History of Electric Cars


Electric vehicles are in vogue. Companies like Tesla are disrupting the car market not only with their all electric drive trains but also with their leaps into self-driving automation. You can be excused for thinking that electric cars are a modern invention, but their history is more surprising than you might think.

A Benz Patent Motorwagen from 1886 ( a few years after electric cars)

Several electric motorised contraptions had been built by inventors in the early 1800’s such as Thomas Davenport, in America, Robert Anderson of Scotland and Sibrandus Stratingh from the Netherlands.

The first electric car however was possibly seen in London in 1884 and built by Thomas Parker, a British inventor. 1884 is a surprising date because Karl Benz didn’t build his first Patent-Motorwagen which is widely regarded as the first automobile until 1885 subsequently showing it to the public in 1886 in Mannheim two years after the electric car was driving around the streets of London!

Electric car in London in 1884

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were many electric cars built. In 1900 out of the total of 2,370 automobiles found in New York, Chicago and Boston, 800 were fully electric and only 400 cars were powered by gasoline. The remaining 1,170 were unsurprisingly for the time steam-powered. One notable owner was Thomas Edison who was a very good friend of Henry Ford, so much so, they even lived next door to one another. The pair in the early twentieth century talked about collaborating on the development of an affordable electric vehicle. In 1914 the press was a buzz with rumours that a cheap electric car would be released by the Ford motor company. For many reasons, including the integrity of the battery these plans never came to fruition despite several reported prototypes. For context the affordable and famous Model T began rolling off the production lines in 1908.

Excluding notable conspiracy theories, range, affordability and practicality ultimately favoured the internal combustion engine in the early 1900s as the technology improved. The twentieth century therefore was the century of the internal combustion engine which revolutionised personal travel for the masses.

An electric Milk Float from 1947 but the top speed was only 7mph

Towards the end of the millennium there were a few new trials electric cars such as the General Motors EV1 in 1996 and Rav4 EV in 1997 along with the car most associated with the hybrid move, the Toyota Prius that first came on the scene in 1997 in Japan and globally in 2000. There were some notable exceptions such as golf buggies and milk floats!

The start of the twenty first century is when electric cars really started to develop for example with the Tesla Roadster introduced in 2008. Tesla and other manufacturers are ramping up the move to electric mobility for many reasons including the improvement of key technological components like the batteries, increased prices of carbon fuels and political pressure against high polluting vehicles especially in large cities. Several cities and countries are also setting dates for the phase out of petrol and diesel cars with the UK for example promising phase out of new sales by 2040 and France, India, Norway and others have similar commitments.

The demand is believed to be there; BMW targeted sales of 100,000 plug in cars in 2017 and the Tesla Model 3 received over 400,000 pre-orders proving. Incumbent manufacturers are reacting launching numerous new electric and electric plug in hybrid vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf. The Prius became a plug-in in 2012. Volvo have committed to ceasing production of internal combustion only engines by 2019. In a nod to the “what could have been” in 2017 Ford announced that they were progressing their drive towards electrification with a new team called “Team Edison” both a nod to the past and a dig at rivals Tesla.

For some more great examples of early electric vehicles mashable have put together a really interesting article with some great photos.

What are your thoughts on electric cars? When do you think this technology will reach the mainstream?

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