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Electric Cars: Their past, present and future

Sarah K. White | Aug. 3, 2015
Electric and hybrid cars are making more appearances among the gas-reliant sedans and SUVs on the road, but what makes an electric car different from a gas-powered car -- other than just plugging it in?

Electric Cars: Their past, present and future

Spotting a fancy new Tesla on the road might seem novel, but electric cars are nothing new. And, of course, hybrids like the Prius dot the highways. But the emergence of electric cars dates back further than you think. The first ones go back as far as 1880, and they were common into the early 20th century.

Thomas Parker, the man behind making the London Underground electric, was the first to create an electric car suitable for production in 1884 using rechargeable batteries. By 1900, only 22 percent of cars were powered by gasoline, while 40 percent were electric and the remaining 38 percent ran on steam.

Eventually, improvements in internal combustion engines and the invention of the electric starter made gasoline powered cars a better -- and cheaper -- option. Eventually, the growth of gasoline-powered cars from companies like Ford and General Motors helped lower the prices of these vehicles to almost half the price of their electric counterparts. By the 1930s, gasoline powered cars had taken over the market, with electric cars disappearing from the marketplace.

Fast forward to the 1950s. Growing concerns about pollution from gasoline powered cars prompted the Air Pollution Control Act in the U.S. This garnered some interest in electric cars and by the 80s and early 90s, there was increasing pressure and demand for fuel-efficient vehicles with the dream of a zero-emission car at some point in the future.

What makes electric cars different from gasoline cars?
The most obvious difference between electric and gasoline cars, is that the former uses an electric engine while the latter uses a gasoline engine. Electric cars might look like a typical car on the outside - or not, depending on the brand you choose -- but under the hood they swap out some important parts from their gasoline counterparts.

The most notable aspect of an electric car is its battery. Combine the battery with an electric motor and motor's controller, and you've got the basic brains of an electric car. The controller gets its power from the car's battery and sends it along to the motor to get you on your way.

Tesla or Edison?
There are two different types of motors that can power an electric car: AC or DC. It stands for alternating current and direct current, the former invented by Nikola Tesla, while the latter was an invention from Thomas Edison, and both come with a long, competitive history. The main difference between the two motors boils down to the voltage they need to get going. A DC motor will use 92 to 192 volts while an AC motor runs on 240 volts with a 300 volt battery pack.


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