Just a few decades ago it would have been hard to imagine our roads filled with electric cars, but now it would seem equally as strange to be without them. Countries across the world are mandating the phasing out of gasoline-powered engines, and there is no doubt that electricity is the future. But what about the past of the electric car?
The history of the first electric vehicle invented is more nuanced than you might think and goes back all the way to the late 1800s. Do we consider these “horseless wagons” the first electric vehicles, or do we need to go farther into the future?
Let’s take a deep dive into the first electric vehicles invented.
Who Invented the First Electrical Vehicle and Why?
While most people's knowledge of the electric car starts with the Tesla Roadster in 2008, or maybe the earlier GM EV1 in 1996, electric vehicles actually have a much more nuanced history than you might imagine.
Early Electric Vehicle Prototypes
To find the first electric vehicle invented and its creator, we have to look back to the 1830s, when Scottish inventor Robert Anderson built the first motorized carriage. Many don’t consider this to be the first electric vehicle, simply because its batteries could not be recharged, so it had no actual use as a mode of transportation. Still, Anderon’s motorized carriage laid the groundwork for later attempts
With the invention of rechargeable batteries, more and more electric vehicles that could drive small distances popped up. At this time in automotive history, internal combustion engines and electric engines were still neck and neck, and no one really knew which type of vehicle would come out on top.
Although inventors around the world were designing, and even patenting, their own electric vehicles, none of them were really anything besides one-off inventions. That all changed in 1894 with the Electrobat.
The Electrobat and the Electric Vehicle Company
The Electrobat, invented by engineer Henry G. Morris and chemist Pedro G. Shalom, was the first electric vehicle produced with any success. It was so successful at the time, in fact, that a small fleet of these Electrobats were produced to be used as taxi cabs in New York City!
Once they had perfected the Electrobat’s design; making it lighter, faster, and with better battery life, Morris and Shalom sold their idea to a man named Isaac Rice, who founded the Electric Vehicle Company in New Jersey. The Electric Vehicle Company, also known as the EVC, manufactured over 600 of these Electrobat based cabs and even turned a local ice rink into a battery-swap station.
For nearly a decade these electric cabs, based on the design of horse-drawn Hansom cabs, roamed the streets of NYC, Baltimore, and other cities in the East.
Despite this success, Rice ran into trouble when he tried to expand the business faster than he could find investors while also facing several lawsuits from manufacturers of gas-powered vehicles.
Unfortunately, after holding the title of the largest automotive manufacturer in the country for a short amount of time, the EVC declared bankruptcy and shut down for good in 1907. Amazingly, they had produced over 2,000 electric cars by this point, making the now-defunct Electric Vehicle Company the first company to produce a commercially successful electric car.
Morris, Shalom, and later Rice built the Electrobat because, at the time, they believed that electricity was the future of the automobile industry. Unlike internal combustion engines, electric cars ran silently, didn’t need to be hand-cranked to start, and were clean compared to the smoky gasoline cars.
Even so, with the invention of the electric starter for internal combustion engines and the low price of the infamous Ford Model T, electric vehicles fell into obscurity, only recently regaining favor with consumers.
What Was the First Commercially Successful Electrical Vehicle?
While the Electrobat was the first truly useful electric car and sold enough to be considered commercially successful for the time, it can’t really be considered the first commercially successful vehicle in modern times.
To find out which electric car was the first modern-day commercially successful model, we’ll look into 3 familiar names: GM, Nissan, and Tesla.
GM and the EV1
In 1996, California passed a law saying that a portion of all cars sold must produce zero emissions, and while this doesn’t seem like a big deal today, back then there weren’t any zero-emission cars on the market for consumers.
Sure, there were prototypes abound made by both big-name companies and amateur car builders, but no one in the U.S. was making zero-emission cars. To meet California's standards, GM created the EV1.
The EV1 was the first truly electric vehicle on the roads, and in the hands of consumers, in the modern era. Between 1996-1999 a little over 1,100 EV1’s were produced and leased to customers. Much to the dismay of EV1 drivers, upon the cancellation of their production in 2002, all of the cars were recalled by GM and destroyed, despite owners' protests.
Nissan and the LEAF
In 2010, there were stirrings among automobile fans about the Tesla Roadster that had begun production in 2008, but the Roadster was undoubtedly a sports car. Nissan saw the need for a family-centric electric car, so the LEAF was born.
Unlike the 2 seat Tesla Roadster, the Nissan LEAF was built with families in mind. It didn’t have the speed or the range of the Roadster, but it could seat 5 and was spacious, comfortable, and affordable.
Between the U.S. and Japan, the LEAF sold nearly 20,000 units in 2011, eclipsing the sales of both the EV1 and the Roadster. It had a range of 73 miles on a full charge.
Tesla and the Roadster
Nissan and the LEAF may have come out of the gate strong, but these days, there is no name more synonymous with electric cars than Tesla. Tesla, and their first commercially produced model, the Roadster, set the bar for speed, quality, and innovation with their electric vehicles.
The original Roadster had an incredible range of 244 miles on a single charge and could reach 0-60 mph in just 3.7 seconds. The Roadster got rave reviews from car reviewers all over the world, and by the time the first model of the Roadster ceased production it had sold 2,450 units worldwide.
While the Roadster sold considerably less than than the more approachable LEAF, there isn’t any comparison between the two performance-wise. The LEAF was made for suburban homes and families, while the Roadster was made for the racetrack and lovers of sports cars.
With its insane speed and range, the Roadster was the beginning of Tesla’s reign over the electric vehicle market.
Which Electric Vehicle was the Most Commercially Successful: The GM EV1, Nissan LEAF, or Tesla Roadster?
Although the Tesla Roadster was unarguably more flashy and fun, the Nissan LEAF wins the title of the first mass-produced, commercially successful electric vehicle with 470,000 units sold as of 2020.
The history of the electric vehicle is long, fascinating, and important in the modern-day as we cut ties from oil dependency. Electric cars are as old as the automobile itself, and companies like Nissan and Tesla continue to lead the way in electric car innovations.
So while the Electrobat is considered the first electric vehicle invented, it certainly wasn’t the last and paved the way for the amazing electric vehicles we see today.