Electric Cars Go Back Further Than You Think

The Electric Car Is Older Than You Think

Throughout the next two months, we will be releasing a series of articles all about the electrification of the auto industry. We’re talking about electric vehicles, their history, how they work, how to service them, and what the trend towards more electric vehicles means for our industry. This is the first article in our series.

The Electric Car Is Not a new Idea

The battery-powered electric vehicle is older than you think. Here in the U.S., the first successful electric car made its debut around 1890 thanks to William Morrison, a chemist who lived in Des Moines, Iowa. His six-passenger vehicle, capable of a top speed of 14 miles per hour, was basically a wagon with an electric motor, but nonetheless helped jump-start an interest in building electric vehicles in the U.S.

By 1897, Pope manufacturing was producing electric taxis in NY. Battery electric vehicle development was going strong until Henry Ford added the Electric Automotive starter to the Model T in 1919. That made the gasoline-powered Model T easier and safer to start the hand crank models that came before it. Having an easy to start gasoline-powered car with filling stations to refuel created a market advantage that could not be rivaled by electric cars. So, by the 1920s the electric car became obsolete. Ironically, the electric motor helped kill the electric car of that era.

Development went dormant as gasoline was plentiful, environmental regulations were minimal, and the national highway system was built. Yes, as a country it was an accelerator pedal on the floor where displacement was king, horsepower ruled the roads, and cars became more luxurious through the years. It wasn’t until the environmental regulations and safety mandates of the ‘70s, coupled with higher gas prices and oil embargos, that the notion of the electric car would creep back into the minds of the industry yet again.

The Early Stages of Mainstream Electric Cars

Development on another electric car would begin again in the ‘90s with the GM EV1, and was driven partially by the 1990 CARB mandate for the 7 largest manufacturers to produce Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) as part of their product line to continue selling vehicles in the state of California while helping combat air pollution.

Deliveries of the first leased EV1s began on December 5, 1996. The 137-horsepower Three Phase AC Motor, two-seat electric car had some interesting tech for its time: stop-by-wire brakes and electric steering. Weight reduction and low drag were also key parts of its development. The EV1 had an advertised 70-90-mile range for the production cars while using lead-acid batteries. Recharge times were 3.5 hours on a 220-volt charger and about 7.5 hours on a 110-volt charger. Real world driving range averaged closer to 40 to 50 miles per charge when driven in typical traffic and climatic situations.

The Gen 2 version with Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery upgrades that was released in the 99-model year was not enough to put off the inevitable end of the EV1. Production ended in 1999 when GM shut down the EV1 assembly line and CARB had assessed and removed the ZEV mandate as automakers would not be able to comply. The end of the electric car was here again, but not all was lost as many other EV1 projects were designed in tandem, like EV1 CNG, EV1 Series hybrid, EV1 Parallel hybrid, and the EV1 Fuel cell (Topics for another day). “GM admits it won’t recover the EV1’s $350-million development costs through the small volume of ‘sales’ (lease only), but the technology developed to reach these goals will be used in more mainstream products and will provide the basis for alternative-fuel vehicles in the future”. The inability of the OEMs to produce a marketable EV meant the next leap into electrification would be a hybrid vehicle (both internal combustion engine and electric motor-powered).

The Introduction of the Prius

The Toyota Prius was released in Japan in 1997 and was the first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle of the time. The Prius used (NiMH) battery technology and it also used a gasoline engine to charge the high voltage battery and extend the range. Near the same time, Honda also came out with the Insight model, which used batteries to store energy for stop/start and as a power assist to the smaller gasoline engine. Prius sales were modest at the start, as consumers were wary of the vehicles, in part because they were very sluggish performers (it took the Prius 13 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph, whereas the average car on the market could do it in 10 seconds).

This was the first time the world had seen or used an electric-gas-powered hybrid.  And even in the face of the bumpy start, Toyota must have done something right, because the Prius was still surpassing the number of sales estimated for the first year. In 2004, the second generation of the Prius was rolled out with better fuel mileage, a better drivetrain, and more space.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive system consisted of a 1.5L gasoline internal combustion engine (ICE) and a hybrid transmission. The transmission is essentially two electric motors (MG1 and MG2) on either side of a planetary gear set—Toyota calls this the “Power Split Device.” The gas engine produced 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque; next to the electric motor that produced the equivalent of 67 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. (The net combined horsepower was increased to 110, giving the second generation a new time of 10 seconds when going from 0 to 60.) With the upgraded Hybrid Drive System, it was also able to get better fuel mileage as well. It now reached 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, giving it a grand combined total of 46 mpg. From 2004 to 2010, many production improvements were made to refine the car according to consumer demand.

Modern Hybrid Vehicles

In 2010, the Prius went through a complete redesign, and performance was the focus this time. It was outfitted with a new engine, improved steering, improved handling, better fuel efficiency, better drivetrain, and even a new platform. This is the Third Generation of the Prius and according to Toyota’s comments at the time, 90 percent of the hybrid system was new for this 2010 model. The engine was enlarged to 1.8 liters, has VVT and 98 horsepower compared to the 76 horsepower 1.5-liter engine. Combined output is up 24 horsepower to 134. RPMs are held much lower over the operating range with a significant reduction in noise vibration harshness (NVH). To reduce parasitic load on the engine, the drive belts are gone, and all accessories are now electric. Battery output was upped from 25 kilowatts to 27 kilowatts without changing the (NiMH) batteries. The increased power output comes from a redesign of the battery packaging, which saves weight and improves cooling performance.

When consumers posed the question, “Why can’t we plug these in and drive them as an EV?” Toyota responded and introduced a plug-in version in 2012. It was basically the same car, with a 4.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack in place of the 1.3-kWh (NiMH) pack. There were also necessary upgrades to the cooling system to handle the greater energy demand and subsequent load. With a Toyota claimed range of up to 15 miles of pure electric range at speeds up to 62 mph, the plug-in could handle short trips on an all-electric operation. This model was developed, in part due to consumer demand, but also to compete with the recently released all-electric Nissan Leaf. Customers only needed to drop another $5,000 (fewer incentives) over the price of a standard Prius.

There are a lot of other hybrids on the market from many other manufacturers. Many of these help manufacturers meet CAFE standards so they can sell trucks and SUVs and have a smaller hybrid market share. For this article, we are focusing on the evolution of technology in general and the path it has taken to get to the current state. The Toyota Prius was the first and longest-running hybrid, which is why it has been chosen as the bridge to an EV (Electric Vehicle).

Prius Sales numbers since 2000: Sales of hybrid vehicles have a strong correlation to market forces like fuel prices. The graphs below show the distinct correlation between the two.

(Sales Data source: carsalesbase.com)


Prius sales since 2000


(Average annual fuel prices are courtesy of the (EIA) Energy Information Administration)

Fuel Prices 2000-2018

Tesla and the Plug-In Electric Vehicle

Riding the market momentum of hybrids and rising gas prices, and CAFÉ standards from the Feds, enter the plug-in electric vehicle.

The Tesla Roadster, manufactured from 2008-2012, was a Tesla-engineered and built drivetrain in a Lotus Elise chassis. The Roadster was the first highway-legal serial production all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells and the first production all-electric car to travel more than 200 miles per charge. It sold 2,450 units in 30 countries. This was a fast and sophisticated vehicle that displayed all the modern technology of its time. With a base price of $98,500, this was hardly the EV for the common man. To be fair, Tesla has been the first manufacturer to go all EV in its entire lineup, but because of cost and availability, we are not focusing on it in this article.

The Nissan Leaf 2010 5-door hatchback using 24kWh lithium-ion battery pack represents the first affordable EV that can be bought and serviced from a major manufacturer. Considering that the MSRP for the 2011 Leaf was $32,780 and the base model Leaf in 2019 is $29,990, Nissan has held the mantle for the affordable EV. Claimed driving range and actual range are synonymous with the driving habits (much like gasoline vehicles). Drivers have found that the range available from a single charge can vary up to 40% in real-world situations—ranges from 62 miles to almost 138 miles have been reported. Driving style, load, traffic conditions, weather, and accessory use are the primary factors affecting driving range. Once again you will notice that the fluctuating gas prices have affected the sales of the Leaf annually. When gas prices are low consumers will buy gasoline/diesel vehicles for the ease of operation and convenience of daily use.


US Leaf sales 2010 –2018 Courtesy of (Car Sales Base.com)


Nissan Leaf Annual Sales


(Average annual fuel prices are courtesy of the (EIA) Energy Information Administration)


Gas Prices 2010-2018


The Future of Electric Vehicles

So, what does all this mean? When will all cars be electric? How long will hybrids stay in the market? What about solar-powered vehicles? The questions can go on and on. Here are a few more to ponder.

How will we fund the development of infrastructure that can support charging EVs? When will the current limited range and the time required to charge batteries improve? What will give us better energy storage and performance than lithium-ion? What type of political mandates and regulations will come down the pike or which regulations and mandates will be removed?

These are all questions that continue to surround the EV debate. Other factors such as unpopularity in states with extreme cold or heat that heavily-tax electrical capacity through heating and cooling lead to further reduced range. Factors such as style, performance, and a strong connection many consumers still have with gasoline-powered vehicles will continue to influence a fledgling market place.

One thing we do know is that the electric car idea has been around for a long time and contrary to popular belief, “Big oil” didn’t buy patents and pay people off to keep gasoline in our daily lives. There never was a carburetor that produced 100 miles to the gallon. The market is the driving force and gives us the cars we currently drive and builds the car we would like to drive. Many things affect the market: Cost, demand, federal regulations, and affordability. Technology such as Ultracapacitors to store more energy to extend the range will continue to be explored and technological advancements will flow into the market if people will continue to buy electric cars. Consider this quote, attributed to both Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”


Statistical data is courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp. General Motors Corp. & Tesla and Historical data courtesy of energy.gov