Today, ask people what they think about electric cars, and you will encounter either enthusiastic glee or an apathetic “not for me” response. Much of the disdain towards electric cars is not the vehicle itself but derived from the politics surrounding them, whether it was the CARB mandate in the 1990s or the Biden infrastructure plan today that supports electric vehicles. However, if we ignore the externalities and focus on the car itself, we discover a long, rich history authored by brilliant innovators that embody the very spirit of American ingenuity. Perhaps a brief retrospective will engender some respect for the electric car of today and yesteryear.
The story of the electric vehicle, or EV, is an epic with a footprint in three centuries. People often believe that the first commercially viable automobile was gasoline-powered, but that designation belongs to William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa who created the first practical EV. In 1890, Morrison unveiled his six-passenger electric vehicle with a top speed of 14 miles per hour. His invention spurred public interest in electric cars. Six years later, in 1896, the German patent office issued the first patent for a car powered by an internal combustion engine to Carl Benz. 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, or 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.
There were many electric car makers in the early 1900s but one, in particular, was the era’s equivalent of Elon Musk, the CEO of today’s Tesla Corporation. His name was Oliver P. Fritchle, a brilliant electrical engineer and chemist possessing a visionary mind. Fritchle received his first battery patent in 1903, a design that doubled the range of those offered by competitors. He advertised his Victoria model EV as “the 100-mile Fritchle”. 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. He 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. Residents of Denver often saw The Unsinkable Molly Brown driving around 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.
During the period between 1890 and 1912, electric vehicles comprised a large percentage of the auto market and at times dominated it. Still, it was an era coming to an end, beginning with Henry Ford’s Model T and his assembly line innovation that dramatically reduced costs. 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 filling stations plentiful. 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 brought little improvement to EV’s. One typical example was The Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, developed by Bob Beaumont. Performance was meager, with a maximum speed of 50 mph and a battery range of only 60 miles, about half that of a Fritchle Victoria from 70 years prior. Over 4,000 CitiCars were produced and sold for an average of $3,000 between1976 and 1982 when the company filed for bankruptcy.
The next attempt at commercializing electric vehicles came in 1996 when GM introduced the EV1, 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) for sale in California. This mandate was the primary 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 in California and Arizona residents to people 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 overturning of the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. Residents who leased the EV1’s were required to return the cars, which GM subsequently placed in the crusher except for 60 vehicles 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 the auto industry.
In 2004, Elon Musk provided 6.5 million in funding to Tesla Motors and subsequently became its board chairman. He involved himself in every facet of developing Tesla’s first EV, the Roadster, that went into final production in 2008. The Roadster’s performance was impressive with a zero to sixty time under four seconds, 130mph top speed, and 244 miles on a 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 to develop other models but reintroduced it this year (2021). The new Tesla Roadster will be the fastest production car in history with a zero to sixty time of 1.9 seconds, a top speed of 250 mph, and a battery range of 610 miles per charge.
As of this writing, Tesla is by far the world’s best-selling electric car, 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. Ford recently introduced the electric F-150 truck and Mustang, both with sizzling performance. Tesla has the “first mover” advantage and the most advanced technology among competitors, but the gap is closing.
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.