While electric cars may seem to be the wave of the future, there is a rich and long history behind how they came about. Starting in the 1800s, there is a great deal of innovation, imagination, and investment that went into building the foundation for what is likely to become the norm in the transport industry.
1830s – The Pioneer Scots
In 1832, Robert Anderson develops a rudimentary motorised carriage. 5 years later, another Scot, Robert Davidson, builds the first prototype electric locomotive, powered by galvanic cell batteries. He later develops an improved version dubbed Galvani. It is soon destroyed by railway workers who feel their way of life is being threatened.
1859 to 1881 – Rechargeable Batteries
The creation of lead-acid batteries offers a practical means of storing electricity for motorised use. French scientists, Gaston Planté and Camille Alphonse Faure separately work on these designs that lead to commercial production.
1881 – The Electric Tricycle
In April 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé tests the first electric vehicle. It is a tricycle powered by the recently developed batteries, coupled with a Siemens electric motor. Though not patented, Trouvé adapts this design to create an outboard motor that can be used to power boats.
1884 – English Spark of Innovation
Famed for his work in electrifying the London Underground, English inventor Thomas Parker also develops the first production electric car in Wolverhampton. Under the Elwell-Parker Company, Parker goes on to produce electric trams and dogcarts.
1890 to 1899 – American Progression
In Iowa, William Morrison creates the first successful electric automobile in the form of a 6-passenger wagon that can reach speeds of 23kph. By the late 1890s, there is the more prevalent use of electric tricycles on US streets. Boston automaker, Pope Manufacturing, begins production of electric automobiles, delivering over 500 vehicles to the market.
1897 – An Electrified Taxi Service
By 1897, British engineer Walter Bersey introduces electric-powered taxis nicknamed “Hummingbirds”. Across the Atlantic in New York, electric hansom cabs also hit the streets. Interested in joining the bandwagon, Thomas Edison begins work on developing a longer-lasting battery for electric vehicles. However, he made little headway and eventually abandoned this quest.
Early 1900s – The Golden Era
The late 1890s – 1900s was a landmark period for electric cars. In the US, electric cars made up as much as a third of vehicles in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. Marketed as being quiet, less polluting, and easy to drive, the electric car was particularly appealing to women.
1901 to 1906 – The First Hybrid
Automaker Ferdinand Porsche develops the first hybrid electric car that is powered by a gas engine and a battery that stores electricity. Named the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, the all-wheel drive system featured the use of electric motors fitted on to the front wheels. Despite this design success, the high production cost makes the first hybrids uncompetitive and production is stopped in 1906.
1908 to 1912 – Rise of The Model T
Henry Ford’s Model T overshadows the electric car in the US market. This gas-powered vehicle gains mass popularity thanks to its affordability and wide availability. It offers an easy electric starter that is an innovative upgrade on the antiquated hand crank. The creation of the muffler also helps to reduce automotive noise levels.
1920s to 1960s – Gas Power Soars, Electric Wanes
As improved road infrastructure takes hold, drivers begin to desire vehicles with more power, longer range, and affordability. With an increased network of gas stations and the lower cost of gasoline, there is a decline in the popularity of electric cars. Small pockets of loyalty, however, remain in places like the UK that retains the use of electric-powered milk floats
1960s-1970s – Resurgence in Interest
The 1970s energy crisis results in increasingly high gas prices that negatively impact the West. A deterioration in air quality results in public outcry and government interest in the electric car industry is revived as a means to combat the pollution.
1971 – Mission to the Moon
The Lunar Roving Vehicle is deployed to drive on the moon during the Apollo 15 mission. This electric-powered vehicle runs off 36V potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries and DC drive motors. It brings a renewed focus on electric car technology.
1960s-1990s – A Slew of Models
With the revival in interest comes a myriad of electric car models from various car makers. However, options such as the CitiCar by Sebring-Vanguard to the S-10 by Chevrolet often resulted in limited or no production. The failure of electric cars during this period has often been attributed to their limited range and high pricing.
1990s – Clean Air Politicking
California Air Resources Board (CARB) pushes for more use of low emission vehicles. While automakers like Toyota and GM do come up with new electric car models seemingly intended to help meet this goal, they also support oil lobbyists and eventually pursue legal action that nixes the CARB initiatives. Most of their vehicles are only available on lease and are discontinued by early 2000s.
1997 to 2003 – Dawn of Prius
In Japan, Toyota unveils the world’s first commercially-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius. This electric car is later launched worldwide by 2000. It proves hugely popular and helps to boost the demand and profile of electric vehicles globally.
2004 – The Tesla Catalyst
The California based carmaker begins work on its Tesla Roadster that becomes the first all-electric car to achieve a range of over 200 miles on a single charge on its lithium-ion battery. Their work inspires other automakers to invest more in their electric divisions.
2008 – More Gas Price Surges
As gas prices rise and there is a steep decline in the demand for gas-powered vehicles, automakers begin to feel the heat. Many re-focus on more in fuel-efficient, hybrid, and electric models.
2009 to 2013 – Governments Step Up
The US Energy Department boosts investment in a countrywide charging network. Over 18,000 chargers are installed in both domestic and commercial premises. PM Gordon Brown announces a £2,000 subsidy to electric car buyers.
2010 – LEAF is Launched
Released in December 2010, Nissan LEAF offers a range of 100 miles and speeds of up to 90mph. It proves hugely popular, eventually becoming the bestselling electric car in the world, overtaking the Mitsubishi i MiEV.
2013 – Tesla Gains Ground
Tesla’s successor to the Roadster, the Model S, becomes a top seller in the US and Norway. This sleek five-door sedan proves to be a worthy challenger to the Nissan LEAF, with its later Long Range Plus model capable of achieving over 400 miles on a single charge.
2014 – The Market Opens Up
Thanks to price drops in batteries, growing charging infrastructure, and the success of automakers like Tesla and Nissan, other carmakers release new hybrid and all-electric models. Car buyers now have a wide selection to choose from, though some brands and models are region-specific.
2020 – Tesla Tops the Market
Tesla Model 3 outsells the Nissan Leaf in the first quarter of 2020. Tesla earns another milestone by becoming the first car maker to produce over 1 million electric vehicles. This is majorly attributed to the Model 3 that was released in 2017 and has over 500,000 units sold.
A Promising Future
In 2015, global electric car stocks stood at just over a million. This number has since grown to over 7.2 million in 2019. Bloomberg research estimates that electric vehicles will make up close to a third of the world’s total passenger fleet by 2040.