Though Thomas Davenport was among the first to install an electric motor into a vehicle, an electric car in the conventional sense was not developed until 1890 or 1891, by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa; the vehicle was a six-passenger wagon capable of reaching a speed of 14 miles per hour (23 km/h). It was not until 1895 that Americans began to devote attention to electric vehicles, after A.L. Ryker introduced the first electric tricycles to the U.S., by that point, Europeans had been making use of electric tricycles, bicycles, and cars for almost 15 years. Many innovations followed, and interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1897, electric vehicles found their first commercial application as a fleet of electrical New York City taxis, built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, was established. Electric cars were produced in the U.S. by Anthony Electric, Baker, Columbia, Anderson, Edison, Studebaker, Riker, and others during the early 20th century. In 1917, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was released by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. The hybrid was a commercial failure, proving to be too slow for its price, and too difficult to service.
Thomas Edison and an electric car in 1913 (courtesy of the National Museum of American History)
Due to technological limitations and the lack of transistor-based electric technology, the top speed of these early electric vehicles was limited to about 32 km/h (20 mph). Despite their relatively slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, and electric vehicles did not require gear changes. While steam-powered cars also had no gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings. The steam cars had less range before needing water than an electric car's range on a single charge. Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. The cars were also preferred because they did not require a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine. Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to this ease of operation; in fact, early electric cars were stigmatized by the perception that they were "women's cars", leading some companies to affix radiators to the front to disguise the car's propulsion system.
Acceptance of electric cars was initially hampered by a lack of power infrastructure, but by 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars. At the turn of the century, 40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and America became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance. While basic electric cars cost under $1,000 (in 1900 dollars, roughly $26,000 today), most early electric vehicles were massive, ornate carriages designed for the upper-class customers that made them popular. They featured luxurious interiors, replete with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1900 (roughly $78,000 today). Sales of electric cars peaked in 1912.
In order to overcome the limited operating range of electric vehicles, and the lack of recharging infrastructure, a exchangeable battery service was first proposed as early as 1896. The concept was first put into practice by Hartford Electric Light Company through the GeVeCo battery service and initially available for electric trucks. The vehicle owner purchased the vehicle from General Electric Company (GVC) without a battery and the electricity was purchase from Hartford Electric through an exchangeable battery. The owner paid a variable per-mile charge and a monthly service fee to cover maintenance and storage of the truck. Both vehicles and batteries were modified to facilitate a fast battery exchange. The service was provided between 1910 to 1924 and during that periord covered more than 6 million miles. Beginning in 1917 a similar successful service was operated in Chicago for owners of Milburn Light Electric cars who also could buy the vehicle without the batteries.