The Early Years (1890 – 1930) The electric vehicle is not a recent development. In fact, the electric vehicle has been around for over 100 years, and it has an interesting history of development that continues to the present. France and England were the first nations to develop the electric vehicle in the late 1800s. It was not until 1895 that Americans began to devote attention to electric vehicles.
Many innovations followed and interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1897 the first commercial application was established as a fleet of New York City taxis. The early electric vehicles, such as the 1902 Wood’s Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless carriages and surreys. The Phaeton had a range of 18 miles, a top speed of 14 mph and cost $2,000. By the turn of the century, America was prosperous and the motor vehicle, now available in steam, electric, or gasoline versions, was becoming more popular.
The years 1899 and 1900 were the high point of electric vehicles in America, as they outsold all other types of cars. Electric vehicles had many advantages over their competitors in the early 1900s. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, while electric vehicles did not require gear changes. While steam-powered cars also had no gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings.
The steam cars had less range before needing water than an electric’s range on a single charge. The only good roads of the period were in town, causing most travel to be local commuting, a perfect situation for electric vehicles, since their range was limited. The electric vehicle was the preferred choice of many because it did not require the manual effort to start, as with the hand crank on gasoline vehicles, and there was no wrestling with a gear shifter. While basic electric cars cost under $1,000, most early electric vehicles were ornate, massive carriages designed for the upper class. They had fancy interiors, with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1910. Electric vehicles enjoyed success into the 1920s with production peaking in 1912.
The decline of the electric vehicle was brought about by several major developments:
- • By the 1920s, America had a better system of roads that now connected cities, bringing with it the need for longer-range vehicles.
- • The discovery of Texas crude oil reduced the price of gasoline so that it was affordable to the average consumer.
- • The invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912 eliminated the need for the hand crank.
- • The initiation of mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford made these vehicles widely available and affordable in the $500 to $1,000 price range. By contrast, the price of the less efficiently produced electric vehicles continued to rise. In 1912, an electric roadster sold for $1,750, while a gasoline car sold for $650.