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Tracing The Ancestry of Today’s Electric Vehicles

Why I’m Writing This

Ancestry, genealogy, pedigree, “tracing one’s roots” — whatever you want to call it, it’s a big hobby these days, and more than a hobby for others. Companies are charging anywhere from $50 to $200 to test a sample of your DNA and tell you where your ancestors came from. Websites with relatively steep membership fees allow people to add their relatives and then combine that knowledge with old public records, the research of other people, and anything else they can get their hands on.

With enough work, users of these services can come up with a lot of information. You can find out how closely you’re related to celebrities and historical figures. You can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. Literal believers in the Bible have even told me that they’ve traced their ancestry back to Adam and Eve. For Mormons, genealogy is even more important, as they want to identify their ancestors and give them an opportunity to get to the best possible heaven in the next life.

People are even sending in samples of their pets’ DNA for testing, finding out what breeds their dogs are, making sure breeding animals aren’t too closely related, and even trying to spot diseases earlier in life for proactive treatment.

Even our non-living possessions are interesting to trace. I enjoyed looking up the past ownership of my house and the land it sits on, for example. Obviously, the land was once Native American territory, but the first owners in European terms were the recipients of a Mexican land grant that had been subsequently hijacked by land developers to sell to American settlers. One Ford customer offered to donate to a charity if the company could give him photos of his vehicle on the assembly line, and now the company is doing this for other owners.

Because people seem to enjoy tracing roots and seeing where things come from, I figured that readers would probably enjoy a short series of articles tracing the genealogy of their EVs. Whether you own a new Tesla or any other kind of post-1995 EV, there’s a common ancestry most EVs share, along with a few interesting side stories along the way.

In these articles, I’m going to trace today’s EVs back to their roots and explore how each step influenced what came after.

What “DNA” Are We Looking At?

Before I can trace your EV’s ancestry, I first need to make it clear what DNA I’m going to be analyzing.

There are many ways to look at a car, and each of those different ways leads to different ancestries. For example, if you were to focus on exterior design, the predecessors to the Tesla Model S, 3, X, and Y would include cars like the Mazda Kabura concept car or the Saturn Sky. Why? Because they’re designed by Franz von Holzhausen.

Image provided by Mazda. [Editor’s note: Franz designs really cool looking cars.]

But the general look of a car, while important to buyers, is superficial. Mazda’s concept cars and the Saturn Sky just don’t have that much in common with a Tesla. So, we really shouldn’t focus on something more substantial than looks.

For the purposes of my study, I’ll stick with the technological underpinnings, which include the following:

  • Normal four-wheeled car that can travel at highway speeds (not a golf cart, motorcycle, etc.).
  • Battery technology and placement (usually lithium-ion, slung low in the car, many cells).
  • Drivetrain (single-speed gear reduction per axle).
  • General focus on efficiency and range (even if not terribly successful).

Keep in mind, though, that as we trace this further back, what is considered inherited DNA could change. Many of these essential elements didn’t exist at points in the past. However, we will stick with technological and architectural elements, and not superficial things like looks, interiors, etc.

Today’s Post-2010 EVs

My first EV: a 2011 Nissan LEAF SL.

The basic architectural elements I discussed above are found in basically all modern EVs. True mass production started with the Nissan LEAF, barely beating the Tesla Model S to market. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV beat the LEAF to market by a few months, but actual sales and mass production didn’t happen until the following year.

At this point, cost constraints kept ranges somewhat limited compared to today. The i-MiEV only had a 16 kWh battery, providing only around 50–60 miles of range when driven conservatively. The first years of the LEAF didn’t do much better, despite a 24 kWh battery, because it was more of a normal car compared to the i-MiEV (which is a Kei car, or mini car).

Both of these early modern EVs were soundly beaten by the Tesla Model S, though. While at a much higher price point, the Model S had a much bigger and denser battery pack that offered 3–4 times the range of these other cars, and therefore was a lot more usable. It was also designed to appeal to buyers on its coolness and high performance, while the LEAF and i-MiEV were designed to look strange so that buyers could stand out on green cred like early Prius hybrid owners.

What these three cars had in common was that they were aimed at replacing normal cars, even if just for city driving, and were aimed at the whole market. I realize that this is a bit of a stretch in the case of the i-MiEV, with its small size and funny looks, but that’s really an American perspective.

Other manufacturers saw what Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Tesla were doing (especially Tesla), but didn’t think EVs were a serious threat to their future business. So, instead of making a serious car that would sell in a real car market, they made “compliance cars.” These cars were meant to sell in small numbers to obtain regulatory credits or otherwise help automakers comply with emissions and electrification rules without being a serious effort meant to sell in great numbers. Compliance cars included things like the Ford Focus Electric, Chevy Spark EV, Fiat 500e, and RAV4 EV.

While these cars have a number of loyal and enthusiastic owners, they generally entail more of a cult following. Automakers just didn’t want to make the cars generally desirable enough for mainstream shoppers to want to buy them. Low range figures, poor battery placements (often taking trunk space and creating high centers of gravity), and anemic power levels usually plagued these models. Compliance cars do rob some elements from the general DNA of modern EVs, but there was usually something big missing.

Compliance cars do have a longer pre-2010 history, but their ancestors will be discussed later.

Now we’re seeing more and more automakers decide to take a serious stab at selling EVs, and compliance cars are melting into the past. Serious cars like the Chevy Bolt EV, Volkswagen ID.4, Ford Mustang Mach-E, second-generation LEAF, and others are following the better formula that the Tesla Model S followed. Better range, better charging speeds, dedicated EV platforms, low-slung batteries, and improved user experiences helping with things like navigation and charging are all becoming the norm.

Most readers probably know what car kicked all of this off: The Tesla Roadster. I’ll get into that and keep digging deeper in Part 2.

Featured image: My first EV, a 2011 Nissan LEAF SL.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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