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The History of Electric Vehicles - a time capsule
February 21, 2022

The History of Electric Vehicles - a time capsule

The History of Electric Vehicles - a time capsule

The history of electric vehicles (EVs) commenced longer ago than most imagine! In fact, several EVs were developed in both Europe and the United States during the late 19th century. The more common internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle had significant issues in its infancy, such that electric vehicles were seriously explored during the development of the earliest motor cars.

Internal combustion engines advanced quickly, however, and cars based on this technology dominated car sales worldwide until recent decades. In the last twenty-five years, EVs have come to the fore again! So much so, in fact, that they now threaten the very existence of combustion engine vehicles. This article looks at some of the milestone production vehicles key to the public’s growing acceptance of EVs.

Milestone Vehicles on the Road to Modern EVs

GM's 1996 EV1, parked roadside in the desert, pivotal as first electric vehicle mass-produced by a major manufacturer.1996 GM EV1: The first generation had a lead-acid battery and capacity of approx. 70 miles

1996—General Motors’ EV1

General Motors took the first step in the modern history of electric vehicles, with its model EV1 in 1996. The EV1 was pivsotal—not because it was a great car—but because it was the first EV ever mass-produced by a major manufacturer. GM didn’t sell the cars to customers, opting to lease them instead. The first-generation version of this vehicle had a lead-acid battery that could power the car for around 70 miles. GM produced a total of 660 first-generation EV1s, with a second-generation model produced between 1999 and 2002.
Powered by a nickle-metal hydride battery, the improved version of the EV1 had a range of over 80 miles.  In total, GM manufactured 1117 of the EV1.  The vehicle cost around $500 per month to lease (approximately US $770 inflation-adjusted for 2019). At the end of the program, most of these vehicles went to the crusher, although GM donated a few EV1 electric cars to museums.
The Toyota RAV4 EV enabled the public to buy from a highly reputable manufacturer with important standard inclusions, such as warranty and dealer support."

1997—Toyota RAV4 EV

Toyota was also important in the modern chapter of the history of electric vehicles. In 1997 Toyota began selling the RAV4 EV, a variant of their popular gasoline-engine RAV4. Also powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery, the first generation propelled the car for around 95 miles. The vehicle used a factory-supplied, wall-mounted charger that plugged into a standard US 240v dryer socket. California was again the key market with almost 1500 RAV4 EVs sold there – although again, under leasing agreements. Production of the Gen-1 RAV4 EV ran until 2003, after which the general-public purchased the cars as their leases expired.

The RAV4 EV was an important electric vehicle milestone in two ways:

  • It expanded the early marketplace for EVs, and
  • It enabled the public to buy from a highly reputable manufacturer with important standard inclusions, such as warranty and dealer support.

1997—Toyota Prius

In 1997, Toyota also began production of the Prius, although the vehicle was only available in Japan until 2000. The early Prius was not a pure ‘battery electric vehicle’ but rather an ICE / battery ‘hybrid’. The car was important in the development of  EVs because it was a mass-market vehicle genuinely powered—at least in part—by battery. A second-generation Prius was later introduced with significantly better specifications. While there were other important Hybrid EVs around this time—notably the Honda Insight—Toyota’s first- and second-generation Prius was the standout, selling around 1.3 million units, combined.

The Prius also became a virtual poster-child for people wanting to demonstrate their ‘green credentials’ in both a practical and visible way.

Toyota maintains the Prius brand-name to this day. Over the years, it has produced a variety of Prius types including a battery-only model and a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle (PIHV) model. The Prius was key in shaping drivers’ expectations of lower running costs, providing approximately 50 miles per gallon in normal daily driving. The Prius also became a virtual poster-child for people wanting to demonstrate their ‘green credentials’ in both a practical and visible way. More than 2 million Prius vehicles had been sold by the end of 2016.

Toyota Prius hybrid EV changing shape over four generations.Toyota's Prius hybrid EV is notable: it's evolved - internally and externally - over more than 20 years.

2008—Tesla Roadster

Founded in 2003, Tesla has become a highly-visible phenomenon in the electric vehicle space. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, has done more to popularize the idea of EVs than any other person. So much so, that many perceive Tesla as being synonymous with electric vehicles! Tesla’s first vehicle was the 2008 Roadster, a two-seater sports car EV with a battery range of 244 miles.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this initial vehicle, was its 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of a slick 3.7 seconds. This type of performance helped dispel the public’s notion that EVs were slow and really only for ‘eco-warriors’. Now green could also go fast!
The base cost for a new 2019 Leaf is only $29,000 – that’s a great price for an entry-level EV with nearly 250 miles of range!

 2010—Nissan Leaf

First introduced in 2010—and still in production—the Nissan Leaf has been an extremely successful EV. The Nissan Leaf has won many ‘Best Car’ awards, including:

  • 2011 European Car of the Year
  • 2011 World Car of the Year
  • 2011–2012 Car of the Year Japan
So far, sales have exceeded 400,000 units, with around 150,000 sold into the US alone. The Leaf boasts a driving range of 243 miles on a full charge, with a fuel economy of 101 miles per gallon (on an equivalent basis). The Nissan Leaf is supplied with a standard Level-1 charger for connection to a US 120v 15A socket. A factory option is also available for a 240v Level-2 fast charger, which enables charging from a standard 240v circuit, such as a US dryer socket.
The Nissan Leaf is an important electric vehicle for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Leaf’s consistency:  it earned the status of the world’s best-selling plug-in car for 2013, 2014 and 2016. Secondly, the Leaf is probably the cheapest practical EV you can buy. The base cost for a new 2019 Leaf is only $29,000 – that’s a great price for an entry-level EV with nearly 250 miles of range!

2010—Chevy Volt

 Manufactured between 2010 and 2018, the Chevy Volt was a successful Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle (PIHV) that sold more than 150,000 units in the US alone. It was also exported to a number of overseas markets. Prior to the Tesla Model 3, the Chevy Volt was the highest selling rechargeable EV (could be plugged into a wall outlet to charge), as opposed to pure Hybrids such as the Prius.
While the Volt could only travel about 35 miles using the battery alone, it provided low running costs with an impressive 98 miles per gallon (on an equivalent basis). The Volt cost around US$35,000 to purchase new in 2014. As delivered, the car could be charged from a standard 15A household electric socket, however, Chevy also offered a 240v wall charger as an option for maximizing EV charge hours.
The Chevy Volt was important as one of the first truly high-volume production electric cars available. Production ended in 2017 when the vehicle was replaced by the ‘pure’ EV Chevy Bolt.

2012—Telsa Model S

While the Roadster was certainly significant, the car that really made Tesla’s reputation was the Model S, which commenced delivery in 2012. A large, 4-door sedan with attractive styling, the Model S is produced in a variety of configurations and battery capacities—long-range capacities that provide  driving distances of up to 370 miles! Some variants of the Model S include the so-called ‘Ludicrous-Mode’ which enables the car to complete the standing-start to 60 Mph in a blistering 2.4 seconds! Again, this well-publicized feature made it clear that battery electric vehicles could also deliver high performance.  The features of the Model S come with a commensurate sticker prices of between US$85,000-$120,000.

2016—Chevy Bolt

 The Chevy Bolt is a mass-market, compact EV that commenced production in 2016. Awarded Motor Trend Car of the Year 2017, the Bolt has a range of around 240 miles. This delivers a fuel economy of 119 miles per gallon (on an equivalent basis). It a very modern EV capable of both significant range and economy.
The Chevy Bolt comes with a Level 1 charger for use with a standard 15A socket. However, with a simple adapter it can also charge at 240v to maximizing EV charge hours. The 2019 Bolt has a sticker price of US$37,500. To date, more than 60,000 Chevy Bolts have been sold worldwide, the majority in the US.
The Chevy Bolt is important to the electric vehicle timeline. This is because it’s the continuation of major car manufacturers offering EVs as an extension of their vehicle range. The Bolt also demonstrates that the driving range of EVs continues to improve, even as the purchase cost declines. This trend makes buying an EV more compelling on a financial basis alone.
The Chevy Bolt is important to the electric vehicle timeline because it’s the continuation of major car manufacturers offering EVs as an extension of their vehicle range.

2017—Telsa Model 3

In 2017, Tesla began delivering a much lower cost car than the Model S: the Model 3. The Model 3 costs anywhere from around US$40,000-$65,000, depending on configuration.  These more compact cars have driving ranges between 220-310 miles, and are a very practical replacement for a mid-sized ICE vehicle. Tesla have expanded their vehicle range to include the Model X – a mid-sized SUV crossover—allowing them to offer a complete range of EVs.

As of the second quarter of 2019, Tesla has sold a combined total of 720,000 vehicles, with a production rate around 90,000 vehicles per quarter. Although the Model 3 has only been shipping since 2017, it now holds the world-record for total EV units shipped!

Tesla has been of critical importance to the EV industry. Not only have they designed and built great electric cars, but they have excelled at marketing them. In doing so, they have mobilized a virtual cult-following around their products.  This ‘vibe’ permeates other areas of the electric vehicle market and promotes EV adoption. In this way, Tesla has given much needed support to the industry worldwide at a critical time in its development.

EV Evolution: Accelerating Electric Vehicle Production
Years Manufacturer & Model Units Produced
1996-2002 General Motors EV1 1,117
1997-2003 Toyota RAV4 EV 1,500
2016-2019 Chevy Bolt 60,000
2010-2018 Chevy Volt 173,000
2017-2019 Telsa Model 3 290,000
1997-2019 Toyota Prius More than 4 million

Review Mirror

Over the past 25 years, electric vehicles have moved from mere ‘curiosity’ to mainstream production vehicles. A number of key milestone vehicles have been produced to move the EV industry – and the car-driving public – to this point.  In 2019, EVs offer exceptional value with low operational costs, as well as strong green credentials. Major manufacturers around the world continue to announce plans to expand their EV ranges. With this momentum, the future for EVs looks very bright indeed!