The Car of the Not-Too-Distant Future (and Past)


Old Electric Vehicle: Garages and Motor Boat Houses, WM. Phillips
Comstock, Comstock Company, 1911.

Cullen-Thompson Motor Company, Denver.
Courtesy of History Colorado (MAZZULLA COLLECTION C-Denver-Buildings-Chrysler Agency, Scan #2000078833)

NEV: The GEM, an early NEV designed and appealing to a younger generation.
Image Credit: Dan Sturges

NEV: The GEM, an early NEV designed and appealing to a younger generation. Image Credit: Dan Sturges

Zip Car: At Hofstra and at locations throughout the U.S., Zipcars are ready when you want them. Image Credit: The Chronicle at Hofstra


Hybrids have been on the road for more than ten years and fuel cell cars are in the planning stage, but the oldest of alternative automobile technologies—the electric vehicle—is now coming into the mainstream. Though it appeared to have died an early death, the electric car has reemerged as a smart solution for commuting and local trips around town. Overcoming one of the electric car’s biggest deterrents—so-called “range anxiety”—has been helped by the fact that batteries now last longer (allowing cars to travel farther), coupled with the fact that charging stations are now appearing with greater frequency.

As with so much innovation, the electric vehicle isn’t all that new. Coin-operated electric-charging stations existed at the turn of the 20th century. Private individuals had charging stations in their front yards in 1902; a doctor in Brooklyn even had one available to the general public. Henry Ford’s personal garage in Michigan had charging stations for his electric vehicles. The electric vehicle was a real competitor to the gasoline-powered vehicle well into the 1910s.

Historically, many people considered electric to be the technology of choice. The most flattering comment came from the French in 1898: “New York has no motor vehicle exhibition such as recently drew all of Paris to its doors, nor does she as yet count the motor vehicles in her streets by the thousands, but she has something which even Paris, the mother of the motor vehicle, cannot boast—a complete electric cab installation.”

Not surprisingly, an interest in electric vehicles reappeared in the gasoline-challenged 1970s, with charging stations finding their way into some parking facilities. The cars almost made their way into the mainstream at the turn of the 21st century, with several testing programs—only to be squelched again by an auto-entrenched culture, as documented in the 2006 film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

Today, the grim reality of rising fuel costs and the negative environmental impacts of the car have brought electricity back into focus. Of increasing interest in this realm is the NEV or neighborhood electric vehicle, which has been in use in various forms for several decades in a number of communities such as Peachtree City, Georgia. Typically, the small electric vehicle did not exceed 25 miles per hour and was meant for intra-neighborhood transport (mostly within golf course and retirement communities), but in 1998, the GEM (Global Electric Motorcar) was created as a street-legal vehicle. Slowly, cities are accepting its use, recognizing these cars’ efficient use of both fuel and space.

Zipcar has created much-needed innovation in electric vehicles by focusing not just on the vehicle itself, but on developing a smart rent-as-you-need model for use. The innovation is not just in the technology, but in the removal of ownership as barrier: Zipcars can be rented for short trips from lots located throughout highly traveled downtown areas. If you live in one of these mixed-use downtown areas, you may not even need to own a car. Zipcar allows you to rent as needed, eliminating the hassle and expense of car ownership.

It’s an unfortunate truth that households with more than three cars are the largest single group in the United States—and growing. But now, with expanding options, this may begin to change as individuals and families can now mix and pick and choose from several different options to meet their specific travel needs. We still have a long way to go, but a renewed focus on the option of electric might help set us in the right direction.