This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Akweli Parker from HowStuffWorks.com.
In the beginning, long before electric cars were considered cool by mainstream auto snobs, the category was something of an automotive freak show. Quirky, sometimes eccentric individuals contrived homemade electric cars from the gutted carcasses of "donor" vehicles and parts sourced from swap meets and electrical supply catalogs.
These parts were almost never built by the original manufacturer with electric cars as their primary, intended purpose.
OK, so maybe that still happens, but over the last few years, that's been changing. Throughout the last decade, small companies have sprung up to cater specifically to the market that exists for electric car parts.
Individuals, start-ups, and now major automakers have a need for specialty parts with which to build electric vehicles. Among them: Batteries, electric motors, controllers and other electronics and even regenerative brakes that recapture kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost.
So what's the deal with some of these parts, and who sells them? The list of companies that provide electric car parts will certainly change as firms disappear, while others are bought and new ones spring up in place of the old. But eventually, it's inevitable that a few names will rise to the top of the list and remain there.
Batteries are a big deal, mainly because they help determine an electric cars range, but also because they determine the car's ability to run accessories and its overall weight. Lead-acid batteries (despite their weight) remain popular with hobbyists, because they're easy to get, simple to use and relatively inexpensive. But lead acid is old-school technology. The battery technology gleaming in the eyes of investment capital folks is lithium-ion, or Li-ion. Just like the Li-ion batteries that power your laptop or cell phone, the ones that go in electric cars are long-lasting, fast-charging, and perhaps most importantly, have a high power density.
The federal government is so confident in the technology that it granted A123 Systems, a major manufacturer of Li-ion batteries, $249 million as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka The Stimulus). A123 opened a new battery factory in Michigan in September 2010, believed to be the largest Li-ion auto battery plant in North America.
Of course, the part at the heart of any electric car is the motor. Again, in the old days, electric car enthusiasts scavenged up parts anywhere they could. In the 1970s, intrepid souls who wanted to make an electric car conversion would use surplus electric starters from airplane engines as the main motors on their electric car conversions. Today, a quick Google search reveals page after page of car-friendly electric motor suppliers -- along with lots of other parts and incidentals -- like wiring. Lots and lots of wiring.
AC Propulsion, for instance, one of the "granddaddies" of this industry (founded "way back" in 1992) started out making electric drivetrains, but today it offers a complete line of services -- all the way up to designing an entire car for you.
The rise of these and similar firms may mean the close of a romantic era where electric cars were daring, pioneering and often unreliable. Just as once-fledgling technologies such as powered flight and electrification inspired the rise of entire industries to support them, the growth of electric car parts companies could signal that electric cars are here to stay as well.