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Electric Vehicles History Part V
From the 1950's


Electric Car US Government Illustration

Even as Congress tried to figure out how to pay for the Interstate System, a coalition of electric and power companies encouraged Americans to think about the highways of the future. In the mid-1950s, the coalition published this illustration in popular magazines such as Life to show the wonders of electricity. "Your air conditioner, television and other appliances are just the beginning of a new electric age," the ad said.

The Henney Kilowatt was an electric car introduced for the 1959 model year. The car was produced in 36-volt and 72-volt configurations; the 72-volt models had a top speed approaching 96 km/h (60 mph) and could travel for nearly an hour on a single charge. Despite the Kilowatt's improved performance with respect to previous electric cars, consumers found it too expensive compared to equivalent gasoline cars of the time, and production ended in 1961.

During the 1960s, interest in EVs increased due to environmental awareness and a concern about America's international oil dependency. The 1960s and 1970s saw a need for alternative fueled vehicles to reduce the problems of exhaust emissions from internal combustion engines and to reduce the dependency on imported foreign crude oil. Many attempts to produce practical electric vehicles occurred during the years from 1960 to the present.

In the early 1960s, the Boyertown Auto Body Works jointly formed the Battronic Truck Company with Smith Delivery Vehicles, Ltd., of England and the Exide Division of the Electric Battery Company. The first Battronic electric truck was delivered to the Potomac Edison Company in 1964. This truck was capable of speeds of 25 mph, a range of 62 miles and a payload of 2,500 pounds.

Battronic worked with General Electric from 1973 to 1983 to produce 175 utility vans for use in the utility industry and to demonstrate the capabilities of battery powered vehicles. Battronic also developed and produced about 20 passenger buses in the mid 1970s.

Several attempts were made to get electric cars off the ground, most notably the 1974 debut of the 36-48-volt Vanguard-Sebring CitiCar. Similar to most EVs of the time, it had a top speed of 44 mph and a range of 50 to 60 miles. Another product of the 70s was the Elcar Corporationís Elcar, with a top speed of 45 mph and a 60-mile range and cost between $4,000 and $4,500. . Both saw promising sales in the middle of the decade, but went kaput once the oil crisis stopped being... a crisis.


The CitiCar was produced between 1974 and 1977 by a U.S. company called Sebring-Vanguard, Inc., based in Florida.

In 1975 the United States Postal Service purchased 350 electric delivery jeeps from the American Motor Company to be used in a test program. These jeeps had a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 40 miles at a speed of 40 mph. Heating and defrosting were accomplished with a gas heater and the recharge time was 10 hours.

In recent years, increased concerns over the environmental impact of gasoline cars, along with reduced consumer ability to pay for fuel for gasoline cars, and the prospect of peak oil, has brought about renewed interest in electric cars, which are perceived to be more environmentally friendly and cheaper to maintain and run, despite high initial costs. Electric cars currently enjoy relative popularity in countries around the world, though they are notably absent from the roads of the United States, where electric cars briefly re-appeared in the late 90s as a response to changing government regulations.

1990s to present: Revival of mass interest

In January 1990, GM chairman Roger Smith demonstrated the Impact (pictured below), an electric concept car, at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. The car had been developed by electric vehicle company AeroVironment, using design knowledge gained from GM's participation in the 1987 World Solar Challenge, a trans-Australia race for solar vehicles, with the Sunraycer, which went on to win the competition. Alan Cocconi of AC Propulsion designed and built the original drive controller electronics for the Impact, and the design was later refined by Hughes Electronics. On April 18, 1990, Smith announced that the Impact would become a production vehicle.

In the early 1990s, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the government of California's "clean air agency", began a push for more fuel-efficient, lower-emissions vehicles, with the ultimate goal being a move to zero-emissions vehicles such as electric vehicles.

Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan and Toyota also produced limited numbers of EVs for California drivers. In 2003, upon the expiration of GM's EV1 leases, GM crushed them. The crushing has variously been attributed to 1) the auto industry's successful federal court challenge to California's zero-emissions vehicle mandate, 2) a federal regulation requiring GM to produce and maintain spare parts for the few thousands EV1s, and 3) the success of the oil and auto industries' media campaign to reduce public acceptance of electric vehicles.

The General Motors EV1, one of the cars introduced as a result of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandate, had a range of 160 mi (260 km) with NiMH batteries in 1999.

A movie made on the subject in 2005-2006 was titled Who Killed the Electric Car? and released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics in 2006. The film explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, oil industry, the U.S. government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles, and consumers, and each of their roles in limiting the deployment and adoption of this technology.

Honda, Nissan and Toyota also repossessed and crushed most of their EVs, which, like the GM EV1s, had been available only by closed-end lease. After public protests, Toyota sold 200 of its RAV EVs to eager buyers; they now sell at over their original forty-thousand-dollar price.

Major car makers, such as Daimler AG, Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp., Renault SA, Peugeot-Citroen, VW, Nissan and Mitsubishi Corp., are developing new-generation electric vehicles.

 In June 2009 BMW began field testing in the U.S. of its all-electric Mini E, through the leasing of 500 cars to private users in Los Angeles and the New York/New Jersey area. A similar field test was launched in the U.K. in December 2009 with a fleet of more than forty Mini E cars.

The Nissan LEAF, due to be launched in 2010, is the first all electric, zero emission five door family hatchback to be produced for the mass market. Lithium-ion battery technology, smooth body shell and advanced regenerative braking give the LEAF performance comparable to an ICE, a range of around 160 km and the capability to reach 80% recharge levels in under 30 minutes.

The Chevrolet Volt, due to be launched in November 2010 as a 2011 model. The Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).  For up to the first 40 miles (64 km), the Volt is powered by electrical energy stored in its on-board lithium-ion batteries which are charged by connection to an electrical power outlet.

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