History of Electric Vehicles

Henry Hirshland
December 16, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Tesla Model S charging its battery at a charging station in a parking lot. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While electric cars are currently an up and coming trend in the automotive industry, they have actually been around for quite a long time. This report aims to highlight the past successes and failures of the electric vehicle, and offer predictions for the future of the electric vehicle.

Early Growth

In fact, the first successful electric car was introduced in 1890 by William Morrison. [1] Although it only went 14 miles per hour and was not too successful, it did promote the growth of electric vehicles and by 1900 electric cars accounted for approximately one third of all vehicles on the road. [1] This growth was concurrent with the general growth of the automotive industry that was witness during the beginning of the 20th century, as it replaced the horse and carriage that was the common mode of transportation at the time. The early benefits of electric vehicles were similar to the benefits we hear about today. They were quiet, easy to drive, and didn't emit pollution like other cars. Thomas Edison was an early supporter of electric vehicles, and collaborated with Henry Ford to develop superior electric vehicle technologies. [1]


Yet, regardless of all the early promise electric vehicles showed, the gasoline powered car ended up taking over the market. One particular event that impacted this shift was mass production of the Model T, first introduced in 1908. [1] By the year of 1912, the price of gas cars was reduced to just $650, less than half the cost of the electric cars on the market that were priced at $1,750. [1] This was not the only reason that we saw a sudden decline in electric cars. As the U.S. developed better road systems, and cities became more connected and accessible there was a natural increase in desire to travel long distances. This progress concurred with the discovery of Texas crude oil, and gas immediately became a cheap and accessible resource. Thus, gas stations started popping up abundantly along with the new road infrastructure. [1] Since electricity was less available to citizens at the time, and only actually existed in major cities, there was a sharp decline in the prevalence of electric vehicles. [1] Over the next few decades, the electric vehicle essentially disappeared from the market, while significant amounts of resources were poured into the development of gas combustion engines.

While gas vehicles dominated the automotive industry for years, due to the accessibility of oil as a viable fuel option, during the 1970s gasoline shortages began driving up the prices of oil. Shortly following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, congress passed legislation that encouraged support of research and development in electric and hybrid vehicles. Although, electric vehicles were still limited to approximately 40 miles per charge, and a top speed of 45 miles per house, which prohibited them from successfully re-entering the automotive market. [1]

Revitalization of the Electric Vehicle

While some legislation was made, and development was increased since the 1970s, the revival of the electric vehicle can be attributed largely to 2 major events: the release of the Prius and the announcement of Tesla, started by one of Silicon Valley's most popular names: Elon Musk. [1] Unlike automakers' previous failed attempts to introduce electric vehicles in the market, these two automakers have been able to prove their viability, and started quickly boosting the marketplace for electric vehicles. The Tesla Roadster only consumes 110 watt-hours for every 1 kilometer driven. [2] These success stories have prompted others to begin expanding development of electric vehicles. That, along with the declining prices in battery performance, has helped create a platform for electric vehicles to take over the automotive industry. And, as policymakers begin to mandate alternative energy sources, it seems inevitable that this will happen in the near future.


Electric vehicles have been around for a lot longer than many people realize. However, their early failures gave the gasoline vehicle the small head start that it needed to take over the market, which has been the case for years. However, the recent shift in policy towards sustainable energy sources, as well as the continuously declining prices of electric vehicles has began to give electric vehicles the edge they need to take over the market. Bob Lutz, former chairman of General Motors, predicts that "by 2039, almost all private transportation will be done by electric vehicles." [3] As these political and technological trends continue, and research and development continues in this industry, eventually electric vehicles will prove to be a significantly more viable option, and Lutz's prediction will prove to be correct.

© Henry Hirshland. 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, 19 Jul 06.

[3] P. LeBeau, "It's Electric: Experts Split on the Future of EVs," CNBC, 18 Aug 14.