An electric vehicle (EV), also referred to as an electric drive vehicle, uses one or more electric motors or traction motors for propulsion. Three main types of electric vehicles exist, those that are directly powered from an external power station, those that are powered by stored electricity originally from an external power source, and those that are powered by an on-board electrical generator, such as an internal combustion engine (hybrid electric vehicles) or a hydrogen fuel cell. EVs include plug-in electric cars, hybrid electric cars, hydrogen vehicles, electric trains, electric lorries, electric airplanes, electric boats, electric motorcycles and scooters and electric spacecraft. Diesel submarines operating on battery power are, for the duration of the battery run, electric submarines, and some of the lighter UAVs are electrically-powered. Proposals exist for electric tanks.
EVs first came into existence in the mid-19th century, when electricity was among the preferred methods for motor vehicle propulsion, providing a level of comfort and ease of operation that could not be achieved by the gasoline cars of the time. The internal combustion engine (ICE) has been the dominant propulsion method for motor vehicles for almost 100 years, but electric power has remained commonplace in other vehicle types, such as trains and smaller vehicles of all types.
During the last few decades, environmental impact of the petroleum-based transportation infrastructure, along with the peak oil, has led to renewed interest in an electric transportation infrastructure. EVs differ from fossil fuel-powered vehicles in that the electricity they consume can be generated from a wide range of sources, including fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewable sources such as tidal power, solar power, and wind power or any combination of those. The carbon footprint and other emissions of electric vehicles varies depending on the fuel and technology used for electricity generation. The electricity may then be stored on board the vehicle using a battery, flywheel, or supercapacitors. Vehicles making use of engines working on the principle of combustion can usually only derive their energy from a single or a few sources, usually non-renewable fossil fuels. A key advantage of hybrid or plug-in electric vehicles is regenerative braking due to their capability to recover energy normally lost during braking as electricity is stored in the on-board battery.
Electric motive power started with a small drifter operated by a miniature electric motor, built by Thomas Davenport in 1835. In 1838, a Scotsman named Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive that attained a speed of four miles per hour (6 km/h). In England a patent was granted in 1840 for the use of rails as conductors of electric current, and similar American patents were issued to Lilley and Colten in 1847.
Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain), Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first crude electric carriage, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.
By the 20th century, electric cars and rail transport were commonplace, with commercial electric automobiles having the majority of the market. Over time their general-purpose commercial use reduced to specialist roles, as platform trucks, forklift trucks, ambulances, tow tractors and urban delivery vehicles, such as the iconic British milk float; for most of the 20th century, the UK was the world’s largest user of electric road vehicles.
Electrified trains were used for coal transport, as the motors did not use precious oxygen in the mines. Switzerland’s lack of natural fossil resources forced the rapid electrification of their rail network. One of the earliest rechargeable batteries – the nickel-iron battery – was favored by Edison for use in electric cars.
EVs were among the earliest automobiles, and before the preeminence of light, powerful internal combustion engines, electric automobiles held many vehicle land speed and distance records in the early 1900s. They were produced by Baker Electric, Columbia Electric, Detroit Electric, and others, and at one point in history out-sold gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, in 1900, 28 percent of the cars on the road in the USA were electric. EVs were so popular that even President Woodrow Wilson and his secret service agents toured Washington DC in their Milburn Electrics, which covered 60–70 miles per charge.
A number of developments contributed to decline of electric cars, such as improved road infrastructure requiring a greater range than that offered by electric cars, and the discovery of large reserves of petroleum in Texas, Oklahoma, and California led to the wide availability of affordable gasoline, making gas-powered cars cheaper to operate over long distances. Also gasoline-powered cars became ever easier to operate thanks to the invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912, which eliminated the need of a hand crank for starting a gasoline engine, and the noise emitted by ICE cars became more bearable thanks to the use of the muffler, whichHiram Percy Maxim had invented in 1897. Finally, the initiation of mass production of gasoline-powered vehicles by Henry Ford in 1913 reduced significantly the cost of gasoline cars as compared to electric cars.
In the 1930s, National City Lines, which was a partnership of General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California purchased many electric tram networks across the country to dismantle them and replace them with GM buses. The partnership was convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of equipment and supplies to their subsidiary companies conspiracy, but were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the provision of transportation services.