positive reviews. The entire ordeal is chronicled in the 2006 documentary film “Who Killed The Electric Car.”

Past becomes the future

Tesla comprised 18% of the plugin EV market share in 2020, according to Statista data. Volkwagon, Nissan and Hyundai were next in line. Tesla recently began accepting Bitcoin for payment as well, further expanding its customer base.

EVs are the past and the future. They won’t take over as the norm on American roads as soon as previously thought due to the pandemic. But the shift is inevitable whether it happens in five years or 15 years.

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