How the Electric Car Has Survived

Surprisingly, the concept of electric cars originally occurred during the era of horse-drawn transport. An early version appeared around 1832, but it was later in the century before they became a practical alternative. William Morrison's electric wagon increased interest, and by 1900, their quieter, cleaner and easier operation led to a gain in popularity among town dwellers, especially women. Thomas Eddison developed a stronger battery, while sports car company founder Ferdinand Porsche created the first hybrid electric car in 1901. His Lohner-Porsche Mixte ran on electricity stored in both a battery and a gas engine. Unfortunately, easy availability of the gas-powered Model T, together with the new electric starters of 1912, rendered electric cars less desirable. Improved road surfaces and the discovery of cheap crude oil further depressed sales, and by the mid-1930s, as gas stations appeared across the United States, electric automobiles had all but disappeared. After around 30 years of cheap fuel and manufacturing refinements, world events in the 1960s and 1970s conspired to dramatically increase gas prices and to limit supplies. Electric cars became a viable option again, as NASA used the electric-powered Lunar rover on the moon surface. Automakers looked for alternative fuel sources, such as the 1973 General Motors prototype and Sebring-Vanguard's popular 1975 CitiCars, with their 50-60 mile range. However, their limitations led to a temporary decline, which was halted in 1990 by new federal and state regulations. Manufacturers modified existing conventional models, bringing electric performance closer to that of its more traditional counterparts. GM's EV1 attained cult status, while Toyota unveiled the first mass-produced hybrid, the Prius. Vehicles and batteries continued to improve, and Silicon Valley's Tesla announced plans for a luxury version. Other companies came on board, and the Energy Department embarked on a program of charge-point installation, so that by 2014 there were 8000 stations nation-wide. 2010 saw the launch of GM's Chevy Volt, the first commercially-available plug-in hybrid, followed later that year by Nissan's LEAF. Investments by the Energy Department have allowed battery costs to drop by 50 percent, and today's drivers enjoy a good choice of electric automobiles, promising a more fuel-efficient and sustainable future.

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