You may be forgiven for thinking that electric vehicles are a relatively modern invention. Not so. Thanks to innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands and America, the first small-scale electric cars made an appearance in 1828. These vehicles were both crude and impractical but they were the start of something that would change the way we travel forever.
Almost 200 years later, electric vehicles have evolved significantly along with consumers’ attitudes and lifestyles. Many of us are increasingly environmentally aware and exploring opportunities to safeguard the planet for future generations. One of the ways in which people are opting to ‘do their bit’ is through the purchase of either a hybrid, plug-in-hybrid or all-electric vehicle.
Demand for electric and hybrid vehicles (EHVs) has recently surged here in the UK with sales of electric cars leaping by 110%* year-on-year from January 2018 to January 2019. Electrified vehicles now account for 6.8% of the UK car market and this figure is only expected to rise.
So, let’s take a look at how the electric vehicle came about, how technology has changed over the years and what the future holds for EHVs.
Who invented the first electric vehicle?
As with most inventions, success ultimately comes through sustained research and development, or trial and error! Following the work of those initial innovators, it was a series of trials and errors that led Scottish inventor, Robert Anderson, to create the first electric vehicle in 1832. The vehicle was actually more of a carriage and was powered by non-rechargeable primary power cells so, once those cells ran out of power, so did the carriage.
Around the same time that Anderson was working on his electric carriage, a blacksmith from Vermont in the USA, Thomas Davenport, developed a battery-powered electric motor and fitted it in a small car that he drove on a section of track.
As with Anderson’s carriage, Davenport’s car was very basic and it wasn’t until 1842 that both of these men invented electrical cars that were considered practicable. Their vehicles, however, still relied on non-rechargeable electric batteries and the world had to wait until 1865 for Frenchman, Gaston Plante, to invent rechargeable lead-acid batteries to enable the creation of a fully viable electric car.
In 1881, another Frenchman, Camille Faure, further improved on the rechargeable lead-acid battery design that would secure the future of the electric vehicle as a means of transportation in Europe. Then, in 1889, American chemist, William Morrison built the first successful electrical car that could carry six passengers and achieve a top speed of 14mph.
As a result, electric vehicles created by various automakers became a fairly common sight. Over in New York in 1897 you could explore the city by means of one of a fleet of 60 electric taxis. These taxis were built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia and offered New Yorkers a whole new perspective to their primary mode of transport: the horse & carriage or simply the horse! Meanwhile, in Belgium in 1899 an electric car race – ‘La Jamais Contente’ – took place and set a land-speed record of 68mph.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a third of all vehicles found on the roads were electric and their demand and popularity would continue to increase for another decade.
Electric versus petrol (and diesel!)
During all those years in the 1800s that the electric car was being developed, so too was another type of vehicle. The petrol-powered car was made possible by improvements to the internal combustion engine and it showed huge potential. On the downside, these early models were quite tricky to drive, not to mention the fact they had to be started manually with a hand crank. They were also noisy and kicked out all sorts of noxious fumes from their exhaust.
Electric vehicles were almost the complete opposite since they were quiet, simple to operate and they didn’t emit any pollutants. They were ideal for short trips and as access to electricity improved from 1910 onwards, it became much easier to recharge them. As such, they continued to inspire and some of the world’s most famous carmakers and inventors. Ferdinand Porsche and Thomas Edison, for example, invested both time and money in improving electric vehicles and the batteries that powered them. Porsche had already invented the P1 electric car in 1898 and he was also responsible for devising the world’s first hybrid electric car that was fuelled by electricity and a gas engine.
The development of electric and hybrid vehicles continued to thrive and in the early 1900s two electric vehicle makers – Baker of Cleveland and Woods of Chicago – marketed two hybrid cars. Woods boasted that his hybrid would reach a top speed of 35mph and achieve a fuel efficiency of 48mpg. Unfortunately, it was still more expensive and less powerful than the petrol-powered competition and only 600 were eventually made.
It was another automotive manufacturer, and Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric starter motor (no more hand crank starts!), that forced us to fall out of love with the electric vehicle just as it was beginning to take off.
When Henry Ford launched his Model T in 1908 that was the start of the inexorable rise of the petrol-powered car. Not only was the Model T much cheaper in 1912 than its electric counterpart – $650 compared to $1,750 – by the 1920s crude oil reserves were being discovered all over the world facilitating a cheap means of fuelling the Model T and its successors. Plus, local and federal governments were developing road networks across the USA to satisfy the economic and leisure demand for wider travel. By 1935, the electric vehicle had practically been consigned to history.
Whilst oil was the champion of the petrol-powered vehicle, it was also its oppressor. Any fluctuation in global oil prices would be acutely felt by drivers.
It was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 that first highlighted how dependent the motoring masses had become on black gold. Soaring prices and shortages at the pumps caused chaos and Governments were forced to take notice. Research and development into alternative fuel vehicles was back on the table after almost 30 years and the electric vehicle was once again in the frame.
A comeback for electric vehicles
It was during the 1970s that a wide variety of automotive manufacturers such as General Motors (GM) started looking at alternative options to the petrol-powered vehicle. GM built a prototype for an urban electric car, Volkswagen exhibited their ‘Taxi’ – a hybrid that switched between a petrol engine and electric motor – at motor shows around the world, the American Motor Company made electric delivery jeeps for the United States Postal Service and NASA even jumped on the bandwagon with its electric Lunar rover to explore the moon.
Electric vehicles still had a lot of catching up to do though. Compared with their petrol-powered nemeses, they could only reach speeds of 45mph, offer an average range of just 40 miles and recharging took take hours to complete. It would take something truly significant, and potentially life-changing, to alter our love affair with petrol-powered cars and that something wouldn’t arise for another 20 years.
Love the planet: how we developed an environmentally-friendly conscience
In the late 80s and early 90s there was a new topic hitting the headlines, a topic that most of us had given relatively little, if any, thought to. The effects of burning fossil fuels began to be reported globally for the first time. Rainforests were being destroyed, there was an expanding hole in the ozone layer and a global rise in respiratory disease and associated deaths. Climate change became a daily buzzword and we were all soon feeling its wrath from severe drought and torrential rainfall, to freezing ice storms and thundersnow.
The sheer number of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles – there were now millions and millions on the world’s roads – and their polluting emissions were quickly blamed for the onset of climate change and cited as a key contributor to environmental disasters.
It was this newfound concern for finding an environmentally-friendly alternative means of mass transport that engendered a renewed interest in electric vehicles. Manufacturers hadn’t really stopped their research and development into delivering improved and enhanced electric and hybrid vehicles, it had just taken a back seat. So, they escalated R&D to the top of the agenda and initiated the adaption of some of their popular models into electric vehicles.
In 1989 for example, Audi unveiled its first generation of the Audi Duo, an experimental plug-in hybrid based on the 100 Avant. The car’s rear wheels were powered by a 12bhp Siemens electric motor with a nickel-cadmium battery supplying the energy. The front wheels were powered by a 134bhp 2.3 litre five-cylinder petrol unit. Audi only manufactured 10 of these vehicles after it was discovered they actually ran less efficiently when running on their engines alone than the standard Audi 100.
Volvo entered the electric and hybrid vehicle race to mass market in 1992 with their executive luxury Environmental Concept Car (ECC) based on the Volvo 850 platform. The ECC was built using solely recycled material and hybrid technology. Rather than using the more popular method of a piston engine to provide acceleration and recharge the battery, it employed a hybrid electric and gas turbine engine to drive the generator for recharging. Maximum power was 95bhp and the ECC could achieve a top speed of 109 mph. With a full tank of fuel for the turbine, it delivered a range of around 415 miles.
It became abundantly clear that automotive manufacturers were on the brink of something big as their electric and hybrid vehicles, even if they were concepts, were beginning to accomplish the same speeds and performance associated with petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. Finally, it seemed, EHVS were edging closer and closer to pole position.
The new EHV era
It was the Japanese car maker, Toyota, that pioneered mass production of electric and hybrid vehicles. Its hybrid electric car, the Prius, was hailed as revolutionary when it was introduced in Japan in 1997 – 18,000 models were sold in just 12 months. And it caused a media storm when it was launched worldwide in 2000. Employing new technology and a nickel metal hydride battery, the Prius was the ‘must have’ vehicle for celebrities. An ‘instant success’ it offered a combined fuel consumption of approximately 58mpg and became the best-selling hybrid of the decade.
Toyota, and indeed Honda with their ‘Insight’ hybrid revealed in 1999, paved the way for resurgence of electric and hybrid vehicles. In 2002, Honda launched its Civic Hybrid. Based on the seventh generation Civic, it was almost identical in appearance and driveability to its conventional sibling and provided up to 60mpg.
Silicon Valley start-up and luxury electric sports car maker, Tesla Motors appeared on the EHV scene in 2006 stating that their cars could travel 200 miles on a single charge. Lexus got on board in 2007 with the distribution of a hybrid electric version of the GS saloon – it packed a real punch with a power output of 335bhp.
Hyundai unveiled the world’s first hybrid vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine that ran on LPG in 2009. The Elantra LPI Hybrid used lithium-ion polymer batteries and qualified as a ‘Super Low Emissions Vehicle’ thanks to its CO2 emissions of 99g/km.
That same year, the Chevy Volt, Nissan LEAF and Mercedes S400 BlueHybrid were all released. The Volt was the world’s first commercially available plug-in hybrid with a petrol engine and electric drive (powered by a lithium-ion battery). The Nissan LEAF was an all-electric vehicle (EV) simply propelled by an electric motor.
In 2010, three more new hybrid and electric vehicles went on sale. Toyota’s hugely successful Auris, Honda’s CR-Z and Porsche’s Cayenne S Hybrid that would go from 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds! Then in 2012, Peugeot added another electric and hybrid vehicle milestone with their 3008 Hybrid4, the world’s very first mass production diesel-electric hybrid.
The future of the EHV: affordable, efficient and desirable
As battery technology continues to improve so do the electric and hybrid vehicles they power. The cost of an electric vehicle battery has halved in the last four years, whilst the power, energy, durability and performance of electric and hybrid vehicles (EHVs) has excelled. EHVs are now a highly affordable, highly efficient and highly desirable substitute for petrol and diesel-powered cars.
Moreover, there’s an EHV for everyone. Consumers can choose from 23 plug-in electric and 36 hybrid models in numerous sizes. There’s the two-seater Smart ED, the midsized Ford C-Max Energi and even a luxury SUV in the shape of BMW’s i3.
Petrol and diesel are not getting any cheaper. Protecting the environment is firmly on the agenda across the globe. And millions of us are still wholly reliant on four wheels to get from A to B. It seems the odds are stacked in the favour of EHVs, whatever road they decide to take us along in the future. We await their next chapter with eager anticipation!