Energy Perspectives

Driving the Recovered Past- Part III

In the face of global energy concerns, many automobile companies are producing electric and hybrid cars in order to become more energy efficient and sustainable. Many individuals believe that electric cars have a bright future in the automobile industry. Carrington White, fourth year History and Political Science student at the University of Ottawa, explains how electric vehicles have a past that has been easily forgotten.

The Rise of the Green Machine

 In the late 1980s, Canadians began to realize that carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, greenhouse gases and fossil fuel emissions posed a serious problem. In response to international concern for the environment, several regional bodies began to introduce environmental policies. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a law which made it necessary for 10% of cars sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) by 2003. To meet these targets, automobile manufacturers reluctantly began production, ushering in the third wave of electric vehicles.

 Two cars were seriously marketed to meet the demands of the Californian zero-emissions vehicle law. In 1992, Ford released the Ecostar, which ran on a sodium-sulphur battery and had a travel range of 160 km. In 1996, General Motors released the EV1 which could travel 145 km on a lead-acid battery powered engine. By 1998, both companies had stopped producing the vehicles due to a lack of public demand. The California Air Resource Board was forced to drop their emissions targets from 10% to 4% by 1998 and then from 4% to 2% in 2001. As a result, CARB switched their focus from zero-emissions vehicles to partial-emissions vehicles - better known today as hybrids. Toyota was the first automobile company to willingly and actively recognize that combustion engines, specifically those that burned fossil fuels, accounted for a large portion of green house gases.

Harry_nl,“General motors EV1 in Oxnard, CA”, March 17, 1997 via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution

You asked for it, you got it, Toyota

 Electric and hybrid vehicles had been criticized for being too expensive for the average individual to purchase. In 1998, Toyota began to mass produce a hybrid vehicle called the Prius. In doing so, they made the hybrid car affordable to the average consumer and created a large market. Hybrids like the Prius operate on battery power until the battery is drained whereupon the gas engine engages. The Prius owner’s manual explains: “the Prius is a new kind of car called a hybrid, combining a sophisticated gasoline engine with a powerful electric motor. The Prius power system is completely self-contained. So, unlike all electric-only vehicles, Prius never needs to be recharged from an outside source”[1]. Due to the Prius’ self charging function and its mass production, people across the globe are finding this automobile affordable and convenient.

         In October 1998, the Toyota Prius was introduced to Canada at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. It was very successful, selling 14,000 cars in Canada and 1.7 million world-wide. The Prius has since been the best-selling hybrid on the market and has been influential in the development and social acceptance of the electric and hybrid vehicle. According to the Canada Automobile Association, there are thirty-one hybrid automobiles available in Canada today. It’s an improvement, but electric cars are still relatively few compared to their gas-powered cousins, reflecting the little progress made since 1881 to secure the public’s confidence in these vehicles. Safety, cost, accessibility to charging stations, speed, and travelling capacity remain significant concerns for people considering an electric car.


Toyota Prius in storage at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTMC/2002.0351.001.aa.cs) 

“Moving Forward”

             Automobile historiography has largely omitted the study of the electric vehicle. While many believe that modern technologies resulted in the creation of electric and hybrid transportation, that isn’t actually true; electric and hybrid vehicles date back to the late 1880s. The lack of public acceptance, limited production, and a tradition of dependence on cheap oil contributed to a lack of interest in the electric vehicle. We can’t say for sure whether electric cars are the way of the future, but they’re an important step in a more sustainable direction that we can’t afford to ignore. 


[1] Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota Prius Service Manual, 1998, CSTM Trade Lit L42547.

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