The history of electric vehicles: From then to now

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Electric vehicles (EVs) are no new discovery: in fact, the technology for these cars has been around for over 100 years! Early discoveries such as the battery and the electric motor eventually culminated in the creation of the EV, making it the vehicle of choice in the early 1900s. In fact, the technology for these cars existed before the gasoline-powered vehicles we see flooding roads today. So, when and why did their popularity decline? And why are EVs suddenly so popular again?

Let's go back in time to understand the history of EVs in the United States and where they stand today.

Key takeaways

  • Electric vehicles have been around for over 100 years, but with increasing gas prices, foreign dependence on crude oil, and interest in environmental impacts, they're becoming more and more popular.

  • There are federal and state tax credits and rebates available for those purchasing EVs to help subsidize the cost and incentivize people to make the transition from gasoline-powered vehicles.

  • Today, automobile manufacturer Tesla dominates the EV market, but companies continue to expand into the space.

  • EVs and solar panels go extremely well together – check out the EnergySage Marketplace to compare quotes for solar systems.

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  • 1894: the first commercially viable EV, the Electrobat, is patented.

  • 1900-1912: one-third of all vehicles on the road are powered by electricity in the US.

  • 1908: Ford launches a gasoline-powered vehicle, which, produced in large quantities, is cheaper and more efficient than the existing EVs.

  • 1920s: gasoline prices in the U.S. begin to fall due to the discovery of Texas crude oil, making gasoline-powered vehicles a cheap and viable alternative to EVs.

  • 1960s-1970s: the U.S. sees the first shortage of gasoline.

  • 1976: Congress passes the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research and Development and Demonstration Act to promote the development of EVs in the US

  • 1997: Toyota launches a hybrid electric vehicle, the Pruis.

  • 2008-2010: Plug-in EVs (PEVs), including the Tesla Roadster, the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Electric Leaf, rise in popularity.

  • 2021: a record year for EV sales, with more sales in 2021 than all five previous years combined.

  • 2022: consumers and governments are spending more on EVs to drive the electrification of the private and public transport sector – a lot of the focus has been in increasing accessibility to EVs through expanded infrastructure, rebates, and subsidies.

In the 20th Century, horses were still the primary mode of transportation for most Americans. However, with increasing technological advancements and larger spending power, investing in cars and private modes of transport quickly became the next step. Cars were available in three main models: steam, gasoline, and electric, each with their own drawbacks and advantages. For example, at the time, steam was widely used in trains and factories, but stream-powered cars had a limited range and long startup times. Gasoline-powered cars, in contrast, were noisy and hard to maneuver. Thus, electric cars became the default option. They quickly rose to popularity, and between 1900 and 1912, electricity powered one-third of all vehicles on U.S. roads.

The first commercially viable EV, the Electrobat, was patented in 1894, forming the basis of all future EV developments. By 1896 the Electrobat was faster, lighter, and more efficient than gasoline-powered competitors: it had 1.1 kilowatt (kW) motors and could function at over 20 miles per hour, traveling impressive distances without needing to be charged.

So, if EVs were thriving in the early 1900s, how did gas-powered cars become the dominant vehicle? The initial decline in EVs occurred shortly after their rise to popularity when Henry Ford launched the Ford Model in 1908. This mass-produced car completely changed the automobile industry by making gas-powered cars cheaper, more efficient, and easier to refuel compared to EVs. Gas-powered cars could be purchased for a mere $650, while the electric roadster was a whopping $1,750!

In the 1920s, gasoline prices began to fall due to the discovery of Texas crude oil. Road systems expanded, and the invention of internal combustion engines made gas-powered cars even more favorable. With the low cost and expanded infrastructure, gas-powered cars quickly overtook EVs as the leading vehicle in the U.S. and the world at large.

The popularity of EVs has followed a cyclic pattern, and today they're an important part of the growing environmental movement around the world. A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that 53 percent of Americans would consider an EV as their next car due to two primary reasons: increased gas prices and greater environmental awareness.

Increased gas prices

In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. saw the first shortage of gasoline, driving political interest in finding alternative fuel sources within the U.S. itself. In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research and Development and Demonstration Act to promote the development of EVs in the U.S. with the overall goal of localizing the automobile industry and all supporting resources.

Environmental awareness

The environmental impact and carbon production from gas-powered vehicles is another big driving factor for the switch to EVs. Electric cars have lower overall emissions in just about every scenario compared to their gas-powered counterparts. EVs have a far lower global warming potential (GWP) in their lifetime compared to gas-powered alternatives. In cases where EVs are powered by solar energy, their GWP is further reduced! Read more about the environmental benefits of EVs in this article.

The introduction of the Toyota Pruis in 1997, a hybrid EV, marked the start of the EV's rise in popularity once again. This car was followed by three PEVs: the Tesla's Roadster (2008), the Chevy Volt (2010), and the Nissan Electric Leaf (2010). In four years, the price of the battery was reduced to 50 percent of the original cost of production, making EVs significantly more affordable.

Today, there are many EVs and hybrid cars available! While these cars still tend to have a higher upfront cost than gasoline-powered vehicles – primarily because of the battery – the cost to charge them and upkeep them is much lower. Incentives are also available for EV shoppers – the main federal incentive program is the Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Tax Credit, which makes newly purchased EVs eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. However, in the second calendar quarter, after a manufacturer has sold 200,000 eligible EVs, the tax credit is no longer available.

Additionally, several states offer tax credits and rebates for EV shoppers, making them even more financially viable. For example, in Massachusetts, the government provides owners up to $1,500 in rebates if you purchase plug-in hybrid EVs, fuel cell EVs, and battery EVs. Read more about the tax credits and incentives offered locally and federally in the U.S. today.

EVs are more important now than ever. They're at the forefront of the environmental movement and are 97 percent cleaner than gas-powered vehicles. They're also cheaper to maintain, as they don't require routine maintenance and emission inspections like gasoline-powered cars. Finally, they're quiet and have a high rate of energy efficiency, and continue to expand in range.

With more automobile manufacturers focusing resources on the development of EVs, we predict that they'll become the vehicle standard in the future. If you're interested in learning more about EVs today, check out our list of the most popular EVs currently on the market.

There's a robust and fascinating history behind the creation and popularity of EVs – today, finding an EV that suits your needs and falls in your budget is easier than ever. Through EnergySage's Guide to Electric Vehicles, you can browse and compare EVs and discover incentives in your area.

The cheapest way to power your EV is with the sun's energy – you’ll help the environment! Check out the EnergySage Marketplace to receive multiple quotes for solar systems from local installers. Comparing quotes will allow you to find a plan that meets your needs at the right price!

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