Today, ask people what they think about electric cars and you will encounter either enthusiastic glee or apathetic “not for me” responses. Most people are unaware of the long, rich history of electric cars and the brilliant innovators that made them possible. Perhaps a brief retrospective will lend some respect to the technological marvel that is today’s electric vehicle.
The story of the electric vehicle, or EV, is an epic with a footprint in three centuries. People often believe that the internal combustion engine, or ICE, came first when in fact, it was a battery-powered electric motor that moved the first vehicle down a quaint cobblestone road. The first electric motor was invented in Hungary by inventor in 1828, over thirty years before the first internal combustion engine roared to life in 1863 when inventor Etienne Lenoir drove his “Hippomobile” nine kilometers from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back. Turpentine powered the ‘Hippomobile’ since gasoline was not invented until thirty-two years later, in 1895.
The first commercially successful electric car debuted around 1890, built by Des Moines, Iowa chemist William Morrison. The six-passenger vehicle he created had a top speed of 14 miles per hour and spurred public interest in electric cars. In 1896, the German patent office issued Carl Benz the first patent for a car powered by an internal combustion engine. The patent read, “vehicle-powered by a gas engine.” Benz called his car the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, and it topped out at 16 miles per hour.
Electric vehicles became so popular by 1900 that they accounted for a third of all cars on the road. New York City had a fleet of electric taxis favored by drivers and passengers alike because they were quiet, didn’t smell, and didn’t have cumbersome gear systems. Overall, they were easier to operate and didn’t require a manual crank to get started. A New York Times article from 1911 reported, “The designers of electric passenger car-carrying vehicles have made great advances in the past few years, and these machines have retained all their early popularity and are steadily growing in favor with both men and women.” Electric vehicles were utilized by hospitals and emergency services too. The 25th president of the United States, William McKinley, was rushed to the hospital in an electric ambulance after being shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September of 1901. Mckinley died eight days later from a resulting infection.
The turn of the century had its own Elon Musk, CEO of today’s Tesla car company. Oliver P. Fritchle was a brilliant electrical engineer and chemist in addition to being a visionary. Fritchle received his first battery patent in 1903, a design that doubled the range of those offered by competitors. He was the first to successfully implement electric braking, now known as regenerative braking, which is the concept of charging the battery by using the electric motor to slow the vehicle. Fritchle innovated a solution for determining the amount of charge remaining in the battery called the Fritchle Milostat. Until the introduction of his milostat, drivers were left guessing and often stranded without power. In addition to his numerous technical contributions to the electric car, Fritchle introduced one of the first child-safety seats. Fritchle’s cars were very popular among the affluent in New York and Colorado. The unsinkable Molly Brown was often seen driving around Denver in her beloved Fritchle Victoria. Between 1909 and 1914, Fritchle sold about 200 cars per year, which was an admirable feat since each car was handmade.
Oliver P. Fritchle possessed a flair for marketing and, in 1908, issued a challenge to all-electric auto-manufacturers to compete in an “endurance run” from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York City. There were no challengers, so Fritchle embarked alone on the 20 – day, 1,800-mile journey in his two-seat Fritchle Victoria model that sold for $2,000. The Victoria’s battery could achieve the one hundred-mile range, which was twice that of others and the likely reason there were no challengers. Fritchle being an astute marketer, let everyone know the range of the Victoria by dubbing his car the “100-mile Fritchle.”
During the period between 1890 and 1912, electric vehicles comprised a large percentage of the auto-market, and at times dominated it, but it was an era coming to an end beginning with Henry Ford’s Model T and his assembly line innovation that reduced costs dramatically. By 1912 a gasoline car cost $650 compared to $1,750 for the average electric vehicle. Gasoline cars continued to improve, and the introduction of the electric starter eliminated the need to manually hand crank the motor, which was a significant reason many people preferred electric cars. Additionally, the discovery of oil in Texas made gasoline cheap, and by 1935, the electric car had all but vanished from America’s roads.
Over fifty years had passed since the heyday of Oliver Fritchle and other early EV manufacturers when the oil crisis of the 1970s spawned a resurgent interest in electric vehicles. The passage of time didn’t bring much improvement to EV’s produced in the ’70s, many of which achieved a meager 50 miles on a charge that was half of a Fritchle Victoria from over half a century prior. The Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, developed by Bob Beaumont and upstate New York Chrysler dealer, was one such car. Over 4,000 CitiCars were sold between 1976 and 1982 when the company went bankrupt. Performance was meager, with a maximum speed of 50 mph and a battery range of only 60 miles under ideal conditions. The CitiCar sold for around $3,000.
The next attempt at commercializing electric vehicles came in 1996 when GM introduced the EV1 and was the first mass-produced electric car in the modern era by a major manufacturer. New requirements by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that seven of the largest auto manufactures selling cars in the United States manufacture a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) to continue selling cars in California. This mandate was a significant factor for GM producing the EV1. It’s interesting to note that GM never sold any of the 2,234 cars manufactured. Instead, they leased them to California and Arizona residents who were officially participants in a “real-world engineering evaluation” efficacy study. GM concluded that the EV1 would be unprofitable, particularly after Automakers won a lawsuit against CARB, resulting in the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate being overturned. Residents who leased the EV1’s were required to return the cars, which GM subsequently placed in the crusher except for 60 vehicles that were donated to museums in the U.S. and abroad. The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car highlighted the EV1 and the great affinity those who participated in the lease program had for this car that is now iconic in the history of electric vehicles.
Tesla Motors was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning in July of 2003. In 2004 the new company raised 7.5 million in funding, with 6.5 million of it coming from one enthusiastic investor, Elon Musk, who became chairman of the board of directors soon after his investment. Musk took over control of developing Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, at a very detailed nuts and bolts level, and after several prototypes, production of the finished product began in 2008. By January 2009, Musk led multiple rounds of funding that totaled 187 million, 70 million of that from Musk himself. In June of 2009, Tesla received 465 million in loans from the Department of Energy’s 8 billion Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. By May of 2013, Tesla repaid the load with 12 million in interest.
Tesla’s Roadster was part of Tesla’s strategy to start with a premium sports car to attract early adopters and prove that electric cars were not glorified golf carts but high-performance vehicles that could outperform most sports cars on the road. The Roadster achieved zero to sixty in under four seconds and topped out around 130 mph, and capable of 244 miles on a single charge. Tesla was the first car company to make a production car with a lithium-ion battery that proved superior to prior battery chemistry consisting of lead-acid and metal hydride. Tesla stopped manufacturing the Roadster in 2012 but will produce it once again in 2021. The new Tesla Roadster will be the fastest production car in history with a zero to sixty time of 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph.
Tesla introduced their second car, the Type S, proceeded by much fanfare. Motor Trend awarded it “Car of the Year” in 2013, and two years later, the Type-S became the best-selling plug-in electric car in the world. The 2021 year Type S starts at $69,420. Type S is the fastest car currently in production and the third-fastest production car ever built, with a zero to sixty time of 2.5 seconds.
In the fall of 2015, the Model X luxury SUV hit the showroom floor. The 2021 Model X starts at $79,990 and is the fastest SUV ever produced. Specifications: 340-mile range, zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds, ¼ mile in 9.9 seconds, and monstrous 1020 peak horsepower.
The Tesla Model 3 began production in 2017 and is currently the best-selling luxury car in the United States. The 2021 Model 3 starts at $37,490. As with other models, the 3 is tops other luxury vehicles with a 3.1 zero to sixty time and a 315-mile range.
As of this writing, Tesla is by far the best selling electric car in the world, with 365,000 units sold worldwide in 2020. However, nearly every major manufacturer is developing and selling electric vehicles now. General Motors is committing 27 billion dollars to introduce 30 EVs by 2025 and is planning to phase out all its internal combustion engines (ICE) by 2035. Jaguar has a more ambitious target of 2025 to eliminate ICE vehicles. Tesla has the “first mover” advantage and the most advanced technology among competitors, but the gap is closing.
The biggest concern people express about EV’s is battery range, charging time, longevity, and replacement cost. Battery range has improved to the point where it easily satisfies the typical U.S. driver who travels an average of 30 miles per day. Most people install a “level 2” charging unit at their homes that can fully charge most batteries overnight. However, people usually return home each day with well over 50% charge remaining, which greatly shortens charging time. During longer outings, drivers can utilize “level 3” charging stations, which will give up to an 80% charge in 30 minutes. All manufacturers now give at least an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on batteries, with some going ten years. Tesla battery packs are rated for 300,000 to 500,000 miles and replacement cost, should it be necessary, is between $3,000 and $7,000. Consumer Reports estimates the average EV battery pack’s lifespan to be around 200,000 miles, which is nearly 17 years of use if driven 12,000 miles per year. Battery technology, like the electric car itself, is experiencing a constant revolution. The Israeli company, StoreDot, has produced a battery that will recharge completely in five minutes and will be ready for mass-market in less than three years. Dozens of other companies, including Tesla, are developing fast-charging batteries. Read more on charging stations here.
It’s astonishing to observe the historical arc of the automobile and see that what’s old is new again. Electric cars dominated auto manufacturing in the early 1900s, disappearing only to rise again as battery technology has increased the range of EV’s to near parity with gasoline cars and, in some cases surpassing it.
Somewhere in the universe, Oliver P. Fritchle is driving his Fritchle Victoria and smiling at the current revolution in mobility that is literally a back-to-the-future story that began over 130 years ago.