Why all electric and hybrid cars now – part 2 – the background of electric cars


To understand the current climate for hybrid and electric cars, you have to look at the background story.  This is part 2 of “why all electric and hybrid cars now”.  See part 1 here

Electric cars were actually more popular than gas cars at the beginning of the 1900s.  The infrastructure for electricity was in place and gasoline stations were not available everywhere.  Roads and highways were in very poor condition and the rough conditions meant crossing the country by car was an adventure that you probably wouldn’t finish vs. today where it’s easier to fly.  Check out Horatio’s Drive, the story of the first cross country drive in 1903.  Most drivers used cars locally which meant the limited range of electric cars wasn’t such an issue.

Electric cars were also much easier to use.  You unplugged the car, turned on the juice and went.  No smoke to stink up your clothes and leave you covered in soot, no noise to startle horses, and no gear changes.  This was before electric starters so gas cars required you to fill them up with gasoline (the vapors are highly flammable in open air), hand crank the engine, then adjust the engine running once it started.  Hand cranking is difficult and dangerous because if the engine kicks back, the manual crank at the front of the car can violently jerk back and break your hand.  This was also before synchronized manual transmissions so shifting required double clutching and matching engine rpm.

By the 1920s, cheaper gas, better roads, and the model T all helped bring about the decline of electric cars.  By the mid 1930s, electric cars had effectively disappeared.  Fuel economy was not a concern because gas was cheap and the economy healthy.  The 70s gas crisis, economic decline during the 70s, and the rise of imports changed the car landscape and attitude towards fuel economy.

In 1990, the US passed the clean air act and California mandated a move towards some sales of zero emissions cars by major car manufacturers.  While there were a few random cars made, the GM EV1 was the most visible one and became the poster child for the 90s EV.  You could only lease them starting in 1996 but GM discontinued the program and repossessed, then destroyed the cars.  Check out the movie “Who killed the electric car”  for some additional reading.  While there were reasons to believe GM self-sabotaged the car, a company is in business to stay in business and no definitive proof was ever found.  The movie took it one step further and suggested that the oil industry helped kill the car.  California’s zero emission mandate was killed in court by the major automakers and that was apparently the end of that.

Enter the Prius.  Toyota laid out plans in 1992 and started work in early 1994 to create a hybrid.  The concept car that would later become the Prius was presented at the 1995 Tokyo auto show.  In 1997, the first generation Prius went on sale at a loss in Japan only.  The revision of the first generation car went on sale in the US in 2001, also expected to sell at a loss.  Then something happened – people actually bought the car in large numbers.  Today, the Prius is the only major sales success for any hybrid.  While there have been minor success and you could define success as making inroads into a market occupied by your competitor, the Prius is the standard by which other hybrids are measured.

What does this mean for pure electric vehicles?  Stay tuned for part 3.

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