The History of Electric Vehicles

Written by: Ameilya Hulsey, East TN Clean Fuels Communications Assistant


Forms of electric vehicles (EVs) have been around since the early 1800s and have gained major traction within the vehicle industry in the last 10 to 15 years.

Around 1832, Robert Anderson, from Scotland, created the first crude electric vehicle which used crude oil to generate power within a battery he created, as noted by UPS Battery Center.

Daily History mentions that “these early vehicles were effectively carriages that could move a short distance on some electric charge and be steered by a large stick-like device.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) states that it wasn’t until the 1870s or later that the EV became practical for communities to use. They also mention that as EVs gained popularity they were specifically suited for short trips around the city due to the short range and suitable driving conditions.

In 1890, William Morrison, from Iowa, created the first successful electric car in the United States. This was the first four-wheel electric road vehicle according to the Edison Tech Center. After Morrison’s invention, DOE states that EVs began appearing around the U.S., and New York even had a fleet of 60 electric taxis.

Around 1898, Ferdinand Porsche created the first hybrid-electric car. Additionally, by 1900, EVs accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road and continued to grow in sales over the next 10 years.

Around the turn of the century, horses were still the most popular source of transportation. Gasoline and steam vehicles were becoming competitors of the EV at this time.

DOE stated that steam proved to be a hassle because of the extensive startup times and the need to refill the water frequently. They also conclude that gasoline-powered vehicles required a startup hand crank and emitted an odor accompanied by a noisy engine, as stated by the DOE. In contrast, EVs had ease of use by being quiet, easy to drive and odor free. 

Unfortunately, between 1914 and 1935, the demand for EVs declined “with the eventual disappearance of the cars from the market, fully replaced by gasoline-powered competitors,” according to the Library of Congress.

DOE connected this downfall with Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T, the decrease in the cost of gas-powered vehicles as compared to electric, and the cheap and easily accessible source of gasoline. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s “soaring oil prices and gasoline shortages — peaking with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo” pushed America to look for homegrown fuel sources.

The United States then passed the “Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976,” which allowed for more research and development of hybrid and electric alternatives. Car manufacturers followed suit.

Over the next 20 years, the focus on EVs had dwindled, but, when the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment and the 1992 Energy Policy Act, along with other clean air acts, were implemented, EVs gained traction once again according to DOE. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Toyota came out with the Prius; the first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle.

In 2006, Tesla began manufacturing EV sports cars and received a loan from the DOE to advance its capabilities.

By 2010, the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf were being sold.

Since then, DOE has invested millions into infrastructure, technology and expansion of EVs around the nation.

We are currently seeing the ever-growing availability of EVs on the market and the impact they have made on our environment thus far.

The EV market continues to expand, and President Joe Biden plans to sign an Executive Order to “make half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric vehicles,” according to The White House.


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