Electric Vehicle Background

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for a very long time. In the early 1900s, there were more electric vehicles than gasoline-powered cars. At one time there were up to 50,000 EVs on the roads and streets of the United States.

In an EV, batteries are typically used to store the electricity that powers the electric motor(s) in the vehicle. The batteries must be recharged by plugging into a power source. Some EVs have on-board chargers. Others need to be plugged into an external charger. An EV is a zero-emission vehicle, and its motor produces no tailpipe exhaust emissions.

In 1990, the California state agency responsible for protecting the state's air quality passed a rule to reduce the pollution from cars. The California Air Resources Board (ARB) decided that beginning in 1998, 2 percent of all vehicles sold in California would have to have zero-emissions, increasing to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

In 1996, the ARB, however, changed its mind following a lobbying effort by the auto companies. ARB decided to eliminate the "ramp up" but left in the 10 percent mandate in 2003. The new regulation also allowed partial ZEV (PZEV) for extremely clean emission vehicles that were not ZEV.

As the deadline approached, the agency revamped the regulation further in 2001. The compromise allowed extremely low-emission vehicles to get partial ZEV credits but required that auto companies still sell 2 percent pure-ZEVS (battery EVs or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles).

The ARB was sued over the requirements, and in June 2002, a federal district judge prohibited the agency from enforcing the 2001 amendments.

In April 2003, the agency adopted more changes to the ZEV program. For a more information, please download:

ARB ZEV Fact Sheet (PDF file)

At one time, more than 4,000 electric-battery ZEVs travelled California streets and highways.

Today's Electric Vehicles

ChargePoint electric vehicle charger on display at Plug-In 2010 in San Jose, California

Photo: Andrew Hudgins, NREL 17834

Well-designed EVs can travel at the same speeds as conventional vehicles and provide the same safety and performance capabilities. In some instances, the EVs have better acceleration because of the characteristics of motors at low speeds.

The range for EVs, however, is more limited than conventional vehicle ranges, and spans from 50 to 130 miles. Variables include the vehicle's weight, engineering, design, type of battery, weather extremes, and the use of heating and air conditioning.

One of the first modern EVs produced by a major auto company was the General Motors "Impact." GM changed its name and started leasing the GM "EV1" in 1997, such as the one being charged in the photograph below. The company, however, decided to end its lease program and not pursue future battery electric vehicles.

Beginning in 1999, nearly all of the major auto companies - Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler and Honda - offered at least one model electric car. That number dropped by 2002, with many auto companies working on hybrid and/or fuel cell vehicles.

Hybrid Plug-Ins

There is a movement to convert hybrid vehicles to plug-in hybrids. Typically the smaller battery on the vehicle is swapped with a larger battery pack that can be charged by regular electrical outlets. At speeds below 35 mph, the hybrid runs only on battery power. Such conversion can get up to 50 miles or more before needing to be recharged.

Two good articles on "Plug-In Hybrids" can be found in the October/November issue of Mother Earth News. See: www.motherearthnews.com

Neighborhood Electric Vehicles

The largest group of EVs being sold today are called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles - NEVs. These are smaller vehicles that normally can't exceed 35 miles per hour. They are used mostly for short trips, such as to and from work or school, or for shopping.

Learn More About Neighborhood Electric Vehicles

Other Vehicles are EVs, too!

ChargePoint electric vehicle charger on display at Plug-In 2010 in San Jose, California

Photo: Greater Indiana Clean Cities, NREL 17147

There are other types of electric vehicles. Many cities uses electric-powered buses, trolleys, subways, or light-rail. Even most trains are electric. Other places will use electric buses with batteries because they don't want wires over the roads.

One of those places is Yosemite National Park in California, where
two electric buses (pictured to the right) were put into service in September 1995. They are almost silent, so the buses don't disturb visitors to the national park.

Other EVs include electric-powered bicycles, scooters and others.