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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Modern EV Era Celebrates 10 Years

By my accounting, the modern electric vehicle (EV) era started 10 years ago this month. It started in December of 2010 when both the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt rolled onto showroom floors. Since this unveiling, EVs have been making slow but steady progress. More models have been introduced and range and capabilities have continued to increase. Given the historic importance of this milestone, I think it's important to have a little perspective. EVs have tried to become the transportation of choice before and failed. What happened then and will this time be different?

Thomas Edison shows
off a 1914 Detroit Electric

Early 1900s

At the dawn of the automobile era, at the turn of the 20th century, there were several contenders to be the fuel of choice; there were steam-powered cars, electric cars, and gasoline-powered cars. It was not clear if all 3 of these fuel sources would co-exist or if one would dominate. 

Henry Ford's wife, Clara, choose to drive an electric car, rather than a gas-powered car from her husband's company. Gas cars were loud, dirty, and you could break an arm or wrist while trying to crank-start them. Whereas, EVs were clean and quiet and much more suited to a high-class lady of the time.  

Despite Clara's preference (and that of many people like her), after the self-starter engine was invented and the wrist breaking hand crank was removed, the gas-powered-mobile won out and began its century-long domination of transportation.

I find it ironic that the biggest hurdle to the gas engine's adoption (hand cranking) was solved by an electric motor. With this problem solved, gasoline rose up and became the dominant fuel, leaving electric vehicles relegated to golf carts, milk floats, and niche low-speed vehicles.

1974 Electric Prototype


An oil crisis began in 1973 when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo. The embargo targeted several nations. The price of oil more than quadrupled in the US. The embargo caused an "oil shock" that had lasting effects on the global economy and politics, but not significantly on personal transportation.

The crisis created a demand for fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels. Many electric prototypes were created and DIY electric conversions grew in popularity. Although, battery technology had not advanced significantly from the lead-acid batteries that were used at the turn of the century.

After negotiations, the embargo was lifted in March of 1974. Be it from arrogance or deference, the world seemed to forget about the need for alternative fuels and continued their dependency on a single primary fuel source and we would pay for this again and again with another oil shock at the end of the decade and more to follow in each of the next three the decades ahead. 

None of the various EV prototypes from this decade ever made it into mass production but one ray of light that survived from this era was that the home conversion hobbyists persisted with groups like the Electric Auto Association.*  




The 1990s were the next attempt at an electric revolution. The GM EV1 rolled out in 1996 and was the vanguard of this wave. The EV1 and other EVs of this era had owners that loved them. Regenerative breaking helped extend the range and batteries had had their first major breakthrough with the Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) chemistry, although most buyers (leasers actually) still opted for the cheaper lead-acid option. 

Unfortunately, this attempted revolution was also put down. Automakers sued California to eliminate the state's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate. The automakers eventually won and most of the EVs were collected and crushed when their leases ended. To no avail, drivers held a mock funeral and candle-lit vigils to try to save their cars; some were even arrested while blocking the trucks carrying their cars to the crusher. Many of the drivers that held vigil would go on to found PlugInAmerica to promote EVs, public awareness, and better EV policy.

 You can see the entire intriguing story of this era in the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? 

The people that would later go on to found Tesla, noted the devotion that owners had to a compelling EV (more on this later).

This era didn't populate the world with EVs, but it did demonstrate that there's a market of passionate drivers that want EVs which the existing automakers were unwilling to satisfy.

2011 Nissan Leaf SL


This finally brings us to the modern era of EVs. This era kicked off when both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt started selling in December of 2010; soon followed by the Tesla Model S in June of 2012. This generation of EVs had a few things that the previous revolution attempts didn't have: 
  • Lithium-ion Batteries
  • Major Automaker Support
  • Tesla
2011 Nissan LEAF Battery Pack

Lithium-ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries power most of our modern mobile electronics from smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and earbuds. This has meant that a lot of money was pouring into battery R&D for longer runtime for these devices. EVs were the unintended beneficiary of this mobile digital revolution. All of the EVs coming out in this era are currently powered by Li-ion cells.

Batteries are the most important component in an EV. They are, by far, the most expensive part of the vehicle, they're one of the biggest determiners of range, and avoiding battery degradation is often the limiting factor to performance and recharge time.  

In this era, EVs have finally made it to a production level that they are no longer just dependent on battery advances from the consumer electronics realm. Automakers are funding battery research, partnering with battery companies to build out capacity, and designing custom form factors and chemistries to better meet the demanding cycle-life that EVs require. Advancements here enables lower prices, better performance, longer range, faster charging, longer lifespans... Batteries are the crux.

In the 1990s, NiMH was the advanced battery tech of the time but there was a problem. This battery chemistry was covered by one primary patent and that patent fell into the hands of an oil company. They restricted the license such that NiMH batteries could only be used in hybrid vehicles and not in pure EVs. 

Li-ion batteries have no such patent encumberment. Because Li-ion was used in so many different types of consumer electronics, dozens of companies had patents for various improvements and in many cases, due to legal spats or partnerships, these patents were cross-licensed. Additionally, Li-ion was invented in 1985. This means that many of the initial patents have been long since expired. 

Sidebar: The inventors of the Li-ion battery; John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino; received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. 

Major Automaker Support

In the 1990s and aughties, when automakers were required to make EVs, these were generally "compliance cars" made in limited quantity with just enough range to meet state mandates. The limited production made them hard to find even within California and if you lived outside of the state, these cars were nearly impossible to find. However, the Leaf and Volt were being sold nationwide (or worldwide) and not in limited quantities. These were the first EVs that you could walk into a dealership, purchase, and drive off in an EV. That's assuming the dealership didn't try to steer you into the gas car they had on special that week. Dealerships were (and in some cases still are) an obstacle to EV adoption (but that's another story). 

A variety of factors from consumer demand to regional climate goals have pushed automakers to make EVs. Nearly all of the legacy automakers either have EVs on the market or have plans to have them out soon. Here are some of the currently announced plans: 
  • Audi - 20 EV models by 2025 
  • BMW - 25 electrified* models by 2025
  • Daimler / Mercedes - Plug-in option of every offering by 2022
  • GM - 20 EVs by 2023 
  • Fiat-Chrysler -  30 electrified* models by 2022 
  • Ford - 40 EV models by 2022
  • Hyundai - 44 EV models by 2025 
  • Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi - 12 EV models by 2022 with annual volumes of over 1 million units per year
  • Toyota - 50% of sales in 2028 will be electric
  • VW - 70 EV models by 2028 
  • Volvo - Polestar brand will be 100% electric
* "electrified" in automaker-speak often includes hybrid vehicles (the non-plug-in type). 

Certainly, some of these more aggressive goals will be missed or delayed, but the direction is clear. Automakers are going electric.


Tesla, or a company like it, might seem like an obvious inevitability today, but that was not the case when they started. The prevailing logic was that EVs had been tried in the past and there was no market, that California was not the place for a car company HQ, and that Tesla's $100k+ sports car would sell all of 5 to California billionaires and then the demand would dry up. Variations of this demand narrative continue to this day despite being proven wrong year after year.

Despite the naysayers, Tesla overhauled the way that people perceived EVs. EVs were considered slow. Tesla's cars were really fast. EVs were often weird looking little things. Teslas were sexy and (other than Roadster) were large vehicles. EVs generally has less than 100 miles of range, Teslas had 200+ miles of range. EVs were restricted to a radius of travel equal to about half of their range. Teslas had a vast fast-charging network. Tesla changed the public perception of what an EV could be. Tesla made EVs fun and exciting.

Tesla's business model seemed to be to knock down every objection to the adoption of EVs. And knock them down they did. Arguably, with one exception, affordability. This is one area where they have made great progress going from the $100,000+ Roadster, to the ~$35,000 Model 3 and it's a goal they continue to strive toward. As Tesla ramped their volume, they consistently reduced the price. A $25,000 vehicle was recently announced and expected in 2024. 

There is no question that Tesla has changed the game. People that had never bought a new car were doing the "Tesla Stretch" and buying a new Tesla that was often twice as expensive or more than any car they had purchased previously. People were drawn to Tesla for the performance, the tech, the fun, and the zero-emission factor was almost secondary. Tesla demonstrated that if you made a compelling EV, even an expensive one, there was a market for it.

The Tesla Wake-up Call 

Legacy automakers initially dismissed Tesla as a low-volume niche automaker. As Tesla has continued to make inroads into new markets, the legacy automakers have finally started to take notice. US automakers could initially dismiss Tesla. Volumes started small and Model S mostly ate into the luxury sedan market dominated by German brands such as Audi, Mercedes, & BMW. Next, Model 3 ate into the fuel-efficient sedan market and mostly impacting the Japanese automakers. But Tesla has plans for a truck, a Cybertruck. Trucks are the heart of the American auto industry. The top-selling vehicles in the US are trucks. Tesla can no longer be ignored by GM and Ford. Tesla's products, technologies, and plans are now closely examined by the worldwide auto industry. 

Viva La REVoluciĆ³n

(What Makes This Time Different?)
EVs have been here before, they've gained traction with an enthusiastic early adopter niche, but they were never able to go mainstream; never able to cross the chasm. Several things make this time different. 

With Li-Ion, there is a battery technology that allows for long-range and fast recharge and it's continuing to get better. There's support (to varying degrees) by the major automakers. There's a standard-bearer in Tesla that shows that EVs can be great and there's a swath of start-ups trying to follow in Tesla's footsteps (or even trying to leapfrog them). These start-ups are well funded by venture capital and pre-revenue SPAC-mania from investors with FOMO on the next Tesla. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

This time, the EV revolution will not be crushed! 

What a Difference 10 Years Can Make

Looking back on these 10 years, it's amazing how much EVs have improved. Compare the 2011 Nissan Leaf with the upcoming Nissan Ariya, the Ariya has more than 4 times the range. Or comparing the initial Tesla Model S (which won Car of the Year) to the recently announced Plaid Model S. The improvements in tech, performance, and range are amazing. If this trend continues, there will be no reason to even consider a gas car by 2025 for 99% of drivers. We'll move beyond oil.  

I've wondered aloud how good EVs would be today if the automakers had continued their 1990s efforts (or even better, their 1970s efforts). Taking this to its extreme, what if Clara Ford had won the day 100 years ago. Over the last 100 years, we've made great strides in internal combustion technology, we were just working on the wrong problem. What would that alternative history of battery advancement and transportation look like? Would we have battery-powered transcontinental flight by now? 

Disclosure: I am long Tesla
* I'm a member of my local EAA chapter, the OEVA