Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars

The history of the electric car is much longer than you might think. In this article, we take a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of the EV.
Christopher McFadden
  • Electric cars have been around for just as long as combustion-engined vehicles.
  • Yet, despite this, electric vehicles have taken the back seat.
  • But why?

To understand the history of the electric car, it's useful to put it into context with the development of personal vehicles. On the eve of the 20th Century, the predominant form of transport was still the horse. But as people's incomes increased and available technologies advanced, some began experimenting with newer forms of transport.

At this point, gasoline, steam, and electrical power were all available, competing for dominance in the market. Steam technology was well established then and generally understood and trusted by the public. It had, after all, proved its worth powering factories, mines, trains, and ships - it seemed only a natural progression to build smaller forms of transport using steam engines.

Some self-propelled vehicles existed from the late 1700s (notably Nicholas Joseph Cugnot's steam tricycle), but this technology wasn't developed until the late 1800s. Cugnot's steam-powered Dampfwagen is widely accepted to be the world's first automobile. 

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Cugnots Dampfwagen, circa 1769.

But there was a problem - steam engines needed a long warmup time, often approaching an hour. They also had a limited range and needed to be constantly fed with water. 

How do electric cars work?

Electric cars, or EVs for short, work through an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, like gasoline-powered cars. In most cases, EVs use a large traction battery pack to power the motor. This battery pack is plugged into a specially designed charging station or outlet at the user's home. As EVs run on electricity, they have no exhaust and do not contain parts like the fuel pump, fuel line, carburetor, and fuel tank, which are needed in gasoline-powered cars.

In general, electric vehicles consist of a series of basic components. These include, but are not limited to, the following: 

1. Battery (all-electric auxiliary): In most electric drive vehicles, the auxiliary battery provides start-up electricity and powers vehicle accessories like a clock. This is not to be confused with the main traction battery pack.

2. Charge port: The stored energy in a battery cannot last forever, and it needs to be recharged occasionally. This is where the charge port comes into play. It allows the EV to be connected to an external power supply.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Diagram of the main components of a modern EV.

3. DC/DC converter: Typically, the traction battery pack will have a higher voltage than many other components in the car. This device converts the higher-voltage DC into a lower-voltage DC for safe use.

4. Electric traction motor: Since the electric vehicle is expected to move at some point, a means is needed to convert electricity into rotational force to move the wheels. This is where the traction motor comes in. Some vehicles also have energy regeneration functions at the wheels to recoup some of the lost energy.

5. Onboard charger: As electricity from external sources is typically AC, this device converts it into DC to charge the battery. It also monitors battery characteristics such as voltage, current, temperature, and state of charge while charging the pack.

6. Power electronics controller: This device actively manages the flow of electrical energy delivered to the battery and controls the speed of the electric traction motor (not to mention the torque it generates). 

7. Thermal cooling system: This system maintains the proper operating temperature range of the engine, electric motor, power electronics, and other components.

8. Traction battery pack: This is the "fuel tank" of the electric vehicle and is the source of all electricity used to run most of the other components in the vehicle.

9. Electrical transmission: This device transfers mechanical power from the traction motor to drive the EVs wheels. 

Otto, Diesel, Benz, and Ford get in on the act

The four-stroke engine, still prevalent today, was developed by Nikolaus Otto in 1862, and the diesel engine was developed by Rudolf Diesel in 1893.

A little later, Karl Benz developed his revolutionary 'world's first production vehicle' in 1886; and The Ford Model T became the first 'mass-produced' automobile in the early 1900s. Despite internal combustion engines' power and utility, especially compared to steam and horse-powered alternatives, they weren't without their problems.

They were less than easy to drive, often needing significant effort to change gears and start the engine in the first place. These vehicles were also very loud, and the exhaust fumes were less pleasant. But there was a third (well, fourth if you include animals) option - electric cars. These lacked many of the issues of other alternatives. They were quiet, relatively easy to operate, and had no harmful emissions. 

Early electric cars were an ideal alternative to combustion and steam engines

Early electric cars found a lucrative market, particularly for driving around cities. Some of their primary consumers included women who found they were perfect for short trips around the city. British inventor Thomas Parker created one of the first practical electric cars around 1884. Another famous example of early electric cars was The Flocken Elektrowagen, produced in Germany in 1888.

Sadly poor roads outside urban centers made it difficult for early electric (and steam/gasoline) cars to venture far beyond the city limits. As electrification rolled out in the 1910s, charging these early electric cars became considerably easier and greatly boosted public appeal. Car manufacturers at the time began to take notice and started experimenting with electric and early hybrid cars. One notable example was Porsche's founder, Ferdinand Porsche, who developed his famous P1 in 1898 (his first-ever car).

Thomas Edison also threw his weight behind early electric cars, believing in their superiority over other alternatives, and he worked to develop better-performing batteries. Henry Ford (who happened to be a close friend of Edison) partnered with him in around 1914 to explore options for low-cost electrical cars.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Porsche P1.

Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, Ford's development of the Model T, specifically his mass production process, would sound the death knell for the early electric cars. A Model T in 1912 cost around $650 apiece - an electric alternative cost almost three times that, at around $1,750. 

Other developments in gasoline engines, like Charles Kettering's electrical starter (and H. J. Dowsing earlier example, in 1896), removed one of the main irritations of the early combustion engines - the hand crank. Electric vehicles received their coup de grace when road systems were improved, and abundant crude oil reserves began to be discovered. 

These, and other factors, all contributed to the fall of electric cars, and they had all but disappeared by around 1935. The battle seemed to be won, and for the next 30 years, combustion engine vehicles would rule supreme.

That was until the Oil Crisis of the 1970s

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Flocken Elektrowagen built 1888.

Who made the first electric car?

Like combustion engine vehicles, there was no single inventor of electric cars. Their emergence and development should be considered more of a series of discoveries and inventions that would ultimately 'coalesce' into what we recognize today as the electric car.

The discovery of electricity aside, the first prerequisite to developing electric cars was a reliable rechargeable battery. Anyos Jedlik, a Hungarian inventor, developed an early electrical motor in 1828. Using this new invention, he also developed an early 'proof of concept' for using electricity as a means of transportation by building a model car that could be moved using his motor.

In 1834, Vermont Blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, built another model electric vehicle that could run on a small, circular, electrical track. As impressive as these were, they lacked self-contained rechargeable power sources and, therefore, had limited utility as a mode of transport, even if scaled up.

The world would need to wait until 1859 when French Physicist Gaston Plante developed his lead-acid battery. The technology was further improved by another Frenchman, Camille Alphonse Faure, who, in 1881, significantly increased the battery's capacity. This development enabled the production of batteries on an industrial scale.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Modern Lead Acid rechargeable battery.

With a reliable and rechargeable power source, other inventors began experimenting with electricity and locomotion.

When were electric cars invented?

As we've seen, the creation of the electric car was more of a series of events than a specific event. That being said, there are some contenders for the 'first' electric cars below after the early developments above, depending on your idea of what constitutes a fully formed electric vehicle.

An interesting early development in electric cars was made in 1834 by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands, (and his assistant Christopher Becker), who created a small-scale electrical car powered by non-rechargeable primary cells. Sadly, Stratingh could not develop his 'car' further as he died shortly afterward, in 1841. A little later, in 1867, Austrian inventor Franz Kravogl displayed his prototype electric car at the World Exposition in Paris. This was an electrically-powered two-wheeled cycle unreliable for driving on the street.

In 1881, Gustave Trouve tested a three-wheeled automobile along the streets of Paris. This followed his development of the world's first outboard engine, which he used as the drive mechanism of his Coventry-Rotary pedal tricycle. Although, this was not a key invention on the road to a full e-car. But it wasn't until 1884 that British Inventor Thomas Parker (who also electrified the London Underground) built the first production electric car. Parker powered his car using his own specially-designed, rechargeable, high-capacity batteries. 

The first successful electric automobile, The Electrobat, was developed by mechanical engineer Henry G. Morris and chemist Pedro G. Salom in 1894 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was a slow and heavy contraption with steel tires to support the weight of its heavy frame and a large lead battery. Also in the U.S., William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, developed a six-passenger electric car (wagon) that could reach 23 km/h. In 1895, consumers began noticing this 'new-fangled technology,' following A. L. Ryker's introduction of all-electric tricycles in the U.S. 

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Thomas Parker's early EV, circa 1895.

Various other inventors and engineers developed a series of other models throughout this period, climaxing with the electric car setting a world speed record on December 18th, 1898. After these developments, electric car technology flourished - it was a 'golden age' for the technology. As a result, interest in electric cars was rising throughout the later 1890s and early 20th Century.

Electric battery-powered taxis became available around the time - notably Walter C. Bersey's fleet of London cabs, which was introduced in 1897. Despite their advantages over gasoline cars of the time, a lack of electrical infrastructure held back their mass adoption by consumers. This would mark the decline of electric cars as they began to be eclipsed by combustion engine cars,  especially after large petroleum deposits were discovered.

By 1910, most electric car manufacturers had left the business or stopped production completely. The technology persisted for specialist uses like forklift trucks, milk floats in the UK, golf carts, and some niche vehicles, like the Henney Kilowatt. However, electric vehicles generally stayed on the sidelines until their renaissance later in the 20th Century.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
1961 Henney Kilowatt.

GM's first electric car

Although GM experimented with electric vehicles as early as the mid-1960s, with their concept car, the Electrovair, this vehicle never made it to mass production. The Electrovair was based on the 1966 Corvair and was powered using a silver-zinc battery pack that could deliver 532 volts.

Fast forward a few decades, and General Motors decided to "give it a try" once again (although not entirely voluntarily, as you will see). Their first modern-age electric car, the General Motors EV1, was developed in the mid-1990s. The EV1 was the first electric car to be mass-produced (and purpose-built) by a major car manufacturer in the modern era. 

This humble-looking car also had a few other firsts to add.

- It was the first GM vehicle designed from the ground up as an EV. 

- The EV1 was also the first (and only) passenger car marketed under the GM brand and not one of its divisions.

GM's decision to design and build the EV1 was inspired, in part, by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which passed a mandate that required major U.S. manufacturers to develop zero-emission vehicles if they wished to continue marketing their goods in the state.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars

When was the first Tesla car made?

Tesla Motors produced its first electric car, the Roadster, in 2008. This vehicle revolutionized the modern electric vehicle age and featured cutting-edge battery technology and an electric powertrain.

The original Roadster was a battery-electric. It was a vehicle (BEV) and was the first highway-legal, serial-production, all-electric car ever to use a lithium-ion battery as a power source. It is also the first all-electric car capable of traveling more than 199 miles (320 kilometers) per charge.

It could also reach an incredible top speed of 124 mph (200 kph). And it can now add a unique epithet to its already impressive list - the first production car to be launched into space. In February 2018, it served as a dummy payload for the Falcon Heavy test flight. A mannequin dressed in a spacesuit, dubbed 'Starman,' occupied the driver's seat.

Between its production years (2008-2012), more than 2,450 Roadsters were sold in over 30 countries worldwide.

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
Tesla have revolutionized the EV industry.

An abbreviated electric car history timeline

Here is a selection of events in the history of the electric car. This timeline is not exhaustive.

Who made the first hybrid car?

Easy, the Toyota Prius, right? Sadly not. According to records, the first electric vehicle was developed much earlier. In 1889a gasoline-electric hybrid rail car was devised by one William H. Patton. Although not a car by our definition, it's still a very interesting concept. The same chap also adapted his design for a boat propulsion system the same year.

A little later, in 1901, while working at the Lohner Coach Factory, one Ferdinand Porsche developed his Mixte. This was a four-wheel-drive hybrid version of the "System Lohner-Porsche" electrical carriage displayed at the Paris World Fair in the same year. The Mixte is widely considered to be the world's first hybrid automobile. The initial prototypes of this vehicle had two-wheel drive, were powered using batteries, and had two front-wheel, hub-mounted motors. 

Some also attribute the honor of the 'first hybrid' to an automobile developed in 1905. Henri Piper, a German-Belgian Inventor, produced his hybrid vehicle that consisted of an electric motor and generator, batteries, and a small gasoline engine. The electrical motor was used to charge the battery at cruise speed, while both motors were used for acceleration and traversing steep inclines. 

Here's the very brief history and evolution of electric cars
The Lohner-Porsche Mixte, circa 1902.

What's the difference between hybrid and plug-in cars?

A few terms have been thrown around in this article and its sources, so it is probably worth clearing up any misunderstanding.

  • A hybrid (HEV) cannot be charged from domestic current (or charging station) but does have a battery and electric drive. The main drive energy comes from liquid fuel (usually gasoline). The gasoline engine kicks in when the battery needs charging or additional power.
  • A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) can be charged from an electrical source and driven using its battery or liquid fuel.
  • All-electric vehicles (EV, AEV, battery-electric cars, etc.) get all their drive energy from their batteries and must be recharged from an electricity source.
  • Plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) are a catch-all term for any of the above that can be entirely or partially recharged from an electricity source (either from a household current or a charge station).

And that is your lot for today. Electric vehicles have had an interesting history. Whatever their future may have in store will be fascinating to see. 

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