A road map view of the electric car from conception to current day.

Alex Dos Diaz

Electric Vehicles: A Short History Lesson

EVs aren’t new; they’ve been around for almost 200 years

Think electric vehicles are a 21st century fad? Nope! EVs have a history that spans the course of nearly two centuries.

The first electric vehicles shared the road with horse-drawn and steam-powered carriages for years before gas-powered cars showed up on the scene, and they grew in popularity as advances in battery technology and the growing availability of electricity made them ever more convenient to operate.

The wide availability of inexpensive gas in the early part of the 20th century helped push EVs  out of the public consciousness, but various automakers continued working on related technology throughout the years. Thanks to further advances in battery technology, and a drive to lower vehicle emissions, the modern electric vehicle was poised to reemerge near the turn of the 21st century. 

The First EVs

A roadmap view of the electric car's history, complete with years and a timeline below the images.

Alex Dos Diaz

Electric vehicles have driven a long and winding road over the course of two centuries. It’s difficult to pin down exactly where the history of electric vehicles begins, but the basic idea showed up right alongside the first electric motors.

1828 - 1839

Hungarian physicist Anyos Jedlik is credited with building some of the first practical DC motors around 1827, and by 1828 he used one of his early electric motors to build what could be called a model electric car.

Some time between 1832 and 1839, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson came up with the idea of an early electric carriage. Details are sparse, but the design suffered from a major issue that wouldn’t be solved for some time: limited battery power. Anderson’s electric carriage used non-rechargeable batteries, which limited the practicality of such a vehicle. 

Trains designed around the 1830s could carry heavy batteries and even receive power from electrified tracks but smaller passenger vehicles had to wait for battery technology to catch up.

1859 - 1881

In 1859, France took the lead in EV development. The lead acid battery was invented in France by Gaston Plante. It was later improved upon in 1881 by Camille Alphonse Faure and has been tweaked and further improved over the years. The arrival of the lead acid battery meant that it was finally actually possible for practical electric vehicles to hit the road.

The lead acid battery is the same basic battery technology that’s still used by gas-powered vehicles today.

1890 - early 1900s

Gustave Trouve of France demonstrated an electric tricycle in 1881 while Thomas Parker of England built the first production electric car to resemble the traditional horseless carriage in 1884.

Andrew Riker racing an electric car circa 1901
Andrew Riker and a friend racing an electric car circa 1901.

Smithsonian/Museum of American History

In the United States, William Morrison developed an electric car in 1890 that was capable of carrying six passengers and traveling at the blistering speed of 14 MPH. Just six years later, an electric vehicle made by Riker Electric Vehicle Company won a horseless carriage race that was possibly one of the first recorded automobile races in the United States.

The popularity of electric vehicles soared toward the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century. They made less noise than early gas-powered vehicles, provided a smoother ride, and were often seen as easier to drive and operate.

With the advent of more efficient lead acid batteries with larger storage capacities in the late 1800s, a number of inventors in more countries struck out to create practical electric vehicles.

Fleets of electric taxis appeared in London, Paris, and New York, and even Thomas Edison tried to get in on the game in 1906 by developing alkaline batteries that would provide more capacity and weigh less than the lead acid batteries of the day.

20th Century EVs

Electric vehicles remained quite popular at the dawn of the 20th century. About one-third of all vehicles on the road were electric around the year 1900, but that popularity began to wane as the years went by. Despite advances in battery technology, the availability of inexpensive gasoline and lack of electricity outside big cities helped bolster the popularity of gas-powered vehicles instead. 

An electric runabout used from 1906 to the early 1930s.
An electric runabout used from 1906 to the early 1930s.

Original image courtesy of the Smithsonian/National Museum of American History

Early electric vehicles were unable to keep up with their gas counterparts in terms of range and speed; automotive manufacturers transitioned almost entirely to gas-powered vehicles by 1935.

The automotive industry never forgot about electric vehicles though, and research into batteries and other related technologies quietly continued.

1959: A Key Year

The invention of the MOSFET (a semiconductor) at Bell Labs in 1959 is considered to be one of the key turning points in the history of modern electric vehicles. This led to the creation of the power MOSFET by Hitachi, microprocessors, and microcontrollers, all of which are essential components in modern electric vehicles. 

Unlike early electric vehicles that simply connected a lead acid battery to an electric motor, modern electric vehicles lean on technologies like the power MOSFET and microcontrollers to squeeze ever-expanding levels of efficiency out of newly developed battery technologies and electric drive train components.

1971 - 1996

Those newer battery technologies led to the invention of lithium-ion batteries in the 1980s, providing yet another important building block for modern electric vehicles. Where the first electric vehicles relied on inefficient and heavy lead acid batteries, the development of lithium-ion batteries promised a lighter-weight and more efficient alternative. Today the two main battery technologies used by electric vehicles, NCA and NMC, are both lithium-ion based.

While all of this background research was underway, electric vehicles kept popping up in a lot of places throughout the 20th century. The Lunar Roving Vehicle, aka the moon buggy, was both an electric vehicle and the first manned vehicle to be operated on the moon when it rolled across the lunar landscape in 1971. Back on earth, in the same decade, Florida-based Sebring-Vanguard sold more than 2,000 of its all-electric CitiCars that each had a range of about 50 to 60 miles.

The moon buggy was both an electric vehicle and the first manned vehicle to be operated on the moon.

Other automakers hadn’t completely forgotten about EVs, either. Many large auto manufacturers showed off a lot of concept electric vehicles that never made it to production, culminating with GM’s EV1. This all-electric vehicle was never sold directly to the public, but it was made available for lease in limited markets starting in 1996.

Electric vehicles were back on the road, and battery technology had just about caught up to modern times, too. 

Modern Day EVs

Early experiments with modern day EVs, like GM’s EV1 in the mid-nineties, were met with middling results. The technology was just about there, but there were a number of stumbling blocks in the way. 

The major automakers all saw electric vehicles on the horizon, but the consensus just before the turn of the 21st century was that battery technology still wouldn’t be advanced enough to provide enough range and reliability for a couple decades at the minimum.

1999 - 2001

Suddenly, the technologies that would ultimately shake that up were developed in 1999 and 2001. NCA battery technology was invented first, followed by MNC battery technology shortly thereafter. Both are variants on older lithium-ion cells, and both would go on to power modern electric vehicles.

Those improved battery technologies created EV opportunities unlike any the world had seen previously. The industry exploded with new takes on electric vehicles.

2003 - 2014

Tesla, launched by Elon Musk, showed up on the scene in 2003 as a startup aimed at creating an affordable and practical electric vehicle. Prototypes of the Tesla Roadster were revealed in 2006, and the first Roadsters were delivered to customers in 2008. Powered by NCA battery technology, the Roadster had a range of 244 miles, which was significantly higher than previous all-electric vehicles.

An early yellow Tesla Roadster with black stripes.

Cherubino/Wikimedia Commons

With Tesla electric vehicles on the road, a number of major automakers shortly followed suit. Mitsubishi launched their iMiEV electric vehicle in Japan in 2009, and other limited markets the following year, although only for lease and not for sale. 

Nissan wasn’t far behind with the Nissan Leaf, which hit the road in the US and Japan in 2010. By 2014, there were 23 different electric vehicles models on the market in the US. Within the next decade, every major automaker had fielded at least one electric vehicle.

In the United States, the development of electric vehicles saw a major boon when the US Department of Energy started investing in infrastructure. Between 2009 and 2013, the Energy Department invested over $115 million to help build out a nation-wide electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

More than 18,000 charging stations were installed through this program, though the build-out of charging infrastructure continues to this day through other public and private initiatives.

The Future of EVs

The history of the electric vehicle has been driven largely by battery technology, and that’s likely to continue into the future unless a new technology comes along that can effectively replace them. With the overall cost of batteries dropping and the technology continuing to advance, electric vehicles are likely to match gas-powered vehicles in terms of cost, range, and other factors.

As the charging infrastructure continues to expand, and charging speeds increase, driving an EV over long distances will also become more convenient. It’s also possible that technologies like hot swappable batteries could make “refueling” your electric car even faster and easier. 

The idea is that, instead of plugging in and waiting, you could simply take a couple minutes to trade your battery for a fresh one. Other energy storage technologies, like hot swappable fuel cells, could also see use, but they’re so much less efficient than modern batteries that it seems unlikely.

2018 and Beyond

In 2018, the number of electric vehicles on the road in the United States first passed the one million mark. By 2020, that number had soared to 1.8 million. Growth in other locations, like Europe and China, has been even faster.

Further advances in battery and charging technology, a better charging infrastructure, and legislation targeting reduced vehicle emissions are likely to help drive those numbers even higher in the coming years. 

Electric vehicles may have traveled a long and winding road over the last couple centuries, but the 21st century is starting to look like where they will finally end up on top.