There are many good reasons why gasoline engines knocked batteries and steam boilers out of business in the auto industry's early years. Batteries were bulky, heavy and expensive, they could store only a fraction of the energy of a much smaller, lighter and cheaper tank of gas, they took hours to recharge and they needed frequent replacement.
Compared to gasoline internal combustion engines (ICEs), all that added up to slow speeds, dismal range, long "refueling" times, short service life and high long-term cost. EVs survived for a while after World War I, mostly as short-range taxis and delivery vehicles, but their makers either converted to ICEs or - like horse-drawn carriage builders before them -- eventually closed their doors.
EV interest revived briefly in the 1960s and early '70s amid growing concerns about ICE emissions and (following the '70s fuel shortages) gasoline cost and availability. General Motors built the first fuel-cell electric and some serious concept EVs, and a few companies sold very small numbers of battery electrics. But as petro-fuel worries waned, those efforts faded.
GM ignited EV interest again with its bullet-shaped Impact electric concept car, co-developed with high-tech firm Aerovironment and flaunting impressive EV performance and range numbers, which debuted at the January 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. So enthusiastic were the press and public responses to it that GM decided to explore volume production of such a car. Three months later, it established a small, elite engineering group to do exactly that.
California then tried to force an EV market by mandating the top seven automakers to make two percent of their sales in that state "zero emissions" by 1998, with the requirement ramping up to 10 percent by 2003. That forced GM and its six strongest competitors into EV development and competition for future sales, whether or not the technology would be ready.
And it wasn't, primarily because no battery materialized that enabled EV range to compete with a tank of gas. Intending to lead EV technology and sell it to other automakers, GM invested over a billion dollars to bring its Impact-like EV1 to market for 1997. Except for a few hundred aficionados, however, consumers shunned it as an expensive two-seater with very limited range. Toyota, Honda and Ford also tested the market with small numbers of EVs before the ill-considered mandate was delayed, then finally abandoned.
The list of EV advantages over ICE vehicles is long. Unfortunately, so is the list of disadvantages, virtually all relating to the issue of on-board energy storage:
- Substantial battery size and weight
- High battery cost (original equipment and replacement)
- Limited battery storage capacity
- Limited vehicle range (depending on vehicle design and battery type)
- Power accessories (AC, steering, windows, audio, etc.) further reduce range
- Long battery recharge times (measured in hours)
- Very few faster, higher-power charging stations
- Vehicle may have limited performance (in favor of improved range)
- Limited and/or uncertain battery life (depending on type and usage)
- Non-zero emissions considering that most electricity comes from coal, oil or natural gas.
Today's escalating fuel prices and emissions concerns have re-ignited EV interest and efforts, but this time things are different due to growing acceptance of hybrid EVs, which marry electric to ICE propulsion for increased efficiency and reduced emissions without range worries, and because new batteries are being developed that may someday make pure EVs more viable. But even lithium ion, the most promising battery technology today, remains large, heavy and expensive, holds a lot less energy and requires much more time to recharge compared to filling up a tank of good old gasoline.
That's half the story. Here's the other: