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From the 19th century's first designs to the Tesla models we haven't even seen yet, here's the evolution of the electric car.
A surprisingly long history
Though most people today consider the electric car to be a modern phenomenon, electric cars actually date all the way back to the 1800s. While some of the first electric car models were rather crude, both in appearance and in function, there was a period in the late 1800s and early 1900s when electric cars were ubiquitous.
Of course, everything changed once Henry Ford introduced the Model T, an event which would usher in the eventual downfall of the electric car. By 1935, the electric car era had all but died.
But thanks to Elon Musk and Tesla, electric cars have seen a resurgence. Here is a look back at electric cars, past, present and future.
Robert Anderson's crude electric car
The first electric car was developed by Robert Anderson in the mid-1830s in Scotland. While something of an achievement, it was a rather crude vehicle by all accounts. A more apt description would be to call it an electric carriage more than a car.
Thomas Davenport's car
Around the same time period, circa 1835, American Thomas Davenport (who was a blacksmith by trade) developed an electric vehicle on his own based on a battery-powered motor he created. The car Davenport came up with was just powerful enough to ride around a circular track. In other words, a mainstream vehicle this was not.
William Morrison's car
In 1890, William Morrison developed an electric-powered car capable of housing six passengers. Hardly a speed demon, Morrison's car had a top speed of just 14 MPH. For all practical purposes, Morrison's invention is considered the first true and practical electric car.
Dr. Victor Wouk's modified hybrid car
In the 1970s, Dr. Victor Wouk, an electrical engineer by training, built one of the world's first hybrid cars. Woulk effectively modified a 1972 Buick Skylark to run on both gasoline and electricity, setting the stage for hybrid cars many years down the road.
Introduced in 1974, the CitiCar electric car was developed by a company called Sebring-Vanguard. All told, 4,444 units were produced. One thing is clear, the Citicar was never going to win any award for industrial design. Designed to be a no-frills car, the Citicar lacked many of the traditional creature comforts that were found in cars at the time.
General Motors EV1
This car is significant because it was the first mass-produced electric car to come from a major auto maker. It was also GM's first stab at a fully functional electric vehicle. Released in 1996, the car was aesthetically noticeable due to the rear sides draping over the back tires. It was a 2-seater, and though customers seemed to like the car, GM found the electric segment to be unprofitable and axed it in 1999. However, GM did produce a gen 2 in 1999, and it remained in production until 2003.
Perhaps the bellwether when it comes to hybrid cars, Toyota introduced its Prius line in 1997. The Prius was the world's first hybrid car produced on a massive scale and is still popular with consumers today.
The Nissan Altra is notable for being the first mass-produced electric car to feature lithium ion batteries, the same type of batteries found in smartphones and tablets, not to mention what Tesla uses as well. Certainly not a "looker," the Altra was a 5-door crossover utility vehicle that managed to reach a respectable range of 120 miles. It was discontinued in 2001, but its use of lithium ion batteries set the stage for future electric cars down the road.
Honda EV Plus
Released in limited supply back in 1997, the Honda EV Plus is notable for being the first car from a major automaker not to feature a lead acid battery. Fewer than 400 models were ever produced, as it was quickly replaced by a new Honda hybrid vehicle two years later.
Chevrolet S-10 Electric pickup truck
Though electric cars wouldn't have a mainstream renaissance until Tesla, there were a few strange electric vehicles introductions throughout the 90s. One such example was the Chevrolet S-10 Electric, a pickup truck that was mostly geared toward utility companies. This particular model wasn't going to win any awards for range, as it varied between 47 and 60 miles depending on the speed driven.
While the Mahindra e20 certainly did not stand out for style (can you notice a trend?), it’s certainly an interesting electric car worth mentioning. The car was developed by an Indian conglomerate and features a range of 75 miles and a top speed of 56 mph. Clearly, this won't be giving Tesla a run for its money, but it's positioned more as an affordable ($11,000 range) urban car than something you'd want to take on long road trips. It's currently sold in India.
With the Tesla Roadster, the electric car renaissance was poised to take off. Based on the design of the Lotus Elise, the Tesla Roadster was the first car to demonstrate that electric cars could not only look normal, but could be sexy as well. With the range that the Roadster brought to the table (around 200 miles), it was arguably the first electric vehicle capable of being taken on long highway trips. The first Roadsters were delivered to customers in 2008.
In 2009, Nissan introduced the Nissan Leaf, a name which stands for "Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable, Family Car." The first iteration of the Leaf was a 5-door hatchback with a modest range of 115 miles. In subsequent versions, Nissan was able to increase the range to 120 miles.
Tesla Model S
Without question, the Tesla Model S is the gold standard for electric cars. The winner of innumerable awards for design and safety, the Model S is the most successful electric car ever introduced. The Model S is notable for its spacious design (it has no engine, so the front hood is called the "Frunk"), its capable range, its speed, and of course, the 17-inch touchscreen that powers the entire vehicle. Rightfully so, many people refer to the Model S as a computer on wheels.
Released in 2014, the BMW i3 is a 5-door hatchback still in production. The vehicle itself represents BMW's continued exploration of electric vehicles and an appreciation for the fact that they may very well be the wave of the future. The car is priced rather affordably and was recently selected as the 2014 World Green Car of the Year.
Tesla Model X
Somewhat based on the Model S, the Tesla Model X is an all-electric SUV that will be delivered to customers in the summer of 2015. That is, of course, assuming there are no delays. The coolest feature of the Model X is by far the car's falcon-wing doors. Thus far, demand for the Model X is off the charts, leading many to believe Tesla will have another hit on its hands.
Tesla Model 3
The Tesla Model 3 represents Tesla's first effort to release an electric car for the masses. The rumored price point is $35,000. Some Tesla employees have already noted that it's the coolest car the company has ever made. What it will look like, though, remains a mystery. We do know, however, that it will be about 20% smaller than the Model S.
A plug-in hybrid originally introduced in 2011, production on this extremely sleek car was quickly suspended on account of the company's financial troubles. Recently, however, a Chinese company called Wanxiang purchased Fisker Automotive, and there are now plans to introduce a new Fisker Karma vehicle in 2016.