Christian Homeschooling Resources

Cars That Run on “Juice”

  • Ray & Gale Lawson Homeschool Enrichment
  • Published Oct 20, 2011
Cars That Run on “Juice”

When I (Ray) was young, I was enamored by fast cars. One Christmas, I received a racetrack and some Hot Wheels cars called “Sizzlers.” These were electric cars. They came with a plastic gas pump that batteries were placed in. To run the Sizzlers, I plugged the gas-pump line into the side of a car and pressed on the top to “charge” the car’s internal battery. Once it was fully charged, I simply flipped a switch on the car’s bottom and placed it on the track. It proceeded to run lap upon lap until it “ran out of juice.”

Fast-forward some 40 years . . . The world is facing an increasing demand for energy. This demand, coupled with environmental concerns, is driving the cost of petroleum up, resulting in much higher gasoline prices. How has the automobile industry responded? They have begun manufacturing and selling electric cars that can “juice up” at electrical charging stations instead of gas stations. Most people believe that electric cars are a brand-new innovation, but you might be surprised just how long ago electric cars first appeared—many, many years before the Sizzlers!

The World Before the Electric Car

Before there were cars, airplanes, trains, and ships, how did people get from place to place? They walked, of course! God designed our bodies so that we can stand upright on two feet and move about by putting one foot in front of the other. If you had to be somewhere fast, you moved your feet faster by trotting, jogging, galloping, or running. What happens when you walk or run a very long way? You get tired and need to eat to get more energy so you can continue on. On his missionary journeys, the apostle Paul traveled an estimated 13,000 miles. Although much of his travel took him by sea, he certainly logged many miles by walking.

In addition to designing our bodies so we could walk, God also designed our brains so we could think. People started to find different means of transportation to make life easier. Beasts such as camels and horses were used. Although they could go longer distances at faster rates than people, they still had to be rested, watered, and fed so they could keep going. The invention of the wheel led to the invention of carts, chariots, and wagons, and the rotation of wheels was easier on the animals pulling the load.

The first self-propelled vehicle is thought to have been built by the French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, although there is some dispute as to whether a steam-powered toy built in 1672 by a Jesuit missionary named Ferdinand Verbiest could be considered an actual vehicle. Credit is usually given to Cugnot because his creation, called the fardier à vapeur, could carry a person, although it was originally intended to transport French cannons for the military. Roughly translated, fardier à vapeur means “steam-powered wagon.” This was a significant step toward the automobile because it used steam coupled with a mechanical system to move, not the legs of a person or animal.

The internal combustion engine, which gasoline-powered cars use, was invented about 1807 by Nicephore and Claude Niepce. Although this engine could have been used for a car, it was first installed in a boat. Work continued on the internal combustion engine, and a German engineer named Karl Benz is given credit for inventing the first true automobile in 1885.

Many people believe that Henry Ford invented the first automobile, but that is not true. Ford’s contribution was to make tremendous improvements to an invention by Ransom Olds called the “assembly line.” The assembly line mass-produced automobiles so that they could be made at much lower cost for the general public to purchase.

As the demand for cars grew, new companies began to form.

The Invention of the Electric Car

Our timeline has taken us into the late 1800s, entering the 20th century, and still no mention of electric cars. Ready for a surprise? Credit for inventing the first electric car is often given to a Hungarian engineer named Anyos Jedlik. His invention appeared in 1828, nearly 60 years before Karl Benz!

Jedlik’s electric car was more of a toy, but an electric engine was used to propel it. Around the world, many people began to work on electric engines. Some of the more notable inventors included Thomas Davenport (United States), Sibrandus Stratingh (Netherlands), and Robert Anderson (Scotland). All of this work was taking place in the early to mid-1800s.

The earliest electric cars ran on batteries that could only be used one time. Once the electricity was used up, a brand-new battery had to be used. Because of this limitation, another group of inventors began to work on improved battery designs that allowed recharging (see Home School Enrichment July/August 2008, “The ‘Shocking’ Story of the Battery,” for more information). As the design of electric engines and batteries improved, so did the performance of electric cars. They began to travel faster (66 miles per hour in 1899) and for longer distances. Improvements in the design and manufacture of electric cars began to produce the first commercially available vehicles by the late 1800s.

By the early 1900s, electricity had been wired into most U.S. cities and many homes. Now the electric car started to gain acceptance. In 1899, some 90% of the taxicabs in New York City were electric. The taxis were built by the Philadelphia Electric Carriage and Wagon Company. During this time, cars operated on steam (about 40%), electricity (about 38%), and gasoline (the remaining 22%). By 1912, there were nearly 34,000 electric cars registered in the U.S. Imagine that: more cars running on electricity than on gasoline!

There were several reasons why people liked electric cars. Steam-powered cars required boilers that could take nearly an hour to heat up on cold days. Gasoline-powered cars were hard to start, noisy, and had gears that had to be shifted, which was a difficult task with early transmissions. Electric cars had a lot of appeal.

Have you ever heard the term “cranky”? It is used to describe someone who is irritable. The word was first used to describe the state of a person who was having serious trouble getting a car started by turning the “crank” that was needed to get the engine to fire. If they were having a bad day with the car, it showed in their attitude!

New York Citytaxicabs represented the first large-scale use of electric vehicles. Can you guess what other groups of users these vehicles appealed to? One group was doctors. If a doctor had to be somewhere fast for an emergency, the last thing he needed was to heat up a boiler or have problems getting his gas-powered car to start. The other group was women. Starting a car with a hand crank was no easy chore! Starting an electric car was easy, and there were no gears to shift. Most men did not like electric cars because they would be deemed feminine if they owned one. Men’s attitudes, being what they sometimes are, required that they go out and start their gas-powered vehicles the old-fashioned way: by using brute force.

Electric Cars on the Horizon

Electric cars went out of use when the electric ignition was introduced and gasoline cars no longer needed to be cranked. Today, electric cars are making a comeback. High gasoline prices have spurred manufacturers to look at alternatives for energy. As you can see, these “new ideas” for electric cars are not really new at all. In fact, it is more like people are returning back to the way things were in the early 1900s.

Although the electric car concept is not nearly as new as it may first appear, technology has changed a lot since the 1800s. Research and development focuses on making modern cars that run faster, travel farther, are safer, and are affordable to the general public. There will be a lot of innovative designs appearing in the coming years.

True or False

True or False: Electric cars are slow.

False. The 2008 Shelby Aero EV (EV means “Electric Vehicle”) used two electric motors to generate 1,000 horsepower. It had a top speed of 208 miles per hour.

OhioState Universitybuilt an electric car called the Buckeye Bullet that topped out at 320 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2010.

True or False: Electric cars can’t go very far on a single charge.

False. In 2010, an electric Audi A2 traveled 372 miles nonstop on a single charge.

Also in 2010, an electric Daihatsu Mira van traveled 623 miles on a single charge.

It is estimated that the average American drives about 40 miles each day. Range should not be a big problem.

True or False: Electric cars will not be accepted because there are no places to plug them in.

Probably false. Some people believe that it will be difficult to find a place to recharge electric cars. That is unlikely to be much of a problem. In many colder climates, cars have engine block heaters installed to help start them in very cold weather. The power for these heaters is provided at homes and many businesses. The ability to provide electricity for charging should not be a problem.

Some energy sources, wind and solar for example, may be good for generating electricity for charging batteries. Although there have been advances in both wind and solar power, it does not appear that they will be able to provide a significant source of electricity to meet the demands of running homes and businesses in most areas. However, they may serve as very good sources for the demand of charging vehicles over the course of a day.

Career Options

The automobile industry has traditionally employed a lot of skilled laborers, mechanical engineers, and industrial designers. Manufacturing electric cars requires the talents of electrical engineers (for the power system), computer engineers (for monitoring and control), and chemists (for the development of better batteries). These are some career paths you may wish to explore. 

Ray and Gale Lawsonhave been homeschooling their three children since 1995. Ray holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and is pursuing a Masters in Nuclear Engineering at the University of South Carolina. He works for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC. Gale holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Carolina and is full-time mom and teacher. They are members of Breezy Hill Baptist Church in Graniteville, SC. Questions, comments, and suggestions are always welcomed and can be e-mailed to them at (Ray) or (Gale).

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of HomeSchoolEnrichment Magazine. To learn more, and to request a FREE sample copy, visit