Battery-powered whips might seem like novel additions to your local thoroughfares, but they’ve actually been around for more than a century. This is how the cars have progressed, from buggy to pickup.
1890s: William Morrison’s ride (above)
Scotland-native William Morrison was one of the first inventors to create an electric vehicle for America’s streets. Twenty-four batteries under the seats provided the carriage with just 4 horsepower and a top speed of 20 mph as it rolled on steel-clad wooden wheels.
1914: Detroit Electric 47
The model 47, made by the Anderson Electric Car Company, could start instantly without the hand-cranking its combustion-driven cousins required. Thomas Edison piloted one of these, as did Henry Ford’s wife. The car promised a respectable 80 miles of range per charge.
1967: Ford Comuta
The first gas-free Mustang may have debuted in 2019, but Ford’s earlier EV was cuter: a 7-foot-long conveyance that could reach a maximum speed of 40 mph, travel for 40 miles per charge, and seat a family of four (snugly). Power came from four 12-volt lead-acid packs.
1970s: The Sebring-Vanguard
The cheese-block-shaped two-seater held the title of most produced electric vehicle in American history for four decades. It housed eight 6-volt golf-cart batteries, but with its lightweight frame, it could run for some 35 miles after one serving of electrons from the grid.
1996: GM EV1
General Motors envisioned its EV1 as a regular commuter car, and not just a niche option. To offset the heft of its lead-acid power units, the automaker constructed it with plastic body panels and an aluminum frame. GM made only about 1,100, which customers had to lease.
2008: Tesla Roadster
This sleek two-seater kicked off the era of lithium-ion power. The 6,831 cells weighed some 700 pounds but helped push the ride from zero to 60 in four seconds and gifted it with a range of 245 miles. To keep those elements cool, an antifreeze-like solution flowed around them.
2010: Nissan Leaf
For a quarter the price of the Roadster, the Leaf promised 100 miles from its 192 lithium-ion cells. Nissan styled it to look more like a regular car and less like other green options on the market. Its bulging headlamps managed airflow, limiting wind noise in the absence of engine sounds.
2018: Rivian R1T and R1S
This pickup and SUV (not shown) both use the same modular, skateboard-like chassis; it holds the vehicles’ four motors, shielded batteries, and power-management system. The configuration allows the freedom to include features such as a mobile kitchen, for camping.
This story appears in the Spring 2020, Origins issue of Popular Science.