The Rise, Fall and Return of Electric Vehicles




The electric automobile has followed a complex trajectory spanning nearly two centuries. What began as a promising tech disruption in the late 1800s soon regressed for over 70 dormant years due to infrastructure limitations before reemerging thanks to lithium-ion batteries and clean energy policies. This ongoing story elucidates how technological progress interplays with commercial risks, consumer whims, infrastructure realities, and regulatory interventions across industries and eras.

The First Wave: Pioneering Promise Cut Short

Contrary to widespread misconception, electric vehicles significantly predate gasoline cars. Innovators began tinkering with storage batteries and electric motors long before Karl Benz’s 1886 Motorwagen. However, the initial heyday of early electric automobiles during the late 19th century proved remarkably brief.

1832: Proto-EVs Emerge from Visionary Tinkerers

The earliest known electric vehicle prototype dates back to 1832 when Scottish innovator Robert Anderson created a crude electric carriage powered by rudimentary batteries invented two years prior by Michael Faraday. However, Anderson’s design lacked practical commercialization potential beyond serving as an early tech demonstration.

1859 Onward: Lead-Acid Batteries Enable Early EVs

The invention of more viable batteries enabled some of the earliest production-capable electric carriages during the early 1860s. French physicist Gaston Planté’s creation of the rechargeable lead-acid battery in 1859 facilitated electrifying small carriages and boats. By the 1890s, significant improvements in battery capacities along with more efficient AC induction motors propelled average electric vehicle speeds to around 15 mph – acceptable for urban trips during that era.

1897-1915: The Golden Age of Early Electric Cars

By 1897, electric vehicles began series production in the US and abroad thanks to breakthroughs like Charles Kettering’s electric starter enabling simplified drives without hand-cranking ignitions. Relatively silent operation and automatic transmissions also attracted affluent urban women otherwise excluded from physically arduous hand-cranked gas cars. By 1915, over 30 US brands offered electric vehicles spanning cars, delivery wagons, even trucks and buses – significantly outselling noisy “gassers” which still averaged just 18 mph with a paltry 50 mile range per tank. For a while, the future clearly belonged to the electron.

Peak Raw Materials Access Spurs Vertical Integration

With exponentially growing lead-acid battery demand for electric vehicles in the early 1900s, some manufacturers sought to backward integrate into battery production and even secure raw material mining assets. Most prominently, Baker Electric developed extensive lead and acid production from mines in Mexico to reduce exposures to external battery materials suppliers.

Range & Rural Infrastructure Gaps Emerge

However, despite leading on early speed, acceleration, and drivability metrics, all production EVs during the early 20th century shared a common Achilles heel – severely limited battery range coupled with a nearly non-existent rural charging network. Although well-suited for urban trips under 50 miles, taking longer journeys across state lines remained challenging at best, impossible for most.

The Fall: Internal Combustion Quickly Displaces

The brief, shining heyday of early electric vehicles soon came crashing down due to consumers shifting preferences. By 1920 gasoline cars delivered better range, speed, and reliability at far lower acquisition costs than luxury EV brands. Parallel infrastructure buildouts further enabled long distance travel for gas burners. Outside niche urban duty cycles, internal combustion technology quickly won the battle.

Rural Charging Deserts Spell Trouble

Lack of public charging infrastructure spanning between cities and states imposed severe limitations on electric vehicle road trips during the 1910s and 20s across America’s rapidly growing highway networks. An explosion of service stations selling cheap gas kept gas burners moving wherever new roads took them. With no government efforts toward funding rural electrification at the time, early EVs simply couldn’t keep pace.

Refueling Convenience & Speed Favors Gas

Regardless of infrastructure gaps, frequently waiting overnight to recharge EV batteries remained highly inconvenient compared to quickly refueling a gas tank for just pennies a gallon in minutes. This refueling experience discrepancy weighed heavily in purchase decisions – especially as gas stations proliferated everywhere.

Powertrain Improvements Shift Value Proposition

Thanks to electric starters and engine efficiency gains, gas vehicles closed significant performance gaps against electric drivetrains during the 1910s in terms of responsiveness, range, speed, and driver convenience when refueling on long journeys. By the early 1920s, affordable mass-market gasoline cars clearly delivered better overall transportation utility than premium niche EVs for all but urban-centric buyers.

High Volumes & Low Costs Decide the Winner

The knockout punch finishing the brief early days of America’s electric vehicles undoubtedly landed from Henry Ford’s remarkable Model T hitting the market in 1908. The Model T’s mastery of mass production efficiencies via continuously improved moving assembly lines allowed Ford to push volume past 15 million units, grabbing 50% US market share by 1920. Competing on costs and manufacturing scale rates against Ford’s perpetually optimized gas car leviathan doomed boutique EV ventures.

The Lost Generations: Falling Out of Consumer Consciousness

Once America embraced the freedom, flexibility, and affordability mass produced gas cars offered for leisure travel or rural livelihoods, electric cars nearly vanished from roads and consumer consciousness for over 70 years. But growing ecological awareness from the 1960s onward slowly set the stage for envisioning a clean transportation future powered by the grid rather than pumping wells.

1920s to 1950s: Niche Status before Fading to Black

A tiny contingent of niche electric vehicle manufacturers like Detroit Electric barely clung to life serving specialty urban markets during the interwar period into the 1950s. However, paltry sales of just a few thousand units per year across the US for Detroit Electric paled against soaring millions of yearly Model A and Model T sales. By 1959, remaining EV makers either folded operations or focused exclusively on niche industrial electric utility trucks and carts.

1960s-70s: Early Seeds Planted for a Comeback

Several developments occurring between the 1960s and 1990s laid early foundations for the 21st century electric vehicle renaissance. Growing ecological awareness sparked renewed questions around developing cleaner urban transportation options. Initial regulatory pressure also emerged in California attempting to compel automakers toward early electric test vehicles. And battery chemistries beyond lead-acid showed glimmers of promise powering experimental EVs despite exorbitant costs at small scale for these early lithium ion and nickel metal hydride formulations.

1990s: GM’s EV1 Hints at the Future

While Honda and Toyota steered toward hybrid gasoline-electric drivetrains to reduce emissions, General Motors took the boldest step toward resuscitating public interest in pure battery electric vehicles with their introduction of the pioneering GM EV1 in 1996. Though ultimately canceled in 1999, the aerodynamic two-seater offered a glimpse into future possibilities by delivering over 100 miles of range and peppy acceleration from its early lead-acid and later nickel metal hydride battery packs. Most importantly, the EV1 rekindled dialog around electric vehicle capabilities for the 21st century.

2000s: Academics Plant Seeds for a Perfect Storm

As exponential computing power growth tracked along Moore’s Law, engineers recognized coming possibilities for far more sophisticated EV battery management systems by the 21st century. In parallel, early academic papers on promising new lithium-ion formulations in the late 1990s into 2000s laid groundwork for subsequent commercial improvement cycles. The stage was slowly being set for the eventual electric vehicle rebirth pending a perfect storm of future economic factors converging.

The Second Coming: Sparking a Global Transition

By the late 2000s, four key factors aligned to start driving electric vehicles back into consumer awareness and carmaker roadmaps. These converged market dynamics initiated across technology, regulations, infrastructure, and prices continue accelerating EV adoption into the mainstream during the 2020s.

Computing Power Enables Smart Battery Management

Possibilities for far more advanced electric drivetrains emerged at scale thanks to exponential improvements in computing power and software capabilities according to Moore’s Law. Ultra-efficient power electronics coupled with sophisticated battery management systems offered breakthroughs in extending range at affordable componentry costs – especially leveraging new lithium-ion chemistries.

Lithium-Ion Battery Costs Plunge 90%

Lithium-Ion Battery car

The greatest accelerator for electric vehicle demand today traces directly to immense cost improvements in lithium-ion battery packs while density significantly improves. Between 2010 and 2021, industry-wide costs per usable kWh shed an almost unthinkable 90% amidst manufacturing economies of scale. And cells continue packing more range each successive year as chemistries incrementally improve.

Stricter Regional Emissions Regulations

While free markets often drive innovation, government interventions frequently accelerate industry progress – as witnessed in California’s regulatory pressures compelling automakers to embrace electric drivetrains. Many US states beyond California now follow similar zero emission vehicle (ZEV) compliance blueprint targets. Nations across Europe and Asia also enact increasingly strict emissions requirements for fleets.

Public Charging Infrastructure Reaches Tipping Point

Despite most EV owners charging at home, public charging infrastructure plays a crucial role alleviating range anxiety, signaling wider adoption possibilities. Governments now prioritize ambitious long-term plans for installing millions of public chargers. EV brands themselves also commit capital investments into further expanding fast charging networks to assuage any remaining consumer doubt regarding long trips.

The Road Ahead: Steady March Towards Disruption

Present trajectories around improving lithium-ion batteries, expanded charging networks, aggressive emissions regulations, and massive brand investments into new models signal steady momentum towards electric vehicle dominance across most passenger vehicle sales globally by 2030. Growing total cost of ownership advantages against gas counterparts also appear inevitable as more consumers crunch the numbers.

Tipping Point Seen by Mid-2020s in Many Markets

Based on production commitments across nearly all major automakers, various forecasters predict electric vehicles seizing anywhere from 35% to over 60% market share across North America, Europe, and China by 2030. As more models deliver 400+ mile ranges under $40k, mass acceptance follows. California likely breaches majority EV new car sales by the mid-2020s.

Micro-Mobility Further Boosts Public Perception

Wider proliferation of electric-powered micro-mobility form factors like e-bikes and scooters builds general public comfort and acceptance around eco-friendly electrified transport. These alternative platforms represent further gateways toward embracing electric vehicles, according to several studies.

Grid Capacity Catching Up in Parallel

Today’s electric grid infrastructure generally offers sufficient power capacity to handle ambitious electric vehicle adoption rates so long as charging stations implement smart load balancing software across regions. Utilities additionally invest heavily in targeted grid upgrades to accommodate anticipated new EV demand. Home solar system combinations also hold meaningful potential for helping mitigate peak electricity demand timing mismatches.

In summary, electric vehicles have come full circle over 180+ years since the pioneering tinkering days of Robert Anderson’s crude electrified carriage back in 1832. Near-ubiquitous success for Henry Ford’s Model T soon displaced early EVs for over 70 years due to range constraints and gaps in rural charging infrastructure during the pivotal early 20th century. But thanks to lithium-ion batteries finally delivering extreme cost efficiencies at manufacturing scale, EVs now appear clearly positioned to disrupt internal combustion dependence across global transportation industries during the 2020s and beyond. The next era will likely be defined by electrons surpassing dinosaur remains.

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