History of Electric Vehicles

Elon Musk vs Thomas Edison

History of Electric Vehicles

Key Points

  • Electric vehicles use one or more electric motors and receive their power through an external source or from an onboard battery.
  • The design of electric vehicles has changed over its historic timeline.
  • The electric traction motor receives energy from the traction battery pack to drive the vehicle’s wheels.

In 1800, Alessandro Volta discovered that connected metal pairs produced significant voltage. Combining several pairs (named a voltaic pile), he invented the first battery. Scientists and inventors around the world were enamored with the discovery. Not long afterward, the technology was implemented in transportation.

Over 200 years later, electric vehicles are widely accepted. With the world becoming more environmental-conscious, we can look back on how we got here. Continue reading for the complete history of electric vehicles.

What Is an Electric Vehicle?: Complete Explanation

Electric vehicles, or EVs, have offered an alternative propulsion method to the dominant internal combustion engine. They typically use one or more electric motors and receive their power through an external source or from an onboard battery. While the term usually refers to cars, they have applications in various forms of transportation including aircraft, underwater vessels, and even spaceflight vehicles.

Electric vehicles first saw application as early as the 1820s. Originally seen in locomotives, both England and the United States released patents for electrified rail systems by the 1840s. However, the development of EVs dropped significantly as businesses such as Ford Motor Company developed cheap assembly methods for internal combustion vehicles.

While fossil fuel-powered vehicles pre-date EVs by over 100 years, we have seen a resurgence in the alternative propulsion method. Economic upheavals and the irreversible environmental impact resulting from our infrastructure is driving the global push for clean energy. As a result, electric vehicles are entering the market faster than ever before.

kia ev9 vs rivian r1s

The Kia EV9 and Rivian R1S recall the glory days of the Sport Utility Vehicle.

Electric Vehicle: An Exact Definition

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines an electric vehicle as a vehicle that has a battery instead of a gasoline tank, and an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine.” However, this definition does not include external powered systems such as trollies and trains.

The US Department of Energy uses a more general statement, simply defining electric vehicles as having “an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine.”

How Do Electric Vehicles Work?

The design of electric vehicles has changed over its historic timeline. Originally featuring a single-use battery system, modern EVs include torque control, power regulation, component cooling, and extended lifespans. Here are the main aspects that propel today’s electric systems.

Electric Traction Motor

The electric traction motor receives energy from the traction battery pack to drive the vehicle’s wheels. Their dual nature allows them to spin for acceleration and deceleration, acting as a charger when braking. This is the main component in electric vehicles and replaces the internal combustion engine.

DC/DC Converter

The DC/DC converter is an intermediary component that converts high DC power from the main battery to low DC power that runs vehicle accessories. The converter also sends power to the vehicle’s auxiliary battery.

Traction Battery Pack

tesla replacement battery cost
An EV technician inspecting a pack of Lithium-ion car battery.

The traction battery pack is the vehicle’s primary location for power storage (excluding some applications). The pack varies in size and composition depending on the requirements of the vehicle. These packs are recharged either on an in-home system or at a power station.

Power Electronics Controller

The power electronics controller is a device that regulates the amount of power that goes from the battery pack to the motor. This controls how much torque the motor will produce.

Thermal System

Because all electrical components have an optimal working temperature, each electric vehicle comes with a thermal cooling system. This ensures that the motor, engine, and other components don’t overheat, extending their life.

Where Did Electric Vehicles Originate From?

The First Electric Vehicle

The technology to store electric power had only seen application for under 30 years before scientists experimented with it in transportation. In 1827, Ányos Jedlik, an inventor from Hungary, created the first electric motor. Over the next decade, the invention was expanded upon and combined with single-use, primary batteries. 

By the late 1830s, Robert Anderson of Scotland created the first working electric carriage. While the vehicle was impractical (almost nothing is known about it), the invention sparked the development of alternative transportation for the rest of the decade. In the 1840s, patents were released for electric-powered trains, and in the 1870s, personal EVs started to see lead-acid batteries.

The First Mass-Produced EV

In 1902, American automaker Studebaker introduced the first mass-produced electric vehicle. The vehicle had a range of 70 miles on a single charge and a top speed of 21mph. Studebaker hoped the EV would make urban travel easier due to the lack of petroleum stations. 

Unfortunately, the electric vehicle was short-lived. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced assembly line production, which drastically reduced the cost of owning a vehicle. By 1911, Studebaker discontinued its electric models and directed its attention to internal combustion.

Mainstream Experimentation

For nearly a century following Studebaker’s attempts at an EV, the technology would lag behind. General Motors reintroduced a mass-produced concept model, named “Impact” in 1990. It was so influential that the state of California mandated EV sales from major automakers by 1998.

From 1996-1998, GM built 1117 vehicles, renamed the EV1, and made them available for lease. Other manufacturers, such as Ford, Honda, and Toyota, also built EVs for sale. However, the auto and oil industries found threats in EVs and run media campaigns to crush them. In 2003, GM took back as many EV1 models as they could and had them destroyed.

EV Resurgence

While traditional internal combustion vehicles still dominate the 21st century, environmental concerns began to rise to unavoidable levels. In 2008, Tesla released its first EV model, and consumers were ecstatic. 

The Tesla Roadster could accelerate from 0-60 in four seconds and had a top speed of 125 miles per hour. The EV could travel 245 miles on a single charge and had zero emissions. The reveal of this little electric sports car put the new automaker on the map.

Since Tesla’s initial success, the EV industry boomed. Every auto manufacturer now has a mass-produced model. Luxury brands, such as BMW, Audi, and even Ferarri have EV concepts for the second half of the decade. As technology continues to advance, we will see the development of EVs in commercial industries as well.

What Are the Applications of Electric Vehicles?

Personal Transportation

The term electric vehicle is typically associated with small, personal transportation. These typically come in two or four-door models and include a variety of power and range. They come with charge ports that can connect to in-home chargers or power stations. 

Public Transportation

As cities and states start mandating electric transportation, urban centers are transitioning to BEV (battery electric vehicle) fleets. BE buses have 40-60 person capacities and shorter ranges than personal EVs. To accommodate them, urban centers have centralized bus charging stations within regular routes.

Commercial Transportation

With every major auto manufacturer entering the electric car market, battery technology is improving drastically. As bigger, more efficient batteries become available, larger vehicles, such as semi-trucks, will become EVs. Commercial EVs will drastically lower national emissions but will also have implications for the workforce.


While crewed electric aircraft are largely experimental, the technology is under development. In 2015, Swiss engineers designed the Solar Impulse. The model, equipped with solar panels across its wings, circumnavigated the planet. The single-manned design testified to the capabilities of alternative, clean energy.

Spacecraft Propulsion

Spacecraft use electric propulsion as an effective alternative to internal combustion. Electric methods help reduce the amount of fuel weight and extend the life of the vehicle. Spacecraft that typically use electric propulsion methods include small orbitals and satellites, and hardly ever assist in launching from earth.

Examples of Electric Vehicles in the Real World

Hyundai Ioniq 5

Most will think of Tesla as the premier EV manufacturer, but other companies are putting up a fight. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 was the 2021 electric car of the year, featuring 220 miles of range and a top speed of 115 miles per hour. Its affordable price and ultra-fast charging capabilities make it one of the best electric vehicles on the market.

Ford F-150 Lightning

grey Ford F-150 EV pickup truck plugged to a power charger
Ford F-150 EV pickup, like the one pictured, can go for 230 miles on a fully charged 98.0-kWh battery.

EVs aren’t limited to transit. The Ford F-150 Lightning is one of the first electric trucks to hit the market. In addition to its impressive range and top speed, this electric truck model can haul a payload of over 2,200lbs and tow up to 10,000lbs. As the technology continues, we should see more powerful EVs like the F-150 Lightning become available.

Tesla Semi

Speaking of more powerful EVs, Tesla’s commercial Semi model has a range of 300-500 miles with 82,000lbs towing capacity. The truck runs on three separate motors on the rear axles, which allows it to power from 0-60mph in 20 seconds. Owners can expect the Semi to reduce fuel costs up to $200,000 over three years.

Seattle Battery-Electric Buses

In 2016, the city of Seattle bought its first BEV bus to go emission-free in the next couple of decades. The city wants to add up to 240 all-electric buses with a range of 140-220 miles. Seattle plans on exclusively buying zero-emission buses as soon as 2023.  

Electric Vehicles: Further Reading

For nearly 200 years, electric vehicles have had a place in our society. And as technology advances, they’ll continue to benefit daily life. For more on how EVs are changing the market, check out these articles below.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles?

Electric vehicles run exclusively on an electric motor and battery bank. Hybrid vehicles have a seamless blend of electric and petrol for fuel.

When was the first electric vehicle invented?

The first electric vehicle was built in 1837 by British inventor Robert Anderson. The vehicle featured a massive primary battery powered by crude oil.

Why did the first electric car fail?

Up until the late 20th century, electric vehicles were too heavy to afford the cost of travel. Following the mass produced Ford Model-T in 1908, internal combustion engines were the widely-accepted form of vehicular propulsion, practically stomping out experimentation with electric models.

What are the four types of electric cars?

The four types of electric vehicles include battery electric (BEV) plug-in hybrid (PHEV) hybrid electric (HEV) and fuel cell electric (FCEV).

What is the number 1 selling electric car?

The Tesla Model Y is one of the best-selling EVs of all time. The SUV model features 326 miles of range on a single charge and a 0-60 acceleration of 4.1 seconds.

To top