Although electric cars are just now becoming common around the globe, they have actually been around for a long time. The first electric-powered vehicles were invented back in the 1800s. Robert Anderson of Scotland created the first rudimentary electric carriages in the 1830s. A more practical electric road car utilizing non-rechargeable electric cells was invented in 1842 by American Thomas Davenport. This design was improved upon by Frenchman Gaston Plante with an enhanced storage battery.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, electric vehicles began to flourish in the U.S. An entire fleet of electric New York City cabs was built in 1897. From 1899-1900, electric cars outsold every other type of vehicle in America. Many upper class people at this time preferred electric vehicles because they were quieter, smelled better, and had less vibration than gasoline-powered cars. Motorists also did not have to deal with difficult gear changes with electric cars, and they didn’t suffer from the long start up times of steam-powered vehicles.

The production of electric cars peaked in 1912. By the 1920s, however, gasoline vehicles had become the dominant force on the roads. The decline of the early electric vehicle was due to several factors. First, an ever-expanding road network meant that people were driving further and needed longer range personal transportation. In addition, the discovery of vast quantities of Texas crude oil drastically reduced the price of gasoline, making it much more affordable for the average motorist. Finally, aggressive mass production and marketing of internal combustion vehicles by Henry Ford quickly won over the market. Gas-powered vehicles were soon cheaper and easier to find than electric ones.

Between the 1930s-1960s, electric cars virtually disappeared from American roads. It wasn’t until the 1970s when growing pollution problems from exhaust emissions and the energy crisis led to a renewed interest in alternative energy vehicles. From 1973 to 1983, a company called Battronic partnered with General Electric to produce hundreds of battery-powered utility vans and passenger buses. In the mid 1970s, the United States Postal Service even experimented with electric delivery jeeps. Despite these efforts, the prospects of the electric car remained limited through the 1980s.

In the 1990s, a series of regulatory actions such as the Energy Policy Act and Clean Air Amendment sparked electric vehicle development again. Several states, led by California, adopted stringent emission laws requiring a certain percentage of low or zero emission vehicles. Major advancements in electric storage and range occurred. Several of the big U.S. car companies developed and showcased electric or hybrid vehicles. The one that probably received the most attention and acclaim was General Motor’s EV1, a two passenger coupe driven by a liquid-cooled alternating current engine. The EVI’s acceleration, top speed, and styling blew past previous electric vehicles, but it was too expensive to catch on with consumers and never reached large-scale production.

It wasn’t until 1999, when Honda introduced the Insight hybrid, that alternative power cars found a serious niche in the automotive marketplace. Still, high price relative to gas cars prohibited widespread appeal. In the early 2000s, the Toyota Prius hybrid began to sell very well, and several other automakers quickly began to produce hybrid electric-gas vehicles. Another energy crisis accompanied by rising gas prices and an increased desire among Americans to “go green” contributed greatly to the boom.

The big economic recession of the late 2000s prompted even more electric vehicle development as consumers moved further away from symbols of excess like fuel-guzzling SUVs. In 2010, Chevrolet launched the Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid car that finally capitalized on the technology first represented by the EVI. Perhaps even more impressive is the brand new Nissan LEAF, the first totally electric-powered vehicle to be produced for the mass market. As technology continues to develop, electric cars will continue to have greater range and power. Some experts predict that by 2020, 30% of all vehicles on the road will be hybrid or electric.