The fabulous evolution of the electric motor in transportation

Edison Detroit Electric Car 1913
Edison Detroit Electric Car 1913
GM's EV1
GM’s EV1

Yesterday we took an educational ride from when our ancestors roamed the planet on two legs, eventually trained horses, then from the horse carriage to steam, to electricity and how gasoline dethroned it. None of these transitions happened smoothly and many attached to the way things were crying foul. But as the Saharan saying goes: “The dogs bark, but the caravan marches onwards, regardless.”

The amazing electric motor

The early gasoline cars were clunky, to say the least. You needed to go outside, whined the engine, which made a lot of noise and smoke. We can see how a 40 mile range electric vehicle making no noise with no emission made more sense. According to Wikipedia (oh yes, we checked the Wiki!), the first real electric motor was invented in 1828 by Hungarian Ányos Jedlik that powered a small model car. Since then, trains are where the bulk of EV development has happened. In 1838, the Scotsman Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that reached four MPH. They go much faster today.

When Detroit was electric

Detroit Electric
Detroit Electric

Back in 1907, the king of electric vehicles (EV) in the U.S. was Detroit Electric. They built 30,000 EVs for over 30 years, ending production in 1939. Unfortunately, energy maker, utilities and the fledgling grid operators didn’t catch on to the tremendous opportunity EVs meant. Gasoline was becoming more affordable, opposing piston engine became smaller and somewhat more efficient, which meant eventually electric cars were selling for almost twice the price. After that, electric cars became irregular experiments and were relegated to golf courses where their quietness and low maintenance was appreciated.

The only noteworthy 1960s electric car was virtually out of this world. The first wheeled vehicle on the moon was the Moon Buggy, developed by Boeing and Delco Electronics. After all, nothing better than an electric motor could survive the vacuum of space. The 1970s saw the first and biggest petroleum crisis. The electric cars had another opportunity to make a small come back, but it didn’t last. Gasoline prices came down again, and everyone went back to filling their tanks for 40 cents a gallon.

GM launches the EV1 and the unwillingly, the EV revolution

Poor GM has been blamed for many things and its dubious role with EVs with Toyota gives them the distinction of both being the instigator of the latest EV revolution and the one squashing it. The EV1, as you can see on YouTube the very dramatic Who Killed The Electric Car, unleashed strong resentment against GM and Toyota for removing them from our roads. You see, once people realized cars with electric motors had so much torque and were such fun to drive, they wanted more than to just lease them. This didn’t sit well with petroleum company officers who quickly pressured carmakers to stop this electric nonsense.

Since lithium was still a very exotic battery, those early EVs use nickel-metal hydrides (NiMH), which General Motors purchased the patent from Ovonics in 1994. In 2000, the patent was sold to Texaco, when a week later it was acquired by Chevron. Chevron’s Cobasys subsidiary was the only company to offer NiMH to large OEM orders. Get the picture?

Finally Subaru released the first real electric car in 2007 in Japan, but Mitsubishi Motors beats them to the market in the U.S., followed by Tesla’s amazing Roadster, the Chinese carmakers Chery and JAC, then the Nissan LEAF, the Smart EV, BYD e6, Ford Focus Electric, Tesla Model S, Honda Fit EV, RAV4 EV second generation, Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e and more.

Are we back to square one?

Not rally. Today’s EVs are very different from last century. While their range have increased slightly from 40 miles, to 60, now 80, and of course 300 for Tesla’s top of the line, they sport many creature comfort features and are more rolling computers than their archaic gasoline counterparts.

Are we there yet? That would depend on your definition of “there”, but one thing is for sure. An electric motor has one to three moving parts, requires little to no maintenance, and develops 100% of its torque as soon as it spins. Can you see what the fuss is about?

Nicolas Zart
Born and raised around classic cars, it wasn't until Nicolas drove an AC Proulsion eBox and a Tesla Roadster that the light went on. Eager to spread the news about those amazing full torque electric vehicles, he started writing about this amazing technology and its social impacts in 2007. Today, Nicolas covers renewable energy, test drives cars, does podcasts and films. Nicolas offers an in-depth look at the e-mobility world through interviews and the many contacts he made in those industries. His articles are also published on Teslrati, CleanTechnica, the Beverly Hills Car Club and Medium. "There are more solutions than obstacles." Nicolas Zart