History of Modern Electric Cars

By
Laurance Yap
Updated:
Sep 2022
Time to read:
5
min
Electric cars have actually been around for a long time. During the fuel crisis of the 1970s, many American carmakers introduced electric models, though they had limited capabilities. Learn about those vehicles, and more recent developments, in this overview.
Tesla electric car

Throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, electric vehicles (EVs) were the stuff of science fiction movies and experimental contraptions funded by colleges, start-up companies, and the whim of well-heeled automakers like General Motors.

Energy Crisis of the 1970s

During the Arab-Israeli war, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on oil to the United States, due, in part, to America’s support of the Israeli army. Between 1973 and 1974, oil prices more than quadrupled. A barrel of oil that cost $3 before spiked to $15; gasoline became scarce and expensive. There were long lines at pumps across the country.

Suddenly, electric cars seemed like a good idea again. GM showed an Electrovette, which never got off the ground, and General Electric demonstrated the Citicar in 1974, with a top speed 40 mph, and a range of 40 miles. A version of the Citicar was produced until 1977 by a company called Sebring-Vanguard and then sold to Commuter Vehicles, Inc. It updated and renamed the Comuta-Car, and over 4,000 were sold. 

In 1976, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act was passed, offering carmakers incentives to build green cars. U.S. Electricar sold a car called the Lectric Leopard. Apollo Energy Systems produced a number of EV models based on American Motors Company (AMC) and Renault vehicles. Jet Industries did the same with vans and trucks.

The list of would-be electric car companies was long – but technology wasn’t where it needed to yet. But, around this time, AMC partnered with Gulton Industries to work on the development of a new battery that used lithium. Invented by John Goodenough, Rachid Yazami, and Akira Yoshino in the 1980s, the lithium-ion battery is responsible for today’s long-distance, powerful electric cars.

Time to Clean the Air

As the fuel crisis waned, governments around the world became more interested in curbing air pollution, due to the discovery of a hole in earth’s protective ozone layer in1985. CO2 in the atmosphere contributes to 81 percent of “greenhouse gases” that trap heat in our atmosphere – warming the planet to dangerous levels.

New federal and state regulations began to change in the United States. The Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992 helped create interest in renewable energy and electric cars. At the same time, a clean air agency called the California Air Resources Board (CARB) began to push for lower emissions. The idea then, and now, was to eliminate the use of fossil fuel vehicles in exchange for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) – primarily cars powered by electricity or hydrogen.

The next EV push began in the early 1990s with the development of such vehicles as the Ford Ranger EV, Honda’s EV Plus, Nissan’s lithium-battery-powered Altra, Chrysler’s TEVan, and then, the General Motors EV1.

Instead of modifying an already existing car, GM developed the EV1 from scratch. To maximize performance, the car was a two-seater that managed 0-60 mph in seven seconds and had a range of 80 miles. It was produced from 1996 to 1999. Inspired by GM’s commitment, CARB passed a mandate that made the production of ZEVs a requirement for the seven major U.S. automakers in order to market their vehicles in California. As part of a real-world engineering evaluation, the EV1 was available as a lease-only car to places like Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Birth of Tesla

A small start-up company in San Dimas, California, called AC Propulsion, owned by EV1 design contributor Alan Cocconi, developed an EV called the tzero in 1997. The tzero was a fiberglass kit car that used lead-acid batteries and a 150-kW, 201-horsepower electric motor. As the story goes, Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard had AC Propulsion build him a tzero that used a lithium-ion battery pack. Lithium cells were just becoming available, and Eberhard wanted to know how they’d work in a car.

The resulting lithium-ion powered car was lighter and produced a 0-60 mph time of just 3.7 seconds. But the cost of the batteries made it too expensive; estimates ran to $220,000. When AC Propulsion refused to put the new car in production, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning started Tesla Motors in 2003. Named after the inventor Nikola Tesla, the new company pitched venture capitalists, one of whom was Elon Musk, who has acted as the company’s CEO since 2008.

Tesla’s first EV was the Roadster, a two-door sports car that was basically an all-electric version of a Lotus Elise – and the first production electric car with a lithium-ion battery pack. Suddenly, everyone’s idea of what an EV could be changed. Here was a great-looking two-seater that was wicked-fast and managed a 200-mile driving range. Tesla made EVs sexy.

Tesla began production of the Model S sedan in 2012, the Model X SUV in 2015, the cheaper Model 3 sedan in 2017, and the Model Y crossover SUV in 2020. The Model 3 is the best-selling electric car in the world with over 800,000 sold, and in 2020, Tesla surpassed one million electric cars produced.

The Road Ahead

The cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped significantly since Tesla’s first Roadsters. This has allowed the development and success of many of today’s most popular EVs. Other than Tesla’s Model 3 and Model Y, the world’s best-selling electric cars include the Hyundai Kona Electric SUV, the Volkswagen ID.3, Chevy Bolt, and the Nissan Leaf – the first modern all-electric vehicle to be produced for the masses by a major automaker. Since 2010, the compact five-door hatchback has sold over 500,000 units globally. 

EV technology has improved quickly in the last ten years – and continues to improve as electric car prices continue to drop. By 2023-2025, it is estimated that EVs will cost the same as conventional gas-powered cars. As of this writing, there are over 10 million electric vehicles on the roads worldwide, and by 2030, many automakers will stop producing gasoline-powered vehicles altogether.

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