The Electric Car: A Vehicle to Spark Innovation

August 1st 2023

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Florence Liang

Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the only place where you can drive around in cool looking cars whilst living your sci-fi dream. With the recent production of the first Tesla Cybertruck, that idea is only getting nearer to reality. Yet, innovation to produce new, more efficient cars has only proven how reliant the human race is on automobiles.

This may come as a surprise, but the first electric cars were developed in the late 1800s. Innovators from places like Hungary and the Netherlands produced the first fully electric—although small-scale—cars. However, it wasn’t until late in the century that French and English engineers created full-scale electric automobiles.

In the United States, the first electric vehicle debuted in 1890, thanks to a chemist who went by the name of William Morrison. His 6-passenger vehicle could reach a top speed of 14 miles per hour and it sparked continued interest in the potential of electric vehicles. By the early 1900s, every 1 in 3 cars was an electric vehicle. Even New York had a fleet of 60 fully electric taxis!

Nonetheless, as Americans continued towards the Progressive Era, a new challenger rose against electric vehicles: the gasoline-powered car. This fossil fuel-powered alternative had many advantages compared to the electric vehicle.

First of all, the continued development of urban transportation led to the creation of new and longer roads. Many Americans needed long-range vehicles, which the gasoline-powered car provided and the electric vehicle did not. Additionally, the discovery of crude oil in Texas and the subsequent Texas oil boom caused gasoline prices to nosedive, further harming the electric vehicle’s case.

Moreover, the discovery of the electric starter by Charles Kettering, eliminated the need for manual hand cranks, making the learning curve to drive a gas-powered vehicle less steep. The final blow to the electric vehicle industry in the early 20th century was Henry Ford’s introduction of the mass assembly line. He made gasoline vehicles widely available, costing customers anywhere from $500 to $1000. And what about the price of the electric car? Well, in 1912, one would’ve sold for $1,750, nearly double the price of a gasoline car.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and electric cars continued to lay low. It wasn’t until climate change became an increasingly pressing issue that people eventually began reconsidering electric cars. Legislation such as the 1990 Clean Air Act, the 1992 Energy Policy Act, and tighter restrictions on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards forced automobile makers to innovate. This evolved into the adoption of hybrid vehicles (half-gas powered and half-electricity powered) and later, the adoption of fully electric vehicles. However, note that electric vehicles still indirectly contribute greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere from the production of batteries, mechanical parts, and accessories.

In 2003, two engineers, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, began a start-up to facilitate the creation of the fully electric Tesla Motors “Roadster,” which boasted an unprecedented range of 245 miles on a single charge. Tesla, with Elon Musk as the new CEO, continued to innovate, releasing the Model X, Model S, Model 3, Model Y, and the most recent, Cybertruck.

With the release of Tesla Inc.’s new fully-electric truck, customers have the opportunity to drive around in their sci-fi fantasy of a vehicle. However, the production of new cars instead of the development of infrastructure away from car-reliant cities shows how codependent people (at least Americans) are on vehicles. Yet, note: Electric vehicles do not contribute direct greenhouse gas emissions and are a crucial step to eradicating the human footprint. As we continue to fight climate change, electric vehicles will be an important step to achieving net-zero emissions!