Nissan Leaf 2011 Auto Show
Nissan Leaf at the 2011 Chicago Auto Show.

This year marked the 107th edition of the Chicago Auto Show, the largest auto show in North America.

In 1901, visitors to the first Chicago Auto Show were introduced to a new mode of transportation that had quickly risen in popularity over the preceding decade. Little did they know, the car was destined to swiftly replace horses and buggies as the most common mode of transportation.

Self-propelled vehicles weren’t an entirely new concept. Several gas and steam-powered vehicles had been exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889 and two vehicles, one electric, were on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The first automobile race took place in Chicago in 1895. It wasn’t until that “First Annual Automobile Exhibit” in Chicago in 1901, however, that manufactured cars for sale were put on display.

1901 Auto Show ad
1901 Auto Show ad, where manufactured cars for sale were first displayed.

A century later, vehicles that were exhibited at the 2015 auto exposition are powered by the same technology used 110 years ago, gasoline and batteries. Of the handful of cars on display in the old Chicago Coliseum in 1901, many were powered not only by gas, but by electricity as well.

Two of the most prominent cars on the floor at the 2015 Auto Show were the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. Plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet the Volt, have a gasoline engine that supplements its electric drive once the battery is depleted, and then the gasoline engine kicks in to extend driving range. Cars that run solely on battery power, called pure electrics or “EV” for short, such as the Nissan Leaf, are only powered by an electric motor.

Today’s variety of hybrid and electric cars are each designed to meet a different need, but electric cars are popular today for many of the same reasons they were first popular one hundred years ago.

Once Upon a Time…

The beginnings of the electric car are rooted in inventions and breakthroughs of the seventeenth century, many that occurred in the U.S., from the battery to electric motor. In the early 1800s, innovators around the world were working on concepts for battery-powered vehicles. Robert Anderson, a British inventor born in Scotland, developed the first electric carriage, but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that inventors in France and England built the first practical electric cars.

William Morrison, a chemist from Des Moines, Iowa, invented the first successful electric car in the U.S. around 1890 or 1891. This was the electric car on display at the World’s Fair in 1893. Basically an electrified wagon, the carriage couldn’t travel faster than 20mph, nevertheless, it began the country’s drive for electric-powered cars.

Aerial view, 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago, where the first successful EV was exhibited.

The 1900s Were Electric (Sort of)

The horse was still the primary mode of transportation at the turn of the twentieth century, but the newly invented automobile gained in popularity as they became more widely available and affordable and Americans became more prosperous.

By 1895, the first commercially available cars ran on all three types of power, steam, gasoline, and electricity. Steam required long start up times and had to be constantly refilled with water. Gas-powered cars were noisy and smelly, plus, they required more effort to steer, shift gears, and had to be started with a hand crank.

Because electric cars were quieter and easier to drive, they became popular for urban residents who wanted to zip around the city. For about a decade during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for almost a third of cars owned by the public.

Rise and Fall

At the time, many inventors began exploring ways to improve this technology. In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche developed an electric car called the P1 and a year later, he created Semper Vivus, the world’s first hybrid electric car.

Thomas Edison developed the nickel-iron battery (based on Waldemar Jungner’s nickel-cadmium battery invented in 1899) and believed battery power was the superior technology. He even partnered with Henry Ford in 1914.

Ultimately, Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T made gasoline-powered cars more widely available and affordable. In 1912, gas-powered cars started around $600, while an electric roadster sold for anywhere upwards of two-thousand dollars.

1912 Ford Model T, at the 2012 Rolling Sculpture car show in Michigan

Gas was cheap and filling stations were appearing across the country, at a time when few Americans had access to electricity. With continued improvement in the internal combustion engine, making the car less noisy and smelly, and the invention of the electric starter, eliminating need for the hand crank, electric vehicles faded from view by 1935.

Re-charged Interest

Growing oil prices in the late 1960-70s drove interest toward developing other sources of power. In 1976, Congress passed an act in support of research and development in electric and hybrid vehicles. This encouraged many automakers to begin once again exploring alternative fuel options. In 1971, NASA’s electric Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon, putting the electric car directly within the world spotlight.

Driven by Environmental Concerns

Federal government actions to reduce dependency on foreign oil and improve American’s health led to steps such as reformation of the Clean Air Act in 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Toxic air emissions were targeted as a major threat to the America’s health and environment. Financial and philosophical desire for alternative fuel sources, and vehicles that could use them, helped refuel interest in electric vehicles in the U.S. in the 1990s. In 1991, a U.S. Department of Energy program, the Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), began what would result in a $90 million investment in the development of the nickel hydride battery.

Automakers began modifying some of their more popular models, bringing electric vehicle performance closer to their gas-powered counterparts. One of the most well-known electric cars at the time, GM’s EV1, could run for 80 miles and accelerate from 0 to 50 mph in seven seconds.

As gas prices remained low and America’s prosperity continued, fuel-efficient vehicles were far from public priority in the late 1990s, but that would soon change.

Toyota Prius hybrid taxi in the commercial district of Shinjuku, Tokyo.

A New Beginning

Rising gas prices and growing public awareness of air pollution issues kicked-off the true era of the electric vehicle at the start of the twenty-first century.

In 1997, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle, Toyota’s Prius, was released in Japan. It used the new nickel metal hydride battery technology. In 1999, Honda released the Insight. the first hybrid to be sold in the U.S. in the 21st century. In 2000, the Prius was released worldwide.

Accelerating Sustainable Transport

In 2003, Tesla Motors was founded, with the mission of making each new generation of electric cars increasingly affordable. In 2006, Tesla produced the Tesla Roadster, with a base price of $98,950. It could go more than 200 miles without a recharge. Tesla received at $465 million loan in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish a manufacturing facility in California and since has become the largest auto industry employer in California.

Tesla’s success encouraged many large automakers. In late 2010, the first commercially available plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf became available to the public.

Today consumers have nearly sixty options of plug-in electric and hybrid models available in a variety of sizes, from the Mercedes-Benz Smart ForTwo mircocar or urban-luxury BMW i3, to the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid.

FEBRUARY 13, 2015: Mitsubishi GC-PHEV Concept car at the Chicago Auto Show (CAS), the largest auto show in North America.

Government Support

As other automakers raced to roll out electric vehicles, consumers were still faced with a one-hundred-year-old question, where to charge their vehicles on the road.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act featured measures to modernize the country’s infrastructure, enhance energy independence, and encourage greater use of innovative technology and approaches, including funding for an envisioned nation-wide charging infrastructure. Automakers and other private businesses began installing their own chargers around the country.

Nissan Leaf 2012 Paris Motor Show

The U.S. Energy Department continues to support research to improve EV range, power, energy and durability, and cost, with the goal of making them more affordable for consumers. The 2012 initiative, the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge, aims for the U.S. to become the first country in the world to produce affordable plug-in electric vehicles for the average American family.

Charged for the Future

As electric car prices continue to drop and gas prices continue to rise, EVs are seen more as the vehicle–pun intended–through which we can have a role in creating a more sustainable future, from reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil to lowering carbon pollution from transportation.

For many driving reasons, electric cars are back. Although you may not have realized before reading this that electric cars were invented over a century ago, it’s easy to see, from history to today, why and how they’re here to stay.

“Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.” –Nikola Tesla