Electric autos--from Edison to robots (images)

Take a tour of the past, present, and future of electric vehicles to see the multiple waves of electric cars in years past and a hint at future directions.

Martin LaMonica
1 of 25 National Museum of American History

Edison and his electric car batteries

In the early 1900s, electric vehicles were in a close battle against other automotive technologies for dominance. Famed inventor Thomas Edison, pictured at left, took up the cause himself in 1900 and designed an entirely new battery chemistry to improve the range of electric automobiles, locomotives, and trucks. After some setbacks, he ultimately made some improvements with his alkaline batteries. But by 1910, gasoline-powered automobiles were catching on and Edison abandoned his work on batteries for electric cars. This slideshow will give you a taste of the rich history of electric vehicles, the present-day resurgence, and a glimpse into the future.

2 of 25 Martin LaMonica/CNET

Detroit Electric

This electric car, a 1914 Detroit Electric, was owned by another famous 20th century scientist, Charles T. Steinmetz, who was one of the early pioneers of electric engineering. The car used as many as 14 lead-acid batteries and had a range of about 40 miles and a top speed of 40 miles per hour. During that period, electric cars were mainstream. New York City had a fleet of electric taxis in the late 1890s and electric cars represented 28 percent of the cars sold in 1900. But by 1914 when this car was made, electric cars were on the way out. A key invention was the electric-car starter in 1912, which meant people didn't need to turn a crank to start the engine.

3 of 25 National Museum of American History

Ladies first

An advertisement for the 1910 Baker Electric shows how electric cars were marketed to women since they didn't need to manually turn a crank to start the car. It is said that Henry Ford's wife preferred the electric car to the internal combustion engine. In 1908, Ford came out with the Model T which made gasoline-powered automobiles available to a much broader population and changed the industry forever.

4 of 25 Electronic Auto Association/Ecologics

Juice meter

A unique feature of electric cars back in the day were volt-amp meters. This meter would have been attached to a car's lead-acid battery and monitored by the driver, according to Electric Auto Association historian Darryl McMahon. These days electric car owners get great detail on battery charge state and projected range remaining. But early 20th century electric cars required a bit more skill by reading both the electric load, reflected in the voltage meter, and how hard the electric motor was working, reflected on the ammeter. Electric cars were typically driven by a hand-operated control, rather than pressing a pedal.

5 of 25 Porsche

The first hybrid

Ferdinand Porsche, then a 25-year-old engineer, created the world's first hybrid car in 1900. On the front wheels, you can see the large hubs which were electric motors that moved the car. It also had a transmission to move the car, much like today's serial hybrids. In the same year, he introduced the Lohner-Porsche electric car at the World's Fair in Paris, which also used electric motor hubs on the wheels.

6 of 25 Porsche

Semper Vivus

At the Geneva Auto Show in 2011, Porsche re-created Ferdinand Porsche's original hybrid car using the original specifications. Called the Semper Vivus (always alive), the hybrid from 1900 can go 50 kilometers an hour. Here is a Porsche engineer taking the replica out for a ride.

7 of 25 Stanford University


In the 1920s, electric cars had fully fallen out of favor and the internal combustion engine reigned supreme. But that didn't stop all invention and tinkering with electric powertrains. Here is a photo of an electric concept car, which foreshadowed the active world of electric-car conversions going on now. This 1959 Charles Townabout was made from a similar mold of the Volkswagen Karmen Ghia but it was made out of fiberglass to save weight, according to About.com. Prototypes of this and other electric concept cars were made in the 1950s and 1960s but they were doomed by high startup costs and retail prices.

8 of 25 Popular Resorations

Vanguard CitiCar

The 1970s: OPEC, the first energy crisis, and golf cart-like electric cars. This is the CitiCar made, starting in 1974, by a company called Sebring-Vanguard. Inspired in fact by a golf cart, this stripped-down econobox ran on a bank of lead-acid batteries to achieve speeds of about 30 miles per hour and a range of up to 40 miles. It is considered the most successful U.S. electric car in the post-World War II era with nearly 4,500 of CitiCars and its variants sold, according to Wikipedia. To save on weight, it was made out of hard ABS plastic. In one incident, company founder and President Robert Beaumont, who died last year, showed off the durability of this car to reporters by banging it with a baseball bat, according to Electric Auto Association Chairman Rob Freund. As this photo shows, they are in fact durable, with many restored and still on the road.

9 of 25 National Museum of American History

Go Sunraycer

Engineers have been building solar-powered cars for years, but this one, the Sunraycer, has a significant place in history. Built by General Motors, AeroVironment, and Hughes Aircraft, it blew away the competition in a 1987 solar-powered car race in Australia. Pleased with the technical achievements and accolades from the Sunraycer, General Motors decided to give the go-ahead to produce the GM Impact, later known as the fabled EV1. The Sunraycer was donated to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., where it can now be seen.

10 of 25 Hugh Talman/National Museum of American History

Who killed the EV1?

While many Americans were warming up to SUVs and bigger cars, a drama was playing out in California around the EV1, General Motors' all-electric sedan. The story of the EV1, captured in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car," demonstrates just how deeply Americans are attached to cars and the power of corporations and regulators. The EV1, first released in 1996, was part of a wave of electric vehicles created to meet a California mandate, which was eventually repealed in a decision influenced by the oil and auto industries. Despite very happy drivers, many of the electric cars to meet the mandate were later rounded up by automakers and destroyed by the early 2000s, creating deep distrust among some of the U.S. public and automakers.

11 of 25 Martin LaMonica/CNET

New wave

Fast-forward to the present and we now have the latest wave of electric cars that hope to fare better than their predecessors. Leading the vanguard are the Nissan Leaf (right) and the Chevy Volt which came out in late 2010. Unlike the 1970s image of golf cart electric cars or the super high-end Tesla Roadster, the Leaf and Volt are full-featured, comfortable cars for everyday use. The essential invention in both is the lithium ion batteries, which are lighter and more powerful than the nickel metal hydride or lead-acid batteries in the past. Yet the Leaf and Volt have different design goals, with the all-electric Leaf offering between 75 miles and 100 miles of range. The Volt, meanwhile, was designed to go about 35 to 50 miles on electric-only range, which should cover most people's daily driving. Then its gas engine kicks in and acts like a generator to charge the batteries for longer rides.

12 of 25 Coda Automotive

Coda in Cali

The company Coda Automotive demonstrates automakers' efforts to make electric mainstream with a low-frills electric car meant to be practical. The Coda Sedan, which costs about $40,000 before incentives, will boast about 150 miles and get about a 30 percent charge in two hours. The sticker price is what's the greatest concern to automakers who worry that consumers won't go for all-electric cars in big numbers. Coda notes that there is a $7,500 federal tax rebate and the fuel and maintenance costs will be substantially lower. It's taking orders for cars now in California.

13 of 25 Ford Motor

Focus Electric off the line

The Ford Focus Electric is part of a wave of electric and hybrid-electric cars coming this year and next from all the major automakers and startups, too. Ford expects that the Focus Electric will get an EPA mileage rating of over 100 miles per gallon equivalent. This car will also have a range of around 100 miles and be able to add about 30 miles of range on one hour of charge. The Focus Electric is aimed very squarely at environmentally minded consumers because it is all-electric and has no tailpipe emissions. Inside, it has all sorts of green features, such as using plant-based and recycled materials. The company is already taking orders for the Focus Electric which will be available in a few regions first, including California and the New York City area. Rather than have a single electric model, Ford will make electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid versions available of some of its cars, a production strategy that gives it some flexibility.

14 of 25 Josh Miller/CNET

Mitsubishi i

One car to watch is the Mitsubishi i, formerly called the iMiev. It's a no-frills all-electric compact that the company says will get 112 miles per gallon equivalent rating. As for the price, Mitsubishi says the car will be around $30,000 before the $7,500 federal tax rebate. It's expected in the first half of 2012.

15 of 25 Volvo

Volvo XC60

Hybrids, meanwhile, continue to evolve and expand their market share. This Volvo XC60, seen at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, is a plug-in diesel hybrid designed for optimal efficiency and low CO2 emissions. Drivers can choose between pure electric for about 30 miles, hybrid, or "power" mode. But don't expect to see many around your neighborhood soon, Volvo is aiming the car, which will cost about $75,000, mainly at corporate customers.

16 of 25 Josh Miller/CNET

A bigger Prius

The Toyota Prius, of course, is a seminal car in the history of auto electrification. When it was released worldwide in 2001, few in the auto industry thought Toyota would make money on a car that had both an electric powertrain and internal combustion engine. But environmentally minded consumers proved them wrong. Now Toyota is expanding its line with a smaller Prius C, a plug-in Prius, and this Prius V, a wagon that offers more room than the traditional Prius but is smaller than a minivan or SUV. With its hybrid system optimized for efficiency, the Prius V is rated at 40 mpg city and 44 for highway.

17 of 25 Fisker Automotive

Fisker Karma

For the well-heeled, the Fisker Karma is a different type of electric hybrid than traditional luxury hybrids. Like the Chevy Volt, it runs on batteries for about 30 miles and then the gas engine kicks in to act as a generator. The Fisker, however, shows the wide range of mileage that can result from a series hybrid. The Karma is rated at 52 miles per gallon equivalent for electric driving and only 20 miles per gallon in the charge sustaining mode, according to reports. The release of the Karma this year, which was months later than projected, will be followed by development of a lower-end yet still luxury sedan code-named the Nina.

18 of 25 Tesla Motors

Model S...and more

One of the most anticipated electric cars is Tesla Motors' Model S, a luxury sedan that will be able to get as much as 300 miles of driving range. The company said it plans to first release a high-end trim this year, followed by other models with less driving range. The battery and electric powertrain of the Model S will be a platform for other electric vehicles, including a crossover expected to be revealed this week.

19 of 25 Mercedes-Benz

Electric supercar

What does the future hold for electric vehicles? It seems clear that electrification in some form--hybrid, plug-in hybrids, or all-electrics--will garner more and more market share. The big question is how quickly. The answer depends on so many factors, including consumer interest, oil prices, technology, and government policies. Here are some directions for future electric vehicles, including the electric super car such as this Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell expected next year. One big advantage of all-electric vehicles is that their engines provide full torque instantly from its single gear. That means an electric motor will provide smooth, even, and generally peppy acceleration, even if it's not a supercar.

20 of 25 Better Place

Electric cars are at the lead of new business models in the automotive industry. One of the most unique is that of Better Place, which recently delivered the first Renault electric cars in Israel. Subscribers to Better Place pay a monthly fee and get to charge their cars at homes and public charging stations. They can also swap out batteries at automated stations such as these. So far, Better Place has only signed on Renault to make cars with swappable batteries but it does have agreements with many locations to offer its services. Israel is the farthest along.

21 of 25 Screen capture Liane Yvkoff


Electric cars can also be well-suited for car sharing since all-electric cars tend to have a higher upfront cost. There is already an electric-car sharing service now offered in Paris. Last month there was a report of Spanish design firms who hoped to build prototypes of the Hikiro city car, a foldable two-seat electric car conceived at the MIT Media Lab. The idea is that these electric cars will be available to members who can pick them up and drop them off at designated spots. Able to collapse into a smaller space, they are designed to be lined up like luggage carts at the airport on city streets where space is at a premium.

22 of 25 Vectrix

Electric scooter

Another direction in electric vehicles is toward two- and three-seaters. Here is a Vectrix VX-3 electric scooter which is designed as a sort of midpoint between a scooter and a motorcycle. It's able to go 50 miles to 80 miles on a charge and hit a top speed of 68 miles per hour. The company expects it will cost about $15,000. Apart from scooters and motorcycles, electric bicycles are an area of expected growth, particularly in Asia where millions of units have already been sold.

23 of 25 Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Robot car

Technically, there's no reason that self-driven cars will be electric. But when looking into the future, it's clear that robotics will be part of the scene. It could be sensors to improve the safety of drivers by avoiding obstacles. Or cars could become self-driving, something that Google has been testing out the past few years without any robot-related mishaps. One important advance in the past few years is the amount of data available and processing power in the cloud available to improve the performance of self-driven cars. Google last year was granted a patent for a system that would direct a robotic car based on markings on the road. One could imagine, for example, that a driver would take a car to a location where the car would then be self-driven.

24 of 25 Honda

Fuel cell vehicle

Although not always considered electric vehicles, cars that run on fuel cells are actually running on electric power. Fuel cells convert a fuel, such as hydrogen, into electricity through a chemical reaction. This Honda FCX uses a combination of two high-pressure hydrogen tanks and ultracapacitors to move. The hydrogen provides the fuel while the ultracapacitors, which store energy like batteries, provide the power needed during acceleration. This also saves on space. In addition to technical challenges such as storage, fuel cell vehicles are gated by the lack of fueling infrastructure. Some automakers remain committed, though, and have built hydrogen filling stations in certain cities, such as Los Angeles, where the reduced emissions are no doubt welcome.

25 of 25 Martin LaMonica/CNET

A battery breakthrough?

A technology breakthrough in energy storage could change the equation in electric vehicles and there is no lack of researchers and companies trying. Here is a prototype of a water-based battery being developed by startup PolyPlus. Along with IBM and others, PolyPlus is also developing a lithium air rechargeable battery that would allow for 500 miles of driving range per charge. The company expects this battery, much more energy dense than today's lithium ion batteries, will be available next year. Other promising areas of research are solid state batteries and other chemistries, such as zinc air batteries. Advances in energy storage stand to benefit the auto industry's march toward electrification, from battery electric vehicles to hybrids.

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