Time flies when you are having fun, and what is more fun than covering the American-market electric vehicle industry? Torque News has been covering EVs for more than a decade, and we have participated in a lot of fun events over the years. We thought we would lay out a rough timeline of events in the history of American EVs and throw in some memorable happenings along the way.
First, a little pre-history. In December of 1996, General Motors leased 40 EV-1 BEVs to private “owners.” Toyota delivered the first American-market battery-electric crossover in 1997. This was the first of two generations of BEV RAV4s that Toyota would create (so far). The first-gen RAV4 EV had a low-volume run until 2003.
In July of 2003, Tesla Motors, Inc. was founded by two guys, neither of whom was named Musk. The company initially set its sights on converting Lotus cars to electric vehicles. The first Tesla Roadster was delivered in 2008. That was also the year that Elon Musk became Tesla’s CEO, after having first become involved in the company as an investor.
December 2010 Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt Are Delivered to US Customers
2010 was a huge year for EVs. Back when Inside EVs tracked monthly EV sales, the first month of deliveries on its long-running list was December of 2010. In this month, Nissan delivered 19 Leaf BEVs and Chevrolet delivered 326 Volt EREVs. The pairing had the entire market to themselves that year. No other brand sold any EVs in America, according to our records. One other notable EV happening in 2010 was Tesla obtaining its Fremont factory in a stock swap with Toyota. Who remembers when Toyota was one of Tesla’s largest shareholders? In mid-2010, Tesla went public.
December 2011 Mitsubishi Enters the Market - Sort of
Mitsubishi was the next automaker to deliver a BEV in America, but only sort of. Its i-MiEV was sort of a cross between a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) and a real vehicle. According to our records, Mitsubishi delivered 80 in December of 2011. At the end of 2011, a total of about 20,000 EVs, including the Volt EREV, had been delivered to US owners from automotive manufacturers. We are not counting NEVs and golf carts, of course.
2012 Three Important Models Debut - Toyota Prius Plug-In, Gen-2 RAV4 EV, and Tesla Model S
In 2012, two very important electrified vehicles came to the market. After years of customers begging them to, Toyota finally created a plug-in Prius. The Prius would later evolve into the Prius Prime and has become one of the longest-running nameplates in the EV landscape. It is also arguably the most reliable vehicle with a plug ever created by man.
The Tesla Model S also came to market. The Model S is considered THE big game-changer by most EVangelists. It proved that a really awesome car could be electric. Before this, nobody was really sure. The Model S was a really low-volume vehicle at its beginnings. It took Tesla five months to have a 100-unit delivery month.
In 2012, Toyota released the second generation of BEV RAV4, which had a Tesla powertrain and battery. It is interesting that Toyota was the first automaker to have a second-generation BEV in America.
2013 - Sixteen Models On Sale, ~100K Annual Deliveries
By the end of 2013, there were 16 electrified vehicle models on sale from 10 different automakers. Toyota, Honda, Ford, and GM had multiple EV models for sale that year. Total deliveries was just under 100K for the calendar year. Looking back, it is interesting to see how many affordable models were being fielded. The Prius, RAV4, Focus, i-MiEV, Spark, Accord, Fit, Fusion, C-MAX, Leaf, and Fiat 500 were all basically “entry-level” type cars that almost any American with a new car budget could opt for. Do we even have that many affordable models on sale today? Arguably not.
2014 - 2015 Not Much Happening
In 2014 and 2015, EV sales slowly grew, with an ebb and flow. The Leaf had already seen its annual sales peak and fall. Total annual deliveries of all EV types were still close to 100K. The BMW i3 debuted and was hyped by an enthusiastic EV media. Proving our prediction wong, it has turned out to be one of the biggest flops in EV history.
2016 - 2017 The Model 3
The big news for 2017 was the first deliveries of Tesla’s Model 3. This new model was incorrectly labeled as a low-cost model by the adoring EVangelist media. From our point of view, the Model 3’s hysteria was the beginning of collusion between the fan media and automakers. Inaccurate reporting of the vehicle’s cost began in earnest in this period. Also notable was that it took the better part of a year before the Model 3’s production was ramped up. 2017 was also the year that Tesla Motors, Inc. was transformed into Tesla, Inc., moving the company into energy generation and storage markets.
2018 Elon Musk Says Tesla Was “Single-Digit Weeks From Dying”
In 2018, Tesla came danger close to collapse. Don’t take our word for it, watch Elon Musk say it on video. This was also the year that Elon Musk tried to sell Tesla to the Saudis to help them diversify their oil wealth.
2019 - Musk (Incorrectly) Predicts Robotaxi Market
Somehow, EVs and autonomous driving became linked. In 2019, Elon Musk predicted that by 2020, there would be 1 million Tesla robotaxis in operation. Entering 2024, Tesla is one of the last automakers left without a hands-free driver assist system on the market.
2019 was also the year that Tesla “introduced” the Cybertruck. By this, we mean there was a promotional event. None were sold for the next four years.
2020 - Model Y Debuts
It goes without saying that the Model S and Model 3 were game-changers in the automotive world. The S proved that a great car could be electric, and well after its introduction, the Model 3 proved that a BEV could be produced and delivered in mainstream volumes in America. But both were cars in a market that really wanted trucks, crossovers and SUVs. The Model Y was a game-changer because it was Tesla’s first crossover unless you count its decade-earlier collaboration with Toyota on the second-generation RAV4 EV.
2023 - First Cybertruck Deliveries
2023 has been an interesting year. Media and automakers began to argue that the battery-electric vehicle market, now dominated by models with average transaction prices of around $60K, had softened. Demand seemed to have melded with availability, and deep price cuts from GM (first), then Tesla, followed by Ford, Kia, and Hyundai, signaled something. EVangensists began a “Nothing to see here, move along” tour, hoping everyone would assume that the EV market was just fine.
Almost four years to the day since it was “introduced,” Tesla held a second Cybertruck shindig and delivered a handful to some folks.
GM’s promised “about $30K” Equinox crossover BEV was revealed to have a dramatically higher price by GM, who, after telling selected journos that the $30K price thing was a fib, promised order banks would open within a week. They didn’t. Our efforts to contact GM’s PR personnel for an update on the Equinox EV have gone unanswered. Ford has announced plans to scale back its EV plans and is signaling that hybrid deliveries will be increased.
Re-reading the story above, it becomes clear just how significant the history of Tesla is to EVs. The two are nearly one and the same. Despite Toyota, GM, and Nissan having the early lead, they all let Tesla catch up and pass them in this important type of vehicle.
Heading into 2024, we’ve learned not to try to predict a vehicle market that is so heavily regulated. Perhaps the government will cancel EV tax incentives for the less than half of tax filers who enjoy them. Perhaps the government will double them or mandate that every person must buy an EV? Nobody can tell. There are presently 50 states in the union, and in nearly all of them, EVs make up less than 10% of the new vehicles sold - and that includes PHEVs. Without a doubt, wealthy Californians have jumped on the EV bandwagon, followed by lawmakers in about a dozen other states. Will EVs be embraced by everyone at some point soon? Check back for another history of EVs story if there are any big developments in the coming year.
John Goreham is an experienced New England Motor Press Association member and expert vehicle tester. John completed an engineering program with a focus on electric vehicles, followed by two decades of work in high-tech, biopharma, and the automotive supply chain before becoming a news contributor. In addition to his eleven years of work at Torque News, John has published thousands of articles and reviews at American news outlets. He is known for offering unfiltered opinions on vehicle topics. You can follow John on Twitter, and connect with him at Linkedin.