Electric Cars: Their past, present and future

Electric and hybrid cars are making more appearances among the gas-reliant sedans and SUVs on the road, but what makes an electric car different from a gas-powered car -- other than just plugging it in?

Electric Cars: Their past, present and future
Credit: Thinkstock

Spotting a fancy new Tesla on the road might seem novel, but electric cars are nothing new. And, of course, hybrids like the Prius dot the highways. But the emergence of electric cars dates back further than you think. The first ones go back as far as 1880, and they were common into the early 20th century.

Thomas Parker, the man behind making the London Underground electric, was the first to create an electric car suitable for production in 1884 using rechargeable batteries. By 1900, only 22 percent of cars were powered by gasoline, while 40 percent were electric and the remaining 38 percent ran on steam.

Eventually, improvements in internal combustion engines and the invention of the electric starter made gasoline powered cars a better -- and cheaper -- option. Eventually, the growth of gasoline-powered cars from companies like Ford and General Motors helped lower the prices of these vehicles to almost half the price of their electric counterparts. By the 1930s, gasoline powered cars had taken over the market, with electric cars disappearing from the marketplace.

Fast forward to the 1950s. Growing concerns about pollution from gasoline powered cars prompted the Air Pollution Control Act in the U.S. This garnered some interest in electric cars and by the 80s and early 90s, there was increasing pressure and demand for fuel-efficient vehicles with the dream of a zero-emission car at some point in the future.

What makes electric cars different from gasoline cars?

The most obvious difference between electric and gasoline cars, is that the former uses an electric engine while the latter uses a gasoline engine. Electric cars might look like a typical car on the outside - or not, depending on the brand you choose -- but under the hood they swap out some important parts from their gasoline counterparts.

The most notable aspect of an electric car is its battery. Combine the battery with an electric motor and motor's controller, and you've got the basic brains of an electric car. The controller gets its power from the car's battery and sends it along to the motor to get you on your way.

Tesla or Edison?

There are two different types of motors that can power an electric car: AC or DC. It stands for alternating current and direct current, the former invented by Nikola Tesla, while the latter was an invention from Thomas Edison, and both come with a long, competitive history. The main difference between the two motors boils down to the voltage they need to get going. A DC motor will use 92 to 192 volts while an AC motor runs on 240 volts with a 300 volt battery pack.

DC motors are also cheaper, but they suffer from limitations, such as inadequate acceleration and overheating -- sometimes to the point of self-destruction -- when in overdrive. AC motors are easier to implement into cars, and use regenerative braking, which can deliver power back to the battery when you hit the brakes.

Why aren't we all in electric cars yet?

A lot of the limitations that put electric cars out of favor in the early 1900s still exist today; batteries are too heavy, they take too long to charge, they're too expensive and you can't go very far without stopping to find a place to charge.

If you prefer the conspiracy route, we already have the technology to build affordable and efficient electric cars, but the car companies want us to remain dependent on gasoline. That conspiracy theory goes back as far as the L.A. electric subway system, which was allegedly squashed by General Motors in the early 1900s as an attempt to get more people into their vehicles. Whether you want to believe it or not, at the very least, it makes for an interesting alternative background to the history of electric vehicles.

The biggest challenge the electric car industry is up against is battery power. According to How Stuff Works, there are six major flaws in lead-acid batteries, the batteries found in electric cars. These flaws include weight, bulk, capacity, charge, lifespan and price. Heavy batteries mean heavier cars, which lowers efficiency and performance, making their high cost and short life span unattractive to car buyers.

You will find that plenty of vehicles use a nickel-metal hydride (NiHM) battery, which lives longer than lead-acid batteries, but also has a less efficient charging and discharging method. Another battery option is the Zebra, or sodium, battery; it uses molten chloroaluminate sodium (NaAlCl4). Zebra batteries are nontoxic and can withstand a few thousand charge cycles, but they aren't great in terms of power density and storing power for long-term use.

Finally, some electric cars run on a lithium-ion battery, which you might be familiar because they are in most electronics. Now, they're popping up in electric cars, but like the other batteries listed, they have some limitations including a short life cycle, they are somewhat toxic and have a tendency to significantly degrade over time.

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