The Surprisingly Long History of Electric Cars

Can electric cars reclaim their place on the road? Discover how developments in battery technology are making these cars more efficient and powerful.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly 40% of American cars were electric. But these vehicles had a few major problems — early car batteries were expensive and inefficient, and the vehicles were twice the price of a gas-powered car. And so for the next several decades, gas-powered cars dominated the market. Can electric cars reclaim their place on the road? Daniel Sperling and Gil Tal investigate.


If you were buying a car in 1899, you would’ve had three major options to choose from. You could buy a steam-powered car. Typically relying on gas-powered boilers, these could drive as far as you wanted—provided you also wanted to lug around extra water to refuel and didn’t mind waiting 30 minutes for your engine to heat up.

Alternatively, you could buy a car powered by gasoline. However, the internal combustion engines in these models required dangerous hand-cranking to start and emitted loud noises and foul-smelling exhaust while driving.

So your best bet was probably option number three: a battery-powered electric vehicle. These cars were quick to start, clean and quiet to run, and easy to refuel overnight if you lived somewhere with access to electricity. If this seems like an easy choice, you’re not alone.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly 40% of American cars were electric. In cities with early electric systems, battery-powered cars were a popular and reliable alternative to their occasionally explosive competitors.

But electric vehicles had one major problem—batteries. Early car batteries were expensive and inefficient. Many inventors, including Thomas Edison, tried to build batteries that stored more electricity. Others even built exchange stations in urban areas to swap out dead batteries for charged ones.

But these measures weren’t enough to allow electric vehicles to make long trips. And at over twice the price of a gas-powered car, many couldn’t afford these luxury items. At the same time, oil discoveries lowered the price of gasoline, and new advances made internal combustion engines more appealing. Electric starters removed the need for hand-cranking, mufflers made engines quieter, and rubber engine mounts reduced vibration.

In 1908, Ford released the Model T, a cheap, high-quality gas-powered car that captured the public imagination. By 1915, the percentage of electric cars on the road had plummeted. For the next 55 years, internal combustion engines ruled the roads. Aside from some special-purpose vehicles, electric cars were nowhere to be found. However, in the 1970s, the tide began to turn.

US concerns about oil availability renewed interest in alternative energy sources. And studies in the 1980s linking car emissions with smog in cities like Los Angeles encouraged governments and environmental organizations to reconsider electric vehicles.

At this point, car companies had spent decades investing in internal combustion engines without devoting any resources to solving the century-old battery problem. But other companies were developing increasingly efficient batteries to power a new wave of portable electronics.

By the 1990s, energy-dense nickel-metal hydride batteries were on the market, soon followed by lithium-ion batteries. Alongside regulatory mandates by California to reduce smog, these innovations sparked a small wave of new electric vehicles, including hybrid cars. Hybrids aren’t true electric vehicles; their nickel-metal hydride batteries are only used to optimize the efficiency of gas-burning engines.

But in 2008, Tesla Motors went further, grabbing the attention of consumers, automakers, and regulators with its lithium-ion-powered Roadster. This purely electric vehicle could travel more than 320 kilometers on a single charge, almost doubling the previous record.

Since then, electric vehicles have vastly improved in cost, performance, efficiency, and availability. They can accelerate much faster than gas-powered sports cars, and while some models still have a high upfront cost, they reliably save their drivers money in the long run. As governments worldwide focus on slowing climate change, electric vehicles are now expected to replace gas-powered ones altogether.

In Norway, 75% of car sales in 2020 were plug-in electric vehicles. And policies such as California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate and Europe’s aggressive CO2 emission standards have dramatically slowed investments in gas-powered vehicles worldwide. Soon, electric cars will reclaim their place on the road, putting gasoline in our rearview.

Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.

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