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A Brief and Colorful History of Electric Cars

by Electric bike guru on May 29, 2010

Leaving the Gas Pump Behind, Part 1:

Many people consider electric bikes and electric cars to represent an advanced technology awaiting us in the future.  But electric bikes are being sold and ridden all around the world right now.  And electric cars have been around for over one hundred years!  In fact, during the decade from 1900 to 1910, when electric cars shared the road with cars powered by gasoline, the electrics actually outsold the gas-powered cars by two to one.  The reason for this was that during the early days of the gasoline engine, automobile carburetors were crude, and required a lot of tinkering to properly mix fuel with air during a car’s start-up, warm-up and cruising modes.  Electric cars did not require gasoline or oil, and soon earned a reputation for being “clean,” and became the overwhelming choice of the smartly-dressed, upwardly mobile, urban American women who, for the first time, were enjoying the freedom to travel independently, and were determined to make the most of it.

1912 Detroit Electric Car Ad

1912 Detroit Electric Car Ad

However, within ten years, things had changed.  Technical advances in gasoline engine technology and carburetor design propelled gas powered cars to the top of the market in terms of sales and popularity.  Meanwhile, the expansion of drilling and refining of petroleum had made ever cheaper and more plentiful gasoline available almost everywhere in the US.  The year 1914 saw the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and metals such as copper and lead, heavily used in electric cars, were in short supply as production of tanks, bullets and artillery shells needed for the war increased rapidly.  As a result of these events, the production of electric cars scaled back dramatically.  After the war, when industry returned to manufacturing civilian automobiles, the electric car had been just about forgotten.

Fast-forward to the 1970’s, when the first Arab oil embargo hit the US.  Overnight, gasoline was in short supply, and prices shot sky high.  Fuel was rationed by many service stations — that is, if they had any fuel to sell.  After the embargo, the memory of the desperation experienced by many drivers during the crisis endured, and people sought a way to diminish American dependence on foreign oil.  Many looked to Japanese imports as a solution.  For several years, Japanese carmakers had been exporting small, fuel-efficient cars to the United States.  Now Americans began buying them in droves, as fast as they could be produced.  Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi auto dealerships sprang up over the country in response to the demand for their product.

In addition, people suddenly began to remember the early electric cars their grandparents had loved so well.  Like the buyers of electric bikes today, they wanted clean vehicles that don’t require expensive imported fuel, but instead rely on rechargeable batteries which can be plugged into the ordinary electric outlets that are in millions of US homes.

Soon, some creative individuals successfully converted their own cars or pickup trucks from gasoline to electricity.  Small companies sprang up, such as Boston-based Solectria, offering for sale limited numbers of conversions for the reviving electric car market.

Solectra electric car engine compartment

Solectira electric car engine compartment

In 1985, General motors promised an electric car by end of the decade. Instead, the long-awaited General Motors EV-1 appeared in showrooms in 1996.  The car was only available as a lease, mainly in Southern California, where the California Air Resources Board had passed the ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle) mandate in 1990, requiring that 2 percent of the cars sold in California be ZEV‘s.

The sporty-looking car produced head-snapping acceleration with zero tailpipe emissions.  The range of the first models was limited to 60 – 70 miles, but later models achieved a maximum range of 110 – 160 miles.  The car was an immediate hit, and all available models were quickly leased, many by Hollywood celebrities, who often had to wait months to sign a lease.  Among the celebrities who drove the car were included such names as Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Alexandra Paul, and Ed Begley, Jr.

GM EV-1 (1996)

GM EV-1 (1996)

Like owners of ebikes today, EV1 drivers loved their vehicles and raved about the car.  Despite this fact, GM claimed that there was no demand for their product.  After two years, GM halted the program, requiring all leaseholders to turn in their cars.  People protested, but the company held fast.  Those who refused to turn in their cars had them collected by flat bed trucks.  The EV1 was eliminated from the GM line, and all the cars were delivered to a warehouse in California.  A year later, the company destroyed the cars by crushing them.

A film, Who Killed the Electric Car, was produced by Chris Paine in 2006, which explored the history of the GM EV1 program in detail.  The film noted that GM engaged in negative marketing of the EV1, sabotaged their own product program, failed to produce sufficient cars to meet existing demand, and engaged in other unusual business practices with regards to leasing versus sales.

The film explained that electric cars needed fewer expensive repairs, so the car dealers would not make as much money over the long term as with gasoline-powered cars.  It detailed the California Air Resources Board’s reversal of the ZEV mandate after suits from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration, and it revealed that Bush’s chief influences, such as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Andrew Card, were all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies.  The suggestion was clear that the big oil companies were fearful of losing business to a competing technology, and acted together to destroy an emerging market for electric cars.  And so, by the end of the 1990’s one hundred years after they were invented, it appeared that electric cars just might be dead forever . . .

part 2: Is There an Electric Car in Your Future?

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