The electric Vehicle is nothing new, they have been around for almost 200 years, long before the development of the internal combustion engine. EVs grew in popularity to a remarkable level at the beginning of the 20th Century, confronted extinction between 1910 and 1920, suffered almost complete oblivion following the arrival of the cheaper, mass market Model T Ford, then witnessed a renaissance around the 1970’s, making a mainstream comeback in the 21st Century . This is a snapshot into the often, neglected history of the EV.
The pioneering years
The first practical electric car came in the 1830’s and was produced by the pioneering British inventor, Robert Anderson. His car ran on non-chargeable batteries and was smitten with many set-backs including maximum speed of 1.5mph and range of about two miles . Then Holland, Britain and the United States produced some of the first EVs, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the 1800’s that British and French inventors created some of the first practical EVs, with greater range and speed.
At the turn of the 20th Century, as the height of the Industrial revolution took its grip and the west became more prosperous, there was more choice of transport alternatives in the newly developed motor vehicle market – now offered in electric, steam or petrol/gasoline derivatives. Thus, began a format war, with the internal combustion engine coming out the winner due to simpler, lighter and cheaper drive systems, the abundance of cheap fuel (gas/petrol) and the mass production of cars, pioneered by Henry Ford in the USA.
Whilst gas/petrol vehicles grew in popularity, the heavy impractical steam vehicles disappeared, and electric cars became a dying niche sector. EVs were practically silent, had no gears, so were simple to drive and didn’t discharge noxious contaminants like steam or gas-powered vehicles at the time. Electric cars quickly became popular with city residents – especially women. By now, batteries were rechargeable and as access to electricity in the 1910’s became more common, charging electric cars became more popular.
EV popularity sparked huge interest amongst many inventors and innovators. In the USA, Thomas Edison passionately believed that EVs were the superior technology and worked to build a better electric vehicle battery.
During the first 20 years of the 20th century, cities such as Amsterdam and New York each boasted a fleet of battery powered taxis. In the USA, almost a third of vehicles were electric cars. But cheaper energy in the form of petrol gas was starting to have an impact on the more expensive and less practical fledgling EV industry. One of the biggest setbacks that started the decline of EVs was that electricity was only available in cities, making longer distance travel, almost impossible.
Oil prices and petrol gasoline shortages reached a new level in the 1970’s – climaxing with the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973, creating a mounting worldwide awareness in lowering the worlds dependency on oil . Some Car makers began exploring opportunities in alternative fuel to power our cars, including the resurgence of electric car development again. Nonetheless, these newly developed cars or vehicles still suffered from the weaknesses of EVs in the early 1900’s versus petrol gas powered cars. Range practicality and performance still rendered them undesirable.
The absence of public interest didn’t dishearten the innovators, engineers and scientists from development in this revitalised new sector. Over the following 20 years, car companies tended to transform existing models into electric versions, in the hope that they could improve battery technology, achieving speed, practicality and range closer to their petrol gas powered relatives.
In the eighties, observers were closely watching developments in the UK as British inventor John Goodenough and his team at Oxford University developed the modern lithium-ion battery. It proved to be lightweight and energy dense. Exactly what the fledgling EV pioneers had been waiting for, in an effort to compete head on with the traditional polluting, noisy combustion powered vehicles.
2010 – 2020. A decade of intense innovation
Fast forward to the 2010’s. One of the most significant turning points was the introduction of the Nissan Leaf, released in Japan and the USA in 2010 . The Leaf became the world’s first mass-produced pure electric vehicle. It slowly gained popularity held back only by the lack of charging stations. Since then, rising petrol prices and mounting concern about carbon pollution propelled the Nissan Leaf to become the best-selling pure electric vehicle worldwide during the last decade.
At the same time, new battery technologies evolved, helping to improve pure EVs range and lowering lithium-ion battery costs by more than 50 percent during the first four years. The battery had suddenly become a commodity and improved manufacturing techniques and new chemistry developments helped lower the overall end-cost of electric vehicles, making them more desirable and affordable for the car buying public.
Then came Tesla. A company, founded by Americans, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning . They named the company after the Serbian inventor and developer of Alternating Current, Nikola Tesla. Although their first car, the Tesla Roadster was developed and built in the UK, based on an existing Lotus designed and built car, their breakthrough came in 2012, when they launched their first home-built Tesla S luxury saloon. Many commentators believe that the key to Tesla’s success with the Model S, was the development and roll-out of Tesla supercharging stations, located in strategic locations across the USA on most of the country’s main highways. A strategy replicated in all new Tesla markets to much acclaim.
As more EVs enter this new market, the charging infrastructure has become an important issue. Without a national contiguous network of fast or rapid EV chargers, the demand for EVs will remain muted. Although in most developed markets, the network is maturing and should maintain demand for many years to come.
In a major milestone for Estonia, it became the world’s first country in 2009 to develop a nationwide EV rapid charging network.
The current state of global charging infrastructure indicates that Western Europe, the U.S, Japan and China, built more than 50,000 communal charging stations by 2014. Additionally, the EU enshrined in law, a directive to ensure a minimum coverage of charging infrastructure throughout EU countries .
By 2019, most major car manufacturers had adopted an electrification strategy. In the US and Europe, they have between 40 to 50 pure electric plug-in EVs. China tops the world ranking of most produced EVs, greatest network of charging points and the worlds largest fleets of electric taxis and buses . They now lead the world in introducing EVs and electrified heavy commercial vehicles, reducing pollution in what is after all, the world’s most polluted country, by quite a degree.