1665 – 1825
Between 1665 and 1680, Flemish Jesuit priest and astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest created plans for a miniature four-wheel unmanned steam “car” for Chinese Emperor Khang Hsi. In 1769, Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot built a steam-powered motor carriage capable of six miles per hour. In 1825, British inventor Goldsworthy Gurney built a steam car that successfully completed an 85 mile round-trip journey in ten hours time. (Steamers dominated the automotive landscape until the late 19th century.)
Robert Anderson of Aberdeen, Scotland built the first electric vehicle.
Sir David Salomon developed a car with a light electric motor and very heavy storage batteries. Driving speed and range were poor.
Historical records indicate that an electric-powered taxicab, using a battery with 28 cells and a small electric motor, was introduced in England.
Immisch & Company built a four-passenger carriage, powered by a one-horsepower motor and 24-cell battery, for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the same year, Magnus Volk in Brighton, England made a three-wheeled electric car.
1890 – 1910
Period of significant improvements in battery technology, specifically with development of the modern lead-acid battery by H. Tudor and nickel-iron battery by Edison and Junger.
The London Electric Cab Company began regular service using cars designed by Walter Bersey. The Bersey Cab, which used a 40-cell battery and 3 horsepower electric motor, could be driven 50 miles between charges.
The Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, built around 500 electric cars over a two-year period.
The Austrian Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, at age 23, built his first car, the Lohner Electric Chaise. It was the world’s first front-wheel-drive. Porsche’s second car was a hybrid, using an internal combustion engine to spin a generator that provided power to electric motors located in the wheel hubs. On battery alone, the car could travel nearly 40 miles.
The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, of New York City, had a fleet of twelve sturdy and stylish electric cabs.
The Pope Manufacturing Company merged with two smaller electric car companies to form the Electric Vehicle Company, the first large-scale operation in the American automobile industry. The company had assets of $200 million.
Two hybrids appeared at the Paris Salon.
American car companies made 1,681 steam, 1,575 electric and 936 gasoline cars. In a poll conducted at the first National Automobile Show in New York City, patrons favored electric as their first choice, followed closely by steam.
A Belgian carmaker, Pieper, introduced a 3-1/2 horsepower "voiturette" in which the small gasoline engine was mated to an electric motor under the seat. When the car was "cruising," its electric motor was in effect a generator, recharging the batteries. But when the car was climbing a grade, the electric motor, mounted coaxially with the gas engine, gave it a boost. The Pieper patents were used by a Belgium firm, Auto-Mixte, to build commercial vehicles from 1906 to 1912.
A series-hybrid runabout competed against steam and gas-powered cars in a New York to Boston reliability test.
The Electric Vehicle Company built 2000 taxicabs, trucks, and buses, and set up subsidiary cab and car rental companies from New York to Chicago. Smaller companies, representing approximately 57 auto plants, turned out about 4000 cars.
Henry Ford overcame the challenges posed by gasoline-powered cars — noise, vibration, and odor — and began assembly-line production of low-priced, lightweight, gas-powered vehicles. Within a few years, the Electric Vehicle Company failed.
An American engineer named H. Piper filed a patent for a petrol-electric hybrid vehicle. His idea was to use an electric motor to assist an internal-combustion engine, enabling it to achieve 25 mph.
The Woods Interurban, an electric car that allowed long-distance drivers to swap the electric power unit for a two-cylinder gas engine (supposedly a fifteen-minute job), failed to get more than a handful of customers.
Commercial built a hybrid truck which used a four-cylinder gas engine to power a generator, eliminating the need for both transmission and battery pack. This hybrid was built in Philadelphia until 1918.
With the advent of the self-starter (making it easy for all drivers to start gas engines), steamers and electrics were almost completely wiped out. In this year, sales of electric cars dropped to 6,000 vehicles, while the Ford Model T sold 182,809 gasoline cars.
Two prominent electric-vehicle makers — Baker of Cleveland and Woods of Chicago — offered hybrid cars. Woods claimed that their hybrid reached a top speed of 35 mph and achieved fuel efficiency of 48 mpg. The Woods Dual Power was more expensive and less powerful than its gasoline competition, and therefore sold poorly.
1920 – 1965
Dormant period for mass-produced electric and hybrid cars. So-called alternative cars became the province of backyard tinkerers and small-time entrepreneurs.
U.S. Congress introduced first bills recommending use of electric vehicles as a means of reducing air pollution.
1968 – 1971
Three scientists working at TRW, a major auto supplier, created a practical hybrid powertrain. Dr. Baruch Berman, Dr. George H. Gelb and Dr. Neal A. Richardson developed, demonstrated and patented the system—designated as an electromechanical transmission (EMT) providing brisk vehicle performance with an engine smaller than required by a conventional internal combustion engine drive. Many of the engineering concepts incorporated in that system are used in today’s hybrids.
The GM 512, a very lightweight experimental hybrid car, ran entirely on electric power up to 10 miles per hour. From 10 to 13 miles per hour, it ran on a combination of batteries and its two-cylinder gas engine. Above thirteen miles per hour, the GM 512 ran on gasoline. It could only reach 40 miles per hour.
With the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the price of gasoline soared, creating new interest in electric vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy ran tests on many electric and hybrid vehicles produced by various manufacturers, including a hybrid known as the “VW Taxi” produced by Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, West Germany. The Taxi, which used a parallel hybrid configuration allowing flexible switching between the gasoline engine and electric motor, logged over 8,000 miles on the road, and was shown at auto shows throughout Europe and the United States.
As part of the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, engineers Victor Wouk and Charlie Rosen created a prototype hybrid gas-electric vehicle using a Buick Skylark body. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the vehicle, certified that it met the strict guidelines for an EPA clean-air auto program — and rejected it out of hand.
AM General, a division of American Motors, began delivery of 352 electric vans to the U.S. Postal Service for testing. The U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration began a government program to advance electric and hybrid technology.
U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 94-413, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976. Among the law’s objectives were to work with industry to improve batteries, motors, controllers, and other hybrid-electric components.
General Electric was chosen to construct a parallel-hybrid sedan, and Toyota built its first hybrid — a small sports car with a gas-turbine generator supplying current to an electric motor.
1977 – 1979
General Motors spent over $20 million in electric car development and research, reporting that electric vehicles could be in production by the mid-1980s.
Dave Arthurs of Springdale, Arkansas, spent $1,500 turning a standard Opel GT into a hybrid car that could get 75 miles per gallon, using a six-horsepower lawnmower engine, a four-hundred-amp electric motor, and an array of six-volt batteries. Mother Earth News used the Arthurs plan to build their own hybrid, which averaged 75 miles per gallon. Sixty thousand Mother Earth News readers wrote in for the plans, when the magazine published their results.
Briggs and Stratton, the company known for manufacturing lawn mower engines, developed a hybrid car powered by a twin cyclinder four-stroke 16hp gasoline engine and an electric motor—for total of 26 horsepower. The hybrid drivetrain provided power for a custom-designed two-door vehicle with six wheels—two in front and four in the back.
Audi unveiled the first generation of the Audi Duo experimental vehicle, based on the Audi 100 Avant Quattro. The car had a 12.6 horsepower electric engine, which drove the rear wheels instead of a propeller shaft. A nickel-cadmium battery supplied the energy. The front-wheel drive was powered by a 2.3-litre five-cylinder engine with an output of 136 horsepower. Two years later, Audi unveiled the second generation Duo, also based on the Audi 100 Avant quattro.
The United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), a Department of Energy program, launched a major program to produce a “super” battery to get viable electric vehicles on the road as soon as possible. The USABC would go on to invest more than $90 million in the nickel hydride (NiMH) battery. The NiMH battery can accept three times as many charge cycles as lead-acid, and can work better in cold weather.
Toyota Motor Corporation announced the "Earth Charter," a document outlining goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest emissions possible.
The Clinton Administration announced a government initiative called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). In the program, the government worked with the American auto industry to develop a clean car that could operate at up to 80 miles per gallon. Several years and a billion dollars later, the PNGV emerged with three prototypes for their 80 mpg car. Every prototype was a hybrid.
Toyota’s exclusion from PNGV prompted Chairman Eiji Toyoda to create a secret project called G21, Global Car for the 21st Century. The following year, Toyota doubled its original goal of improving fuel efficiency by 50 percent.
The Toyota Prius was introduced to the Japanese market, two years before its original launch date, and prior to the Kyoto global warming conference held in December. First-year sales were nearly 18,000.
Audi became the first manufacturer in Europe to take a hybrid vehicle into volume production: the Audi duo based on the A4 Avant. The vehicle was powered by a 90 horsepower 1.9-litre TDI in conjunction with a 29 horsepower electric motor. Both power sources drove the front wheels. A lead-gel battery at the rear stored the electrical energy. The Duo was not a commercial success and therefore discontinued, prompting European carmakers to focus their R&D investment on diesels.
1997 – 1999
A small selection of all-electric cars from the big automakers — including Honda’s EV Plus, GM’s EV1 and S-10 electric pickup, a Ford Ranger pickup, and Toyota’s RAV4 EV — were introduced in California. Despite the enthusiasm of early adopters, the electrics failed to reach beyond a few hundred drivers for each model. Within a few years, the all-electric programs were dropped.
Honda released the two-door Insight, the first hybrid car to hit the mass market in the United States. The Insight won numerous awards and received EPA mileage ratings of 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway.
Toyota released the Toyota Prius, the first hybrid four-door sedan available in the United States.
Honda introduced the Honda Civic Hybrid, its second commercially available hybrid gasoline-electric car. The appearance and drivability of the Civic Hybrid was (and still is) identical to the conventional Civic.
The Toyota Prius II won 2004 Car of the Year Awards from Motor Trend Magazine and the North American Auto Show. Toyota was surprised by the demand and pumped up its production from 36,000 to 47,000 for the U.S. market. Interested buyers waited up to six months to purchase the 2004 Prius. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Press called it "the hottest car we’ve ever had."
To be continued, but a quick snapshot of what’s on the U.S. market through November 2015 can be seen at our sales Dashboard.