The history of the electric vehicle could begin anywhere. It could start with William Morrison’s 1890 electric automobile, a six-passenger wooden-wheeled wagon that topped out at 14 mph. It could also begin at Henry Ford’s assembly line at the 1913 Highland Park manufacturing plant. That assembly line would eventually churn out a Model T every 90 minutes. Or it could start in 1896, when Thomas Edison declared, “The electric car is dead.”

But the life of electric vehicle has no single origin. Its web was woven by a thousand spiders, two of whom were Charles Kettering and Thomas Midgley, Jr.

Oil and Electricity | Yin and Yang

By the 1920s, the gasoline-powered automobile had successfully sideswiped steam-powered cars and horse-drawn carriages. Fuel, however, was a step behind. Many a filling station had a glass bowl filled with gasoline on top of its fuel pump to assure customers of its otherwise dubious cleanliness.

Midgley, working under Kettering, discovered in 1921 that tetraethyl lead prevented knocking in internal combustion engines. His discovery led to the standardization of octane levels and the general clean-up of gasoline. Fed by clean antiknock fuel, automobiles proliferated like rabbits. Later, Midgley and Kettering invented the chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, Freon.

Three years later, five workers would die and several others would suffer insanity at ExxonMobil’s tetraethyl lead Bayway Refinery. Three decades later, appalled scientists would notice that airborne chlorofluorocarbons had burned a country-sized hole in the Arctic ozone layer.

This, too, is the history of the electric automobile. Because the electric car has always represented salvation – not just from man’s ignorance, but from his ingenuity as well.

An Abridged History of an Underdog

Electric cars were born like fireworks. In 1900, they claimed 28 percent of the American automobile market. Electric taxis puttered around New York City, then a metropolis of 3.5 million. The nouveau riche of Chicago clamored for the Wood Phaeton, a $2,000 electric carriage with a maximum range of 18 miles per charge. But once Henry James Ford figured out how to sell his black gas-powered motorcar for less than $300 a head, the electric automobile could only fizzle out.

Then arose World War II and with it an imposed national speed limit of 35 mph to conserve fuel and rubber. Both Axis and Ally auto makers released primitive editions of electric automobiles. But then Little Boy and Fat Man blew up Japan, and with gasoline plentiful once more, electric cars settled for their own armistice.

The clatter of diesel and the burble of gasoline drowned out the electric automobile for the rest of the twentieth century. Then came a curve ball: In the 1990s, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) told every domestic automaker that if they wanted to market their vehicles in California, they had better show up with a zero-emissions vehicle. With nightmarish visions of losing the 32 million customers in the Golden State, General Motors developed the all-electric EV1 and leased the car to select customers in Arizona and California.

                                                                  1990's GM Impact (EV1)

The EV1 was small, with a range of 70-100 miles, and fairly ugly. Most of them were crushed after GM rescinded the program in 2002. Yet it was the EV1, that ugly duckling, that would resurrect battery-powered vehicles in America.

Today, modern electric vehicles come in all shapes and sizes. The Smart Fortwo Electric Drive can fit three to a parking space. The Tesla Model S can drive for 265 miles on a charge and stand toe-to-toe with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The Chevrolet Spark EV subcompact costs only $27,500 and achieves 119 MPGe. As they say: “Suit yourself.”

Inside the Innards of an Electric Automobile

Every electric car works essentially like a light bulb. Flip a switch, and current flows from the grid to the bulb. Press the throttle pedal, and current rushes from the car battery to the motor. Easy.

Yet swapping an engine for a motor and gasoline for electricity does not an electric vehicle make. They have no transmissions, no starters, no catalytic converter and no intake manifold. Every electric automobile has a three-part system: battery, power electronics, and motor.

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Battery Specifications

Ye olde electric cars used nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, but most modern ones use lithium-ion batteries. Most lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries rely on a carbon cathode, metal oxide anode, and organic carbonate electrolyte. They are wrapped in a metal sheath to prevent contact with atmospheric moisture, which can damage the protection circuit. They operate best around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which limits their use in northern climes, and they boast three times the energy density of a normal lead-acid automotive battery.

All well and good, but gasoline boasts 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery! Not for naught do the Chevrolet Spark EV, Dodge Circuit EV, Fiat 500e and Kia Soul EV all rely on a 600-pound battery pack. The Tesla Model S even has a 1,323-pound battery pack. Imagine driving with a full-grown manatee strapped to the underfloor.

Recharging a Battery Pack

Every electric vehicle has a charging system to replenish the battery. Some use bargain-basement 3.3-kWh onboard chargers. The best use high-amperage 6.6-kWh chargers, which cut charging time in half.

Modern electric vehicles can be charged using 120-volt (Level 1), 240-volt (Level 2) or 480-volt (Level 3) current. Europe uses slightly different voltages. The higher the voltage and amperage, the faster the charge, but regular high-speed charges can reduce battery lifespan due to high temperatures. Yet the temptation to throw caution to the wind is great. Charging a Mitsubishi i-MiEV with a 3.3-kWH charger plugged into a household outlet, for instance, would take a whopping 22.5 hours.

Accessory 12-Volt Battery

Most electric cars have another onboard battery to charge the radio, the windshield wipers, the power windows and other accessories. It is a 12-volt lead-acid battery paired with a DC-to-DC converter linked to the main rechargeable battery pack.

Charge Controller

Batteries are like Labrador dogs. Just as dogs will guzzle until they vomit, so a battery will discharge until drained. Charge controllers guard against full discharging, overcharging and short-circuiting. Think of them as the brain of the system.

As it stands, this system has a problem. Batteries produce direct current, but AC motors require three-phase alternating current. This means converting a flat line into three pseudo-sine waves. Also, required is an inverter to reverse current polarity 60 times a second to achieve 60 hertz. That’s one transistor to pulse the voltage and another to reverse the polarity. Two transistors per wave, three waves, therefore six transistors.


A potentiometer is a useful gadget that provides variable resistance and therefore adjustable current. The throttle pedal in an electric car is wired to two potentiometers. They work hand-in-hand; one is a safety backup in case the other fails. Flatten the pedal, and the potentiometers reduce resistance to tell the controller, “Full speed ahead!” Depress the pedal, and the potentiometers amplify their resistance.

Regenerative Braking

    Volkswagen Electric Mobility: Regenerative Braking

Since most modern electric cars use permanent-magnet AC motors, regenerative braking is a built-in feature. In a gasoline-powered car, kinetic energy is converted through friction into waste heat and brake pad abrasion. Any white-knuckled driver snaking down an Adirondacks mountain pass knows what happens when the brake pads overheat.

Regenerative braking, on the other hand, captures kinetic energy through magnetic friction. When the accelerator pedal is depressed, the motor morphs into an electric generator that steals torque and feeds electrical current back to the batteries. In some electric cars, regenerative braking provides so much braking force that a driver rarely requires the actual brake pedal.

What Is the Environmental Impact of Electric Automobiles?

Fossil fuels have always walked with avarice. In the early 1900s, Arkansas oil promoters would often open the oil well casing heads to impress audiences, letting black columns screw into the sun and saturate local streams. Today, in the Bakken Oil fields of North Dakota, U.S. oil companies flare enough natural gas to be seen from space. CONSOL Energy, Arch Coal and Massey Energy blow up Appalachian mountaintops searching for coal veins and record-breaking profits.

It is from these oil fields and coal mines that electric vehicles draw breath. According to the Energy Information Administration, 67 percent of the 2013 United States electricity generation was from fossil fuels, mostly coal (39 percent) and natural gas (27 percent). Nuclear power made up another 19 percent and hydropower another seven. The remaining six percent was split between rather unevenly between renewable resources.

Translation: Most of the country’s electricity is harvested, mined and pumped. Is driving an electric car, therefore, any more responsible than driving a gasoline automobile?

Short answer: By virtue of their conversion efficiency, electric vehicles are more sustainable than current gasoline automobiles.

Long answer: There are caveats. The environmental benefits of electric automobiles vary by region depending on the local power source. Driving an electric car in West Virginia actually increases greenhouse gas emissions, one Berkley study says. Some expert studies have concluded that the production processes for electric vehicles are worse than comparative processes for internal combustion engine vehicles. This deficit is later offset by an electric vehicle’s energy efficiency and zero emissions. The more miles driven, the greater the benefits reaped.


Renewable energy - Solar and Wind

What Are the Modern Challenges to EV Adoption?

  • Ante Up Cost: Some argue that electric cars are not expensive. After factoring in a $7,500 federal rebate, most plug-in vehicles cost less than the national automobile average. The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, in fact, can be yours for less than $16,000. However, when compared to competitors of similar size and features, electric vehicles do cost more. Some suggest that steep purchase prices could be offset by the reduction of lifespan maintenance and parts replacement.

  • Grid Spikes: Were everyone on the block to plug in their cars before going to bed, could the grid handle the massive spike? One 2014 study by Navigant Research suggests, yes, the grid has more than enough muscle. Most necessary changes would be low-cost and local, like high-voltage distribution transformers and upgraded home circuit breakers.

  • Recycling Challenges: Contrary to popular opinion, lithium-ion batteries do not end their life rowing across the Styx into a forgotten junkyard. BMW has partnered with Vattenfall, an European energy company, to find second-life uses for old lithium-ion batteries operating at 70-80 percent of their original capacity. Uses include municipal solar farms, residential solar arrays and grid load-shifting systems.

  • Limited Change: “Range anxiety” is the parasite electric vehicles can’t seem to clean out. Americans want Disneyland. Europeans want the Cologne Cathedral. Yet driving across Kansas along I-70 at 60 mph in an electric car with a 100-mile range and four-hour recharge would take 23 hours. ChargePoint operates more than 20,000 charging stations – many of them free – but Level 3 quick-charge stations are few and far between.

                                 Solar EV Car Vision

The future of the electric vehicle could end anywhere. It could end as a paragraph or two in a 2050 American History textbook. It could also end when Tesla’s multiply like Toyota’s.

Or maybe the electric vehicle has no end, no final act. Perhaps it is a phoenix, rising from the ashes whenever the world demands salvation from zombie oil wells or scavenged coal mines, and the lure of guiltless driving seems irresistible, and then another miracle fuel appears and some talking head again pronounces, “The electric car is dead.”