Tesla Predecessor: 40 years ago, Exxon almost revolutionized the electric car

The electric car has been around a long time. How long? Popular Mechanics notes that, "The history of the electric car stretches way, way back—almost 200 years at this point." And, during that long history, the Tesla Model S was crowned the number one electric car most ahead of its time. Most agree that Tesla Motors [NASDAQ: TSLA] is responsible for bringing the electric vehicle back as a viable (and arguably superior) option to the car-buying public.  Nevertheless, it's worth noting that Elon Musk took GM's EV1 as a catalyst (and source of inspiration) to introduce Tesla's first electric car, the Tesla Roadster.

Above: The 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 (Source: Zero Emmission Motoring)

However, GM's first generation EV1 models, released in 1996, used lead-acid batteries and its second generation used a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) "Ovonic" battery pack. In contrast, Tesla Motors used lithium-ion battery technology in its first vehicle, the Tesla Roadster. This approach followed in the footsteps of AC Propulsion's tzero. And, Tesla continues to use and improve its lithium-ion battery technology. That said, it may come as a surprise that 40 years ago, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries were being developed for electric cars by... umm, Exxon?

Above: An 18650 lithium-ion battery cell produced by Panasonic for Tesla (Source: Electric Vehicle News)

That's right, as reported in Grist*, "Forty years ago, Exxon almost revolutionized the electric car. The key word here is 'almost.' When the oil crises of the 1970s hit, Exxon got worried and began looking for non-oil-based ways to make money. It set up a program, modeled on Bell Labs, the legendary research division of AT&T, to come up with alternatives to the gasoline-powered car."

Above: Exxon sign at one of their gas stations (Source: Grist* via Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

What happened next? "In a few years, the scientists working for Exxon invented the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery. And then, reports Inside Climate News, Exxon came up with another game-changer: an AC (alternating current) motor that any car manufacturer could use to transform a full-sized car, van, or pickup into a hybrid gas-electric vehicle. 'America wants a big car with a small energy appetite,' read a brochure announcing the new technology."

Above: Exxon's hybrid gas-electric Chrysler Cordoba (Source: Inside Climate News)

Did Exxon move this exciting electric vehicle technology forward? Unfortunately no — it stalled and, "you can guess what happened next. In the 1980s, when the oil shortage became an oil glut, Exxon shut down the hybrid program. It would then be 16 years before Toyota launched the first mass-produced hybrid — the Prius — with an improved version of the AC motor. So, if it had all gone just a bit differently, America could have driven to see Back to the Future in a hybrid. And maybe Exxon wouldn’t be getting sued for covering up climate change either."

Above: While Tesla is 10x smaller than Exxon, it's 5x more popular as a investment and over 50x more popular when adjusted for size (Source: Openfolio)

Nowadays, Tesla Motors and Exxon are clearly at odds with one another about the future of energy. While Tesla champions sustainable energy, Exxon's core business remains antithetical to everything Tesla stands for — it turns out that Exxon is, "the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels." And, as a massive contributor to carbon emissions, Exxon's reputation has suffered (see chart above). That said, Exxon is now updating it's position on carbon emissions and "actively lobbying for a carbon tax." 

Above: Tesla Roadster powered by renewable energy (Source: Slide from Tesla Motors CTO JB Straubel's EIA presentation)

A step in the right direction? Perhaps. Regardless, it's time for companies like Exxon to openly embrace a sustainable energy future. It's a future that is inevitable. Heck, if Exxon embraced their discovery 40 years ago, they could have (amazingly) been at the forefront of reestablishing electric vehicle technology. Remember: Kodak discovered digital photography and then abandoned it. Once the dominant photography company in the world, now Kodak is an artifact of history. Only time will tell, but if they're not careful, Exxon could suffer a similar fate.


*Source: Grist