The First Charge of the Electric Car

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On this day in economic and financial history...

The electric car is older than you might think. Five years before the first American gas-powered automobile rumbled down the cobblestones of Springfield, Mass., William Morrison drove his electric "horseless carriage" in Des Moines, Iowa. This innovation resulted in a patent, issued on Dec. 8, 1891, for a new type of battery to power the electric vehicle. The battery -- 24 of which were used in the car, requiring 10 hours to fully charge -- powered a four-horsepower motor, which essentially replaced the carriage's previous equine propulsion system. The patenting of electric-car propulsion thus predates by four years the first American gas-powered auto patent.

Electric cars became part of the New York City taxi fleet the late 1890s, establishing at the start their city-centric nature. Then, as now, the cars appealed principally to more well-heeled consumers, who purchased ornate carriages to show off on downtown jaunts. Electric cars even competed with the popular Ford (NYSE: F  ) Model T for a time. Nearly twice as many cars ran on electric motors as on internal-combustion engines at the turn of the century, and an impressively modern business concept involving battery exchanges operated from 1910 to 1924, with its users covering more than 6 million miles.

However, as internal-combustion cars became increasingly cheaper and higher-performance and America's transportation infrastructure began to offer longer traveling ranges than electrics were built to cover, the electric-car movement simply stalled out. By the 1930s, electric vehicles had virtually vanished from American roads.

It wasn't until 1990  that General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) announced that it would soon sell electric vehicles to the public, making it the first major automaker to do so in decades. This effort culminated in the 1996 launch of the GM EV1, the first mass-produced electric car of the modern era. Only 1,117 EV1s were ever sold, and GM canceled the program, taking the unprecedented step of recalling all the cars to avoid the cost of maintaining a service and recharging infrastructure required by the state of California.

After a hybrid bridge period that accustomed millions of consumers to the thought of a battery-powered car, all-electric plug-in cars again began to catch on with the launch of the Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) Roadster  in 2008. Tesla's luxury electric sports car harkens back to the early plush carriages of the turn of the 20th century, but its aspirational status created enough of a public stir to prompt GM and Nissan to develop lower-priced alternatives.

It remains to be seen whether electrics can finally win over a world raised on gas-powered transportation. This time, at least, automakers seem more dedicated to advancing the technology behind the electric car.

Can either Ford or GM finally break through with an electric car for the masses and recharge their long-term fortunes? The Fool's auto analysts have been digging through the data to answer this question (and others) and are eager to share their results with you. Find the information you need to decide whether these automakers are still worthwhile buys when you click on Ford or click on GM to subscribe.

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  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2012, at 2:50 PM, KillaCycle wrote:

    Before you let GM off the hook so easily, watch the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car:

    Unlike other documentaries, Sony Pictures insisted that every fact presented in the film be triple-checked to make sure no one could sue. A lot of very damning material could not pass "triple" muster, and ended up on the cutting room floor.

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