Electric Car: From Its Origin to Present Day Tesla Motors

Ryan Gaertner
December 5, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: This is a Tesla Motors charging station - one of many. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Though the electric car may seem as though it was an idea sparked in history by a certain individual, it is actually not proven who the sole creator of the vehicle was. Rather, there were numerous breakthroughs by people and groups in the 1800s from battery to electric motor vehicles that eventually led to the very first electric vehicle seen driving around. Groups of innovators in the U.S., the Netherlands, and Hungary played around with the idea of a battery-powered vehicle. These groups actually originated some of the early small- scale electric cars. Early 19th century was a time when a British inventor named Robert Anderson advanced the idea with an electric carriage. But in the late 1800s, French and English built some of the more useful electric vehicles. [1]

United States Origin

For our country the United States, electric vehicles were not a thing until the end of the 19th century. During this time, an innovative chemist named William Morrison from Iowa created a six-passenger vehicle that could reach a speed of 14 miles per hour. Though this was little more than an electric wagon due to its slow speed, it helped to spark further interest in the idea of electric cars. [1] By the year 1900, cities like New York began implementing electric vehicles into their taxi fleets, with New York having up to 60 electric taxis. From 1900-1910, electric vehicles grew to encompass one third of all vehicles on the road in the United States! [1]

Reasons for Rise of Electric Car

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, oil prices rose drastically. The rise in oil prices combined with gas shortages with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo forced people around the globe to look for a means of transportation that ran on a fuel that was not dependent on foreign oil. As a result, the United States Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976 to give the Energy Department ability to support research and development in electric and hybrid vehicles. Around this same time, General Motors created a model for an electric car that was on display at the EPAs (Environmental Protection Agency) First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development in 1973. [1]

Slight Fallbacks

In the 1970s, there were drawbacks with electric vehicles as compared to the traditional gasoline powered. The performance of electric vehicles was below the acceptable limit for most people, with the cars having a top speed of 45 miles per hour for most, and some not even reaching that fast. Before needing to be charged again, most electric cars could only reach 40 miles per hour. [2]

Resurgence in the 1990s

20 years after a long drawn out period of lessening interest in electric vehicles, new federal and state laws began to mix things up again. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment and the 1992 Energy Policy Act combined to help spark new interest in United States electric vehicles. Because of this, automakers started to look more into modifying popular electric car models and make them better. Soon after, electric vehicles were able to reach a range of 60 miles. At the time, the most well-known electric car was the General Motors EV1. Rather than going back and trying to make an existing model better, GM progressed and developed EV1 starting from the bottom up. This new model was capable of an 80-mile range and had the ability to accelerate up to 50 mile per hour in under 7 seconds, a feat that had not yet been achieved. [1]

Modern Day

In the world today, electric cars are all about energy efficiency as compared to the gasoline cars of the past. Tesla has produced electric cars equipped with tires and gear optimized for performance rather than just efficiency. However, the Tesla Roadster only consumes around 110 watt-hours of electricity from the battery to drive 1 kilometer (2.53 km/MJ). As well, the energy cycle consisting of the charging and discharging of the lithium-ion batteries in a Tesla Roadster is around 86% efficiency, meaning that for every 100 mega-joules of electricity used to charge its battery, only 86 mega-joules of electricity are available from the battery to actually power the motor of the car. [2]

In simple words, Tesla built upon historical innovations of the electric vehicle and developed a ground-breaking electric car model that is optimized for not only performance but also efficiency.

© Ryan Gaertner. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. H. Westbrook, The Electric Car: Development and Future of Battery, Hybrid and Fuel-cell Cars. (Institution of Engineering and Technology, 2001).

[2] M. Eberhard and M. Terpening, "The 21st Century Electric Car," Tesla Motors, 2006.