Thomas Edison with an electric car
Thomas Edison with an electric car in 1913.

Scottish inventor Robert Anderson and American Thomas Davenport both claim recognition as the initial creator of the electric automobile in the 1830s. A host of other innovators vie for first, including Dutch Sidbrandus Stratingh, American Christopher Becker, and Hungarian Anyos Jedlik. In the 1840s, Robert Davidson and Davenport created practical electric vehicles using non-rechargeable electric cell batteries. Further developments occurred in 1865 with rechargeable lead-acid batteries, and in 1881, Frenchman Camille Faure improved the battery's design.

Electric vehicles had their heyday during the late 1800s. The opportunistic Thomas Edison fashioned a successful electric vehicle in 1889 using nickel-alkaline batteries. An electric car took the gold at the 1895 Thanksgiving Day race, setting a long-standing performance precedent, exemplified by the world land record set by the Belgian electric car, "La Jamais Contente."

Electric cars didn't just blast records; they blasted sales. A fleet of electric cars debuted in New York City in 1897, and three years later, 28% of the automotive market was electric vehicles. They were easier to start, had zero emissions, little required maintenance, and a fast warm-up period.

However, they were not faultless. Wood's 1902 Phaeton only had a top speed of 14-mph and a battery life of roughly 18 miles. It was also a hefty $2,000, a common cost for early electric vehicles. Additionally, America's improved system of roads, replacement of the hand crank by the electric starter, advent of mass production and the discovery of cheap oil all contributed to the quick demise of the electric vehicle by 1935. The Phoenix ignited, and the bird quietly slunk into the smoldering ashes.

Electric vehicles served as cute high-school and collegiate design projects for several decades until the energy and environmental campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s brought the need for alternative fuel sources. The Battronic Truck Company created an electric truck capable of achieving 25-mph, towing 2,500 pounds and driving 62 miles, along with 175 utility vehicles and 20 passenger vans. Additionally, Sebring-Vanguard sold over 2,000 electric Citicars (slight improvements over the Battronic cars but still inadequate). Other electric curios include the Elcar, costing $4,000 - $5,000, and American Motor Company's 350 electric delivery jeeps in 1975.

Environmental developments, such as the California Air Resources Board, 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, Environmental Protection Agency's Emission Regulations, 1992 Energy Policy Act, state-issued emission regulations and the rising cost and politics of crude oil increased for alternative energy sources. However, the initial contenders, including the Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck, Geo Metro and Ford Ecostar were mere engineering novelties.

Electric vehicles were first given a serious look with the General Motors EV-1. Drawn from the GM Impact electric concept car, the NiMH-powered EV-1 was produced from 1996 to 1999. The production model was electronically limited to 80-mph and could travel 150 miles on a single charge. After the political climate changed, however, all EV-1s were repossessed and destroyed.

Several modern EV contenders rise above the curios released in prior decades. The Tesla Roadster is capable of a 0-60 sprint in 3.9 seconds and has 236-mile range, while the Tesla Model S has a nearly 300-mile range. The up-and-coming Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Ford Focus EV and Mitsubishi minicar i-MiEV will debut by 2011 and travel up to 100 miles on a single charge (The Chevrolet Volt goes for 40 miles on a charge and then switches to a range-extending gas-generator). All attain highway speeds and handle remarkably well.

The Phoenix has tentatively raised its head from the smoking coals. Maybe, it will take flight.