When were Electric Cars Invented?

Figure 1. An electric car from 1896.

Electric cars are among the fastest growing type of vehicle in terms of sales in several Western countries. Many consumers still know little about electric cars, and most people see them as a relatively new type of vehicle that has some ways to go before they become common. However, the history of electric cars goes back to the 19th century, as people began to experiment with electricity and mobility.

Early History

Robert Anderson, a British inventor, is often credited with building the first electric carriage, which was built in the 1830s. It is not clear when this exactly happened, but it occurred sometime around 1832-1839. Similar efforts around that time occurred in the Netherlands and Hungary, where there was a lot of interest in developing transport using electricity. This included work by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, Holland and the Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik. These early vehicles were effectively carriages that could move a short distance on some electric charge and be steered by a large stick-like device. Effectively, many of the first cars were electric, as people experimented with different ways to power them.[1]

The first more practical electric vehicle which we can call a type of car occurred in 1842, developed by Thomas Davenport and Robert Anderson. These represented vehicles that could now move through better steering and were comparable to some of the early carriage cars around this period. One practical problem was that these cars did not have batteries, which meant they could not go very far. That problem was already solved in 1865, where Gaston Plante from France created the first rechargeable lead-acid batteries. As interest in the automobile began to surge in the 1880s, electric cars were seen as the key way in which vehicles would navigate roads. This led to further developments in battery technologies and by 1881 electric cars could more reliably navigate for some distance between charges and became practical in cities. Electric cars were among the first cars created by early car manufacturers that emerged, including famous brands such as Mercedes.[2]

In 1897, New York decided to make their taxi fleet electric through cars created by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia. Many cities in Europe and the United States began using electric vehicles as a form of public transit (Figure 1). By 1898, land speed records of over 68 mph were set by electric cars. Electric cars were still at this stage seen as likely dominating the increasingly growing car market. By 1900, about 30 percent of all cars were electric.

Already in 1899, however, people realised that gasoline gave a longer range. Hybrid vehicles began to be created to combine the benefits of electric cars with gasoline powered vehicles. Nevertheless, by this point, journeys in vehicles were usually short distances and trains still typically carried people over longer distances. Oil was exploited but not widely distributed yet. This gave the electric car an advantage in costs and generally electric cars were easier to operate than their gasoline cousins, requiring no starting crank and constant gear shifting. [3]

Later Developments

Figure 2. Arguably the Model T led to collapse of the electric car and research into car batteries.

What also gave early electric vehicles an advantage over gasoline cars throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s was that despite improvements of the internal combustible engine, that happened throughout the mid to late 1800s, gasoline cars were seen as 'dirty.' They were also noisy, and changing gears was not made much easier in cars during that era.

Consumers praised electric cars for being easy to drive and having no noise, while they did not burn any dirty smelling fuel. For a while, even into the early 1900s, electric cars seemed to be the way forward. Arguably, what changed was the introduction of the Model T, introduced in 1908 and often seen as a revolutionary car in bringing cars to the masses. The car also destroyed the position of the electric car. The affordability of the Model T, at about $650, versus an electric ($1750), in 1912 resulted in a crash in electric car sales throughout the 1910s-1920s (Figure 2).

By 1912, gasoline-powered vehicles also incorporated an electric starter, making them just as easy to start as electric cars. This advance further deteriorated sales of electric cars, relegating them to near extinction. The discovery of oil in places such as Texas in the early 1900s and increasing road networks connecting large cities further helped decline electric cars. Oil prices in the 1920s and 1930s were low, making it affordable for people to power their cars. By 1935, electric cars were largely extinct from roads throughout the world.[4]

Modern Electric Car

From the early 1900s to about the 1960s, electric car batteries effectively did not change. Only in the 1970s, during the first major oil crisis that led to the rapid increase in oil prices, did electric cars and electric batteries become of interest. Even in the early 1970s, electric car capabilities were not that much more effective than their early industrial age predecessors.

Arguably electric cars from the late 1890s were more effective. The fastest electric cars in the 1970s typically could not go over 45 miles per hour, far slower than the record set in 1898, and had a range of only about 45 miles. There were now increased science and technology symposiums on low pollution power systems that began to emerge in the science communities. The United States began to take the lead in research on electric cars in the 1970s. The 1970s was also the era when environmental damage began to become of greater concern, with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by President Nixon in 1970 and the passing of the Clean Air Act.

In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act, which renewed research into electric batteries and hybrid vehicle research conducted by the Department of Energy.[5]

During the 1970s, electric cars reemerged again on the roads, with cars such as the Sebring Vanguard. This was a form of "city car" that only traveled 40-50 miles per hour and had a range of nearly 60 miles. Such cars were small, two-person vehicles that made them impractical for many. In other countries, such as Germany, electric cars began to also make a slow comeback, including BMW's 1602 E which had a range of 30 miles. Although improvements were made in battery technologies, limitations for most cars was speed and range. This ultimately made electric cars not popular with the wider public. That set the stage for the minor comeback to mostly collapse in the 1980s and going into the 1900s, when oil prices dropped significantly once again.[6]

California, in the 1990s, did pass a bill that car manufacturers could sell vehicles in the state with a zero-emission option. This likely helped the creation of the EV1, perhaps one of the first more practical electric cars. GM's EV1 car, which traveled up to 80-100 miles and could accelerate from 0 to 60 in 7 seconds, made it one of the best electric cars to emerge from research funding from the 1970s. This remained perhaps the best electric car available and represented another small comeback in the 1990s when the production of the car developed. GM had spent over 300 million dollars to help make the EV1 a viable vehicle. However, GM stated in never made money from this car and eventually, it was killed off in 2001, with cars being recalled from their leasers. The car was only leased in a few states. Only slightly over 1000 of these cars were made.[7]

By the 1990s, Japan had become a global leader in battery research. During this time, in 1997, a new car emerged, the Toyota Prius that changed the perception of efficient vehicles. The Prius, a brand that is still being made, is a hybrid that switched between the electric and gasoline sources. In the early 2000s, the Prius began to be exported, which coincided with a sharp rise in gasoline prices and renewed environmental interests. The Prius' performance matched many gasoline vehicles, helping it to sell over 10 million vehicles by the 2010s. This now also prompted companies to look for alternative vehicles that required no gasoline.

Smaller car companies, particularly Tesla, created the Roaster, which now gave electric cars a long-distance battery. The Roaster could travel up to 200 miles without recharging, but the price of over $100,00 made it out of reach for many. Nevertheless, by the 2010s, companies such as Nissan, BMW, Ford, and others began to manufacture electric cars at greater scales, bring prices down to more affordable ranges for average consumers. Most electric cars today have ranges of about 100 miles and could go up to 90 mph. However, with increased research, it is likely the electric car could, once again, rival gasoline cars.[8]

Summary

Early cars were more easily operated as electric vehicles, as many 19th century automobiles were cumbersome, dirty, noisy, and less preferred by consumers. That changed by the 1910s, resulting in the near death of electric vehicles. When research once again picked up in the 1970s, electric cars were not much better in range than their 1890s-1900s peers. It was only since the 1990s, and particularly the effect of the Prius, that began to increase interest in electric vehicles and those with alternative fuels. Today, some countries in Europe have begun to introduce eventual bans on all gasoline vehicles at a future date. This might now be a major lifeline given to more rapid development of electric vehicles.

References

  1. For more on the early history of electric cars, see: Burton, N. (2013). A history of electric cars. The Crowood Press Lt
  2. For more on how early electric cars were powered and developed, see: Linde, A. (2010). Electric cars - the future is now!: your guide to the cars you can buy now and what the future holds. Dorchester: Veloce Publishing Limited, pg. 92.
  3. For more on the growth and expansion of electric cars in the late 1800s and early 1900s, see: Anderson, C. D., & Anderson, J. (2010). Electric and hybrid cars: a history (2nd ed). Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, pg. 111
  4. For more on how the Model T helped bring the downfall of early electric vehicles, see: Sato, T. (2015). Smart grid standards: specifications, requirements, and technologies. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons Inc, pg. 161.
  5. For more on how electric cars reemerged in the 1970s, see: Westbrook, Mike. (2001). The Electric Car: Development and future of battery, hybrid and fuel-cell cars (Energy Engineering). Institution of Engineering and Technology.
  6. For more on early electric vehicles in the 1970s, see: Georgano, G. N. (2000). The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the automobile. London: Stationery Office.
  7. For more on the EV1, see: Mantle, J. (1995). Car wars: fifty years of backstabbing, infighting, and industrial espionage in the global market. New York: Arcade Pub.
  8. For more on the emergence of the Prius and modern emergence of electric cars, see: Motavalli, J. (2002). Forward drive. New York; London: Random House International ; Hi Marketing.