Electric vehicles (EVs) are a growing market for new car purchases as more and more drivers make the switch from the gas station to an outlet to power their vehicles. EVs come in two forms: They use electricity as their sole source of power (battery-electric vehicles) or electricity along with a conventional engine for backup (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).
People are going electric for all kinds of reasons. Many are motivated by the savings, as drivers typically save hundreds of dollars a year in gasoline and spend substantially less on maintenance. Then there are the environmental benefits thanks to reduced emissions, high quality driving performance and energy independence using locally generated electricity.
The recent influx of EVs has brought with it a need for charging infrastructure. Businesses, governments and utilities have been installing charging stations across the country, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are tens of thousands of locations currently available.
The move toward EVs is expected to continue, especially with the investments and commitments from major auto manufacturers — nearly every manufacturer is developing or selling an EV. But how and why did this all get started? Let’s step back and take a look at the history of electric transportation.
EVs actually have their origin in the 1800s. The first American electric car was developed by William Morrison in 1891. His six-passenger wagon reached a top speed of 14 mph. (While this may seem slow, in 1899 the land speed record was set by an EV at 66 mph.) Morrison’s invention was considered the first practical example of an EV, and it spurred interest in electric transportation.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century saw great progress for EVs. They made up close to 40% of the U.S. market at one point, and electric taxi fleets were transporting passengers in both New York City and London. The vehicles were known for their smooth, quiet rides, unlike their steam or gasoline counterparts, and they were easy to drive and maneuver. Early gasoline cars required a hand-crank to switch gears, which was a hassle and potentially dangerous. EVs quickly became the transportation method of choice, particularly for short trips around the city.
Hybrid versions also appeared at this time. For example, Woods Motor Vehicle Company produced the Dual Power with both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. For speeds below 15 mph, the electric motor was used, and beyond that (and up to 35 mph), the conventional engine took over. In addition, General Electric designed a gasoline-electric hybrid bus for use in New York City.
The First Charging Stations
So how did these EVs charge? At least one public charging station existed during the early days of electric transportation. At the beginning of the 20th century, General Electric produced the “Electrant,” which offered street charging in New York City. EVs could also be charged at a dealer’s charging location, and batteries could be removed and charged separately.
With more and more city homes being wired for electricity, home charging was developed as well, and personal charging equipment could be used for both DC and AC service. However, the process was more involved and the setup more unwieldy than what we are used to today.
Bump in the Road
Despite the early popularity of EVs, they began to disappear from the streets after just a few years. A number of events triggered this decline. For one, roadways improved beyond city limits, and people wanted to get out and explore. With their slower speeds and shorter ranges, EVs were not ideal for this type of travel.
At the same time, gasoline cars began to improve. In 1912, Charles Kettering designed the electric starter, which eliminated the need to manually hand crank vehicles and provided safer and more efficient travel. Furthermore, technology enhanced the internal combustion engine, and Henry Ford pioneered the accessible and affordable Model T. Declining gas prices made gas-powered vehicles even more appealing, while electric models continued to be costly. Indeed, they could be two-to-three times more expensive than gasoline cars. By 1930, EVs had basically vanished from roads.
Back on Track
Interest in EVs made a bit of a resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that a more substantial push for driving electric was realized. This surge was mainly driven by regulations and legislation, such as the California Air Resources Board, which pushed for more fuel-efficient and emissions-free vehicles. In 1996, General Motors (GM) developed the first mass-produced battery-electric car, the EV1. The EV1 had a range of approximately 60 miles and a top speed of 80 mph. By 2002, though, GM discontinued it. The California Air Resources Board mandate had been weakened, and GM viewed electric transportation as an unprofitable sector of the market. Other EVs of the time saw similar fates.
Approximately half a decade after the EV1’s discontinuation, GM was looking to reenter the market along with other auto manufacturers, such as Nissan. Elon Musk and Tesla (which was founded in 2003) were in the midst of producing their Roadster, a battery-electric sports car that could travel 200 miles on a single charge. The focus now centered on producing mass-market and affordable electric transportation. GM began working on the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with both a battery and small gasoline engine; and Nissan was gearing up for the LEAF, its battery-electric car. With continued competition and improving technology, EVs seemed back on track.
The renewed interest in EVs triggered a need for charging infrastructure. In a way, history was repeating itself: In the early 20th century, during the first dip in electric transportation and rise of gas-powered cars, gas stations were scarce. Drivers needed to memorize their locations when planning a trip, before they started popping up more frequently in the 1930s. Likewise, just two decades ago, EV charging stations were virtually nonexistent, but they are quickly becoming more and more numerous.
Today, just like a century ago, people primarily charge their vehicles at home, but there are also thousands of public charging locations across the U.S. Charging comes in three levels: Level 1, Level 2 and DC fast charge. Level 1, which uses a standard 120-volt outlet, provides about 3 to 5 miles per hour of charging, Level 2 can supply 10 to 60 miles per hour of charging, and DC fast chargers provide 60 to 80 miles in 20 minutes. Tesla has developed its own line of DC fast chargers, known as Superchargers, which can add between 5 and 15 miles of range per minute of charging. Level 1 and Level 2 charging are common in homes, workplaces and public locations where people might visit for longer periods. DC fast charging is more suited for supporting long-distance travel and is typically found along heavily trafficked corridors.
Charging and the Grid
As the industry progresses, opportunities are arising to integrate charging with the electric grid to support its operation. For example, researchers are evaluating vehicle-to-grid technology, which allows a parked vehicle to return electricity back to the grid and can improve functionality. A similar system exists for the home, where energy stored in a vehicle’s battery can help alleviate consumption of power during peak periods when demand is high, or serve as backup during an outage. In addition, many charging station owners have installed solar arrays to charge vehicles or offset the electricity used for charging, producing a truly emissions-free experience.
The Future is Electric
With the foundation laid for EVs and their infrastructure, driving electric is becoming the new norm. The concerns of the past – speed, driving distance and charging time – are quickly diminishing. New models consistently go 200+ miles on a charge, and upfront prices continue to decrease thanks to improvements in technology, and they are approaching parity with gasoline models. Electric transportation is also branching out beyond light-duty vehicles into other classes, with medium- and heavy-duty EVs quickly arriving.
These developments, coupled with the spread and progress of charging stations, paint an optimistic picture. Increased education about the benefits and specifics of these vehicles will be needed, but soon enough, we will have a new heyday of electric transportation.
To learn more about driving electric in North Carolina, check out Plug-in NC, our statewide collaborative program that promotes EVs through education and outreach, consulting and resource development.