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The History of Electric Vehicles
Beginning in the nineteenth century... moving into the twenty-first.

An electric vehicle (EV), also referred to as an electric drive vehicle, is a vehicle which uses one or more electric motors for propulsion. Depending on the type of vehicle, motion may be provided by wheels or propellers driven by rotary motors, or in the case of tracked vehicles, by linear motors. Electric vehicles can include electric cars, electric trains, electric lorries, electric airplanes, electric boats, electric motorcycles and scooters, and electric spacecraft.

Electric vehicles first came into existence in the mid-19th century, when electricity was among the preferred methods for automobile propulsion, providing a level of comfort and ease of operation that could not be achieved by the gasoline cars of the time.

Despite their relatively slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, and electric vehicles did not require shifting gears. Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. Electric cars were also preferred because they did not require a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which required a hand crank to start the engine. Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to this ease of operation. Within decades, however, the internal combustion engine (ICE) had completely replaced the electric drive as a propulsion method for automobiles, but electric power has remained commonplace in other vehicle types, such as trains and smaller vehicles of all types.

Several factors contributed to the demise of the the electric automobile early in the twentieth century. First, there was a growing acceptance of the gas-powered car. In 1908, Henry Fordís Model T first appeared on the roads and sold over ten thousand in that model year alone. Previously, cars had been a luxury for the wealthy, but Ford applied assembly line production in 1913 and sold more than 308,000 Model Ts  the following year. Charles Kettering invented the electric automobile starter in 1912, which eliminated the inconvenience, and danger, of the unwieldy hand crank starter which had been needed gas engine cars.


GE charging station with a Baker Electric circa early 1900's

Another problem for the electric vehicles relative to gas-powered cars was that electricity wasnít as obtainable within Americaís infrastructure as gasoline had become. At the turn of the century, urban areas began using more electricity for appliances like street lamps; however, only the wealthy were having it installed throughout their homes. In the more rural areas, electricity was virtually non-existent, which kept drivers of electric cars close to home. Large cities like New York created "swapping stationsĒ for batteries, popular around 1910, to accommodate distance travel. Still, the "sphere of usefulness" of electric vehicles was within the city, while gas vehicles could go between cities. Gas vehicles therefore could easily infringe of the EVís sphere, but not the other way around.

At the turn of the century, 40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, making America the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance. Sales of electric cars peaked in 1912.

Eventually, the expense of running an electric vehicle vs a gas-powered car became a decisive blow to the EV. Henry Fordís gas-powered cars had a relative low cost compared to EVs. Recharging lead-acid batteries cost roughly 20 cents per kwh (about $2.07 today), compared with filling up with five cents a gallon gas back then. The first filling station cropped up in St. Louis in 1905. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) built its first in 1907 in Seattle. By 1920, gas stations made their way across the United States and fueling up a car became as easy as buying a loaf of bread. Switching to the internal combustion engine was a no-brainer.

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