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Electric vehicles: This time it really is different

The near-term picture on EVs is fuzzy at best, but electrification is the future of the auto industry with hybrids leading the way.

Ahead of its time: an electric truck, made in 1900 to save money on feed and caring for horses, by B. Altman and Company.
Henry Ford Museum

Electric vehicles have floundered into obscurity more than once in U.S. history and now they're staging yet another comeback. Regardless how this latest wave of EVs fares, electrification in its many forms is here to stay.

To give CNET readers some perspective, we've assembled a slideshow of the colorful past, hopeful present, and possible future of electric autos.

Last year was a pivotal year in the history of electrical vehicles because of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, which became available in late 2010. Sales of these cars are small in the scheme of overall volume and have fallen short of expectations. But EV proponents are quick to point out the number of EVs sold in their first full year is far more than first-year sales of Toyota's Prius hybrid.

Electric cars seem to have always been enthusiastically received by their owners. But today's battery electric vehicles, which use pricey lithium ion batteries, still remain relatively expensive. Even with their lower driving costs and lack of tailpipe emissions, analysts expect electric cars to represent just a small share of total car sales in the years ahead.

Hybrids ascendant
But electrification isn't all or nothing. More automakers are offering hybrids in more models. And there are microhybrids, which feature start-stop technology where a small energy storage device helps power the car and runs the car's electrical system--lights, cooling, etc.--when the car is idle. It's only a small step toward cutting oil dependence but microhybrids are a cheap way to nudge up your fuel efficiency.

In the years ahead we'll also see a wave of plug-in hybrids. The only difference is that the plug-in hybrid has a larger battery and can run longer on its battery charge. Regardless of their configuration, hybrids at this point appear quite durable and an effective way to meet government-mandated mileage standards here and in other countries.

Where does that leave pure EVs? Will they sputter out like the electric cars of the early 1900s, 1970s, and early 2000s? Given the auto industry's commitment to electric technology, that's unlikely. But knowing what the adoption curve will be like is impossible given all the forces at play, including consumer demand, oil prices, government policy, and technology.

Ultimately, EV and hybrid adoption will be driven by consumers. As anyone who's every gotten behind the wheel of a pure EV knows, they're enjoyable to drive and for many people offer sufficient range for daily driving. Not having tailpipe emissions or trips to gas stations are a serious bonus, too.