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Contrary to modern revisionist history, electric cars are not a recent innovation. The original idea of vehicles powered by an electric motor dates back to the turn of the century - that is, when the 19th century turned into the 20th century.
Between then and now, the interest and innovation in electric vehicles (EVs) have ebbed and flowed. Practicality and curiosity propelled early development. Real-world events such as the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s sparked renewed interest in technologies that did not rely so heavily on foreign oil.
Today, the boom is fueled by those same considerations, with one critical indigent drawing interest from everyday consumers - affordability.
With new battery technologies improving reliability, practicality, and scalability, electric vehicles are a growth industry.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 50,000 electric plug-in vehicles (PEVs) were purchased in 2012. In 2018, that number jumped to 400,000.
Globally, the EV market closed 2018 with 1.5 million units sold. By 2025, forecasts expect sales to exceed 10.5 million units.
It's clear that after a history marked with fits and starts, EVs are no longer just a fad. As the chorus of fans get louder, and sales worldwide continue to increase, it's clear that EVs are here to stay.
But what's driving this rebirth of electric cars? What are the vehicles like and how do they compare with conventional, gas-powered automobiles. Which companies are ahead of the EV curve with models currently available to purchase?
Inside and out, EVs, from an atheistic standpoint, offer little distinction from their internal combustion engine (ICE) powered siblings. They're still cars, and that distinction includes the fundamental traits that have come to identify our primary mode of transportation.
The differences though become starkly apparent when you power up an EV and take it for a drive. The contrast proves even sharper once you account for the change in lifestyle and driving habits that inevitably come when switching to an EV.
Let's examine three central attributes that make electric cars unique within the automobile segment.
You'll realize you're not in your father's Oldsmobile the moment the EV comes to life. Start the car up and immediately you notice the sound - or lack thereof.
If you've ever stood next to an EV, you know how jarring that absence of noise from a car's engine (or motor) can be. Inside, once you grow accustomed to it, you'll wonder why things haven't always been this way.
Although, as serene as a quiet car is, in places such as the EU, a noisy car is less nuisance and more a safety feature.
For the actual drive experience, contrasts do exist between an EV and ICE car. The design and manufacturing of the vehicle has as much to do with the drive as anything else. EVs, with few exceptions, are well-thought out. Simple and safe, yet built to the standards to take on any driving condition.
One considerable difference is the use of regenerative (regen) braking. In gas-powered vehicles, the brake system serves one purpose - stop the car. However, by using friction to do so, it uses and loses a lot of energy during the braking process.
With EV regen braking, the system uses the forward motion of the vehicle as it slows down - it's kinetic energy - and feeds it back into the battery. Instead of losing energy, it recaptures it.
This type of brake system reduces the reliance on the primary brake pedal (the friction method), which all EVs still retain. Based on the pressure applied to the accelerator, the car will either reduce or increase the car's motion.
It explains why companies like Nissan can describe their Leaf as requiring single-pedal operation. The conventional brake is there for sudden stops, but under normal driving conditions, the accelerator serves the primary roles of increasing and decreasing your speed.
Judging vehicle performance is often an exercise in personal preference. Trade publications and car enthusiasts like to weigh one car's performance versus another - who's faster, quicker, flashier on a test track.
For people buying the car, the performance that matters most doesn't happen on a test track, but in a run to the grocery store. Is it safe and efficient, and will it get them where they need to go and back again?
Call it practical performance.
A prime example is the torque generated by an EV. More torque means more force for your car to accelerate. Electric motors are capable of achieving instant torque due to its efficient use of electrical currents creating the required force. The catch, however, is that the torque generated by an EV motor, while instant, is unsustainable for longer durations.
Gas-powered engines generate plenty of torque as well. But from the moment you mash the accelerator, it takes time for that torque to build. Fuel burns, combustion occurs, and the engine leaps into action.
ICE cars are far less efficient than electric motors. They're heavier too. The combustion engine puts up a lot of resistance when working to generate torque. More importantly, the engine wastes a lot of power when generating the energy necessary to move the car forward. So while the car does reach maximum torque, the process is inefficient.
Why does this aspect of an EV matter?
The majority of EVs, both by design and the current limitations of their technology, effectively serve as urban and suburban vehicles. Zippy and agile while tooling in and out of traffic, and most compact enough to take advantage of limited space in dense cities. EVs are also "quick off the line."
An EV isn't going to chase down or overtake a Ferrari. However, as this demonstration shows, the majority of EVs on the market today serve a particular niche. One that high-performance exotics aren't exactly capturing.
One of the most consistent commentaries on EVs is they possess limited range and take forever to recharge. Those statements, while relatively true, are meaningless without the proper context.
The arguments about range - the distance you can travel on a single charge - fail to account for how you "fuel" an EV.
In a conventional car, you gas up at the beginning of a week then drive until your tank gets low. You stop at a gas station at week's end, take about 10 minutes to gas up and then repeat the process every week.
If you own an EV, with a dedicated parking space at home, you charge up your car at night, and it's ready to go for the next day or two of driving. Even better if you also work somewhere that affords a space to park and charge your car while you work.
This eliminates the need to stop and gas up every week.
Now, the EV still has yet to fully crack the code on longer distances, which do require more planning. But it's also not the major departure from trips in a conventional car, that some make it out to be.
Assume you're driving the Tesla 3 Long Range model with a range of 310 miles per charge from Dallas to Houston. Accounting for operating inefficiencies, which reduce your range, you'll need to stop once in your journey for a 15-minute charge - roughly the same as you would an ICE car.
Take an extended trip, say from Dallas to New Orleans, and you'd have to stop three times in the Model 3 with an average charge time of 30 minutes at each stop. A conventional car would make one to two stops.
Another facet to recharging involves charging stations.
The charging stations, such as Tesla's Supercharger network, require a membership. Although the networks are growing, there still may be gaps in the coverage network depending on where you live or where you travel.
Chasing down a place to "refuel" could result in creative, yet unadvisable charging methods.
As it stands now, an EV owner must commit more time to plan their long trips. For urban and suburban owners, who drive mostly in-town, the EV makes a lot of sense - if they have ready access to a parking spot and place to plug it in.
In a way, EVs are quickly becoming the new SUV. Once the specialty of a few brands like Jeep, SUVs and the offshoot crossover are now staples in almost every automakers vehicle lineup.
As popularity and acceptance grow, the same push in development and production is happening with EVs.
The clear leader in EV production and sales is Tesla. They offer three distinct models with two more on the way. Their cars account for two-thirds of all EV sales in June of 2019, and the company's Model 3 is the clear favorite for new EV buyers.
But they're about to get a lot of company.
In the US alone, there are nearly 50 individual models of EVs currently available for sale. Twenty of those are fully electric battery-powered vehicles (and their variants).
With even more models planned to hit the marketplace in 2020 and 2021, the market is becoming increasingly more competitive. Here's a chart showing current and future models through 2021 in the U.S.
Current EVs (not including Hybrids) Currently Available in the U.S.
Future EVs (not including Hybrids) Set to Release in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021
With over 100 years of history, the electric car is finally having its moment. Unlike previous eras, it appears that moment is permanent. As the popularity of EVs further increases, so too will the developments in the technologies that power it and the affordability for the everyday driver to own it.
Written by Anna Kučírková, July 29, 2019.