Electric cars have been around since before the US Civil War

Electric cars have existed since at least 1834, long before gasoline cars were invented. Since the beginning, they have faced the same hurdles they do today: limited driving range and a lack of charging infrastructure. But things are changing fast.

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The first electric motor

The first electric motor

The first electric motor
Alamy

Thomas Davenport of Vermont builds the first useful electric motor. Other inventors, including Michael Faraday, have previously built small devices that move using electricity, but Davenport’s are the first with the power to do actual work. He reportedly uses one of his new motors to power a small carriage.

1859

First batteries

First batteries

First batteries
UIG/Getty Images

French physicist Gaston Planté invents the lead-acid battery. Other scientists, including Planté himself, will improve on the invention in the decades to come.

1884

The first viable electric car

The first viable electric car

The first viable electric car
Obtained by CNN

Famed English inventor Thomas Parker -- called the “The Edison of Europe” -- creates the first commercially viable electric car. Unlike many of Parker’s other inventions, such as electric trams, underground lighting and a smokeless fuel called “Coalite,” the car attracts little interest.

1886

The first gasoline car

The first gasoline car

The first gasoline car
Luis Davilla/Getty Images

Karl Benz builds the Benz Patent Motorwagen, generally credited as being the first internal combustion-powered automobile and the precursor of all gasoline-powered cars today. Electric cars have already been around for 50 years.

1897

Electric taxi fleets

Electric taxi fleets

Electric taxi fleets
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Fleets of electric taxi cabs are introduced in both Paris and New York.

1898

Porsche’s first car is electric

Porsche’s first car is electric

Porsche’s first car is electric
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Dr. Ferdinand Porsche builds his first car, the Egger-Lohner Model C.2 Phaeton, which is powered by electricity.

1899

Too fast

Too fast

Too fast
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The first speeding ticket in America is given to the driver of one of New York’s electric cabs. He’s pulled over by a bike riding police officer while driving 12 miles an hour in an 8 mile per hour zone.

Crazy fast

Crazy fast

Crazy fast
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Belgian race driver Camille Jenatzy becomes the first person to drive over 100 kilometers an hour, or 62 miles per hour, in a specially built electric car called  "La Jamais Contente,” or “The Never Satisfied.”

1900s

The rise of the electric car

The rise of the electric car

The rise of the electric car
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Electric cars rise to prominence as more viable alternatives to steam cars, which can take 45 minutes to start in the morning, and to gasoline cars, which have to be cranked to start and that required complicated gear shifting. As a result, electric cars are advertised as especially suitable for women given their lighter physical demands. By the turn of the century, more than a third of all cars on American roads are electric. The electric car’s prominence will be short-lived, however, as technological advancements soon give gasoline power an overwhelming lead.

1908

Ford’s cheap gas car

Ford’s cheap gas car

Ford’s cheap gas car
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Ford Motor Co. introduces the Model T. Thanks to repeated improvements in its production, this gasoline-powered car will become ever cheaper to buy and nearly ubiquitous on American roads. (Still, Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, drives an electric car which she prefers to her husband’s noisy creations.)

1912

GM kills the crank

GM kills the crank

GM kills the crank
Courtesy General Motors

General Motors introduces the electric starter on the Cadillac Touring Edition, eliminating the need to crank the engine. This invention removes one of the most objectionable aspects of driving a gasoline-powered car. Over the following decades, electric cars virtually disappear from the roads as gasoline and diesel power take over. Electric cars will continue to be hampered by their limited driving range, long charging times and bulky batteries.

1958

Ford goes nuclear

Ford goes nuclear

Ford goes nuclear
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

One answer to the electric cars’ shortcomings is an onboard nuclear reactor. Ford’s Nucleon concept car, really just a model, is envisioned as having a reactor core that can power the car for 5,000 miles. After that, spent fuel rods will be swapped out at a convenient service station. The Nucleon was designed based on the assumption that, someday, nuclear reactors could be made safe enough for use in cars, a popular idea at the time.

1959

Small-scale electrics

Small-scale electrics

Small-scale electrics
Courtesy Lane Motor Museum

During the late 1950s and throughout the ‘60s, various startup automakers attempt to popularize electric cars, but none really gain traction. The Nu-Klea Starlite was offered for a few years by Kish Industries, a company based just outside Lansing, Michigan.

1964

GM’s electric experiments

GM’s electric experiments

GM’s electric experiments
Courtesy General Motors

Major automakers haven’t totally given up on the potential of electric cars. General Motors experiments with the Electrovair, a Chevrolet Corvair converted to run on batteries. Years later, GM also creates the Electrovette, an electric Chevrolet Chevette.

1967

AMC’s experiments

AMC’s experiments

AMC’s experiments
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

American Motors Corporation, which was later absorbed by Chrysler, unveils the Amitron, a prototype electric car. The company says it plans to offer the Amitron for sale in just a few years. That never happens.

1974

Tiny startups, tiny cars

Tiny startups, tiny cars

Tiny startups, tiny cars
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Sebring-Vanguard company of Sebring, Florida, introduces the CitiCar, which becomes one of the most popular electric cars in many years. More than 4,400 are ultimately sold. Top speed for the CitiCar is 38 miles an hour. For better or worse, cars like this will shape the public’s image of electric cars as essentially road-going golf carts for a long time.

1980

New cells

New cells

New cells
Courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin

The cobalt-oxide cathode, the heart of the lithium-ion battery, is invented by John Goodenough and his colleagues at Oxford University. In the decades to come, batteries made possible by this invention will power all sorts of consumer electronics, as well as electric cars that can travel hundreds of miles on a charge.

1990

The Zero Emissions challenge

The Zero Emissions challenge

The Zero Emissions challenge
Getty Images

California passes the Zero Emission Vehicles Mandate, which requires automakers operating in California to sell a certain percentage of Zero Emission Vehicles each year. As a practical matter, that mostly means electric cars. Automakers work to comply while some also sue to stop, or at least weaken, the requirement. A dozen other states later adopt the ZEV Mandate. Eventually, it is changed to allow automakers to buy ZEV credits as an alternative to selling the actual cars.

GM’s big response

GM’s big response

GM’s big response
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General Motors unveils the Impact concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show. In a few years, this concept will be developed into the EV1.

1996

GM charges in

GM charges in

GM charges in
Hal Garb/AFP/Getty Images

General Motors puts the EV1 into production. The cars are available for lease, but not for sale.

1997

More EVs come onto the scene

More EVs come onto the scene

More EVs come onto the scene
Fred Prouser/Reuters

Largely to comply with California’s requirements, various automakers release electric cars that are often heavily modified versions of gasoline cars. New electric models include the Toyota Rav4 EV, the Honda EV Plus, the Chevrolet S-10 EV and Ford Ranger EV pickups.

2003

GM takes a giant step back

GM takes a giant step back

GM takes a giant step back
Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

GM cancels the EV1 program, takes back the cars and crushes most of them over the protests of former owners. The move becomes the subject of the documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” which paints GM as the villain. GM insists the cars could not continue being driven because it would have become impossible to maintain them in safe condition.

2006

The startup that changes everything

The startup that changes everything

The startup that changes everything
Chris Weeks/WireImage/Getty Images

Tesla Motors, founded in 2003, shows off prototypes of the Tesla Roadster, the company’s first car. It’s a two-seat sports car based on the Lotus Elise. Priced at over $80,000, it’s a luxury product, but it performs like a sports car and can go more than 200 miles on a charge. It uses lithium-ion batteries, which will become the standard technology for electric cars.

2009

Mitsubishi’s egg

Mitsubishi’s egg

Mitsubishi’s egg
Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Mitsubishi starts production of the i-MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle), which will also be sold under the Peugeot and Citroen brands in Europe. The small egg-shaped city car is one of the first mass market EVs from a major automaker.

Tesla’s sedan

Tesla’s sedan

Tesla’s sedan
Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Tesla unveils the Model S sedan with seating for up to seven people. It will go on to become the fastest-selling electric car in history by far, despite its luxury car prices. Consumer Reports will laud it as the best car the magazine has ever tested although dependability issues will lead the magazine to pull its recommendation in 2019.

2010

Nissan enters the market

Nissan enters the market

Nissan enters the market
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Nissan starts production of the Leaf, a practical, compact electric car with a relatively long driving range for its time. Sales would not live up to Nissan’s early predictions but, as of 2018, more Leafs had been sold than any other electric car model.

The Volt takes things farther

The Volt takes things farther

The Volt takes things farther
John F. Martin /General Motors/Getty Images

Production begins for the Chevrolet Volt. This is GM’s “range-extended electric car,” but most people will call it a plug-in hybrid. GM engineers see it as an electric car that does away with “range anxiety,” a term first used to describe the fear that a GM EV1 would run out of battery power before reaching a charger. The Volt wins the North American Car of the Year, European Car of the Year and Motor Trend Car of the Year awards, among others.

2011

New rules of the road

New rules of the road

New rules of the road
Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

The US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the California Air Resources Board and major automakers announce jointly negotiated increases in fuel economy and emissions requirements. As planned, these will require cars and SUVs to become, on average, much more fuel efficient by the year 2025. Meeting these requirements essentially requires the sale of more electric and hybrid vehicles. This move, combined with tighter emissions requirements in Europe and electric car purchase incentives in China, drives manufacturers to develop more electric and other plug-in hybrid cars.

2015

VW gets busted

VW gets busted

VW gets busted
Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The US Environmental Protection Agency announces it has caught Volkswagen using software in many of its diesel vehicles to cheat on emissions tests, resulting in fines, penalties and the arrest of executives in both the United States and Europe. Partly as a result of this, Volkswagen Group declares that it will invest heavily in electric vehicles.

2016

A cheaper Tesla

A cheaper Tesla

A cheaper Tesla
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tesla unveils its Model 3, which will become the brand’s most affordable and best selling car. In fact, in 2018, it will be the best selling luxury car of any kind.

GM is back

GM is back

GM is back
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

General Motors begins production of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the company’s first fully electric car since the EV1. It’s built at GM’s Orion Assembly plant in Michigan. It is also the basis of GM’s first attempts at producing fully autonomous cars.

2017

VW plugs in

VW plugs in

VW plugs in
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Volkswagen Group starts Electrify America, a subsidiary company that will build a network of fast electric vehicle chargers across the United States. Volkswagen, along with Ford, BMW, and Daimler, is also part of Ionity, a joint venture that is building a similar fast charging network across Europe.

2018

Sales are just beginning to ramp up

Sales are just beginning to ramp up

Sales are just beginning to ramp up
Chinatopix/AP

Global electric vehicle sales continue to increase rapidly. But all plug-in vehicles, including electric and plug-in hybrids, still only make up just over 2% of all passenger vehicle sales globally. More than half of all electric cars sold worldwide are in China, thanks to heavy government incentives.