Electric cars have become a seemingly popular alternative to traditional petroleum fuel cars in recent years. However, they’ve been a topic of public interest for longer than you may think. Believe it or not, electric cars have been in circulation since 1901, and it’s fair to say that their evolution has taken some time.
The invention of the electric car
At the beginning of the 1800s, innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States started to explore the concept of a battery-powered vehicle, creating some of the first small-scale electric cars. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint the invention of the electric car to one inventor or one country as ultimately, a series of breakthroughs in the 1800s led to the first electric vehicle on the road.
Developed in 1837 by Scottish chemist, Robert Davidson, the first crude electric vehicle was powered by galvanic cells (batteries). In 1841, Davidson built a larger locomotive named Galvani; powered by two direct-drive reluctance motors, it had fixed electromagnets acting on iron bars attached to a wooden cylinder on each axle, and simple commutators. The Galvani was tested on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in September of 1838, but the limited power from batteries prevented its general use. It was then destroyed by railway workers, who saw it as a threat to their safety of employment.
In the U.S., the first successful electric car made its debut around 1890 thanks to chemist William Morrison. His six-passenger vehicle was capable of a top speed of 14 miles per hour and helped spark interest in electric vehicles.
Following this, in 1901 Thomas Edison began working to develop better batteries for the vehicles to run on. This led to the world’s first hybrid car being invented. Electric vehicles had many advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, or noise that was associated with traditional petroleum fuelled cars. Consumers were also attracted to them because they did not require gear changes, and they became popular among wealthy customers who found use for them as city cars.
Furthermore, the need to replace horse drawn milk carts in London became a growing necessity to overcome the shortage of cart horses, as well as a drive to improve efficiency. The electric three wheeled design was preferred for being quiet, low running costs and could turn in a cul-de-sac in one manoeuvre.
The decline in interest
Fast forward to 1920, and the electric car began to lose its position in the automobile market. An improved road infrastructure required vehicles with a greater range than that obtainable by electric cars. Electric cars were limited to urban use by their slow speed (15-20 mph) and low range (30-40 miles), and by this time, petroleum fuels cars could travel further and significantly faster than electric vehicles.
A turning point
After the 1920s, the buzz surrounding electric cars was dormant until 1971, when the electric Lunar Rover was the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon. Subsequently, in General Motors unveiled a prototype for an urban electric car in 1973. U.S carmaker Sebring-Vanguard followed suit and produced 2000+ CitiCars which had a range of 50-60 miles.
In 1990, the California Air Resources Board, the government of California's "clean air agency", began to push for more fuel-efficient, lower-emissions vehicles, with the definitive goal being a move to zero-emissions vehicles – such as electric vehicles. This led to many electric vehicles being widely available during this time from different car makers.
Released in Japan in 1997, the Toyota Prius became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. In 2000, the Prius was released worldwide, and it became an instant success with celebrities, increasing the profile of the car. Toyota used a nickel metal hydride battery to run the Prius.
California electric car maker Tesla Motors began development in 2004 on the Tesla Roadster, which was available to customers four years later in 2008. The Roadster seemed to be a pinnacle car in the electric vehicle movement. It was the first highway legal serial production all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells, and the first production all-electric car to offer travelling more than 200 miles per charge. Tesla sold approximately 2,450 Roadsters up until 2012, when its supply of Lotus Elise gliders ran out.1