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The history of electric cars

March 7, 2016 | Vivian Zhou

Nothing new under the horizon, electric cars have been around for more than 100 years. They've soared around the turn of the 20th Century, faced extinction from the pre- to post-war era, saw new light since the 70s, and made their entrance to the mainstream in the 21st Century. Here's a brief look into the history of electric vehicles.

The Golden Age

Innovators in Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States created some of world's first small-scale electric cars, yet it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that French and English inventors built some of the first practical electric cars.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the West became more prosperous, and civilians swapped their horses for the newly invented motor vehicle - available in steam, gasoline or electric versions - to get around.

While steam was proven reliable for powering factories and trains, it wasn’t very practical for personal vehicles. Steam vehicles required startup times up to 45 minutes and would need to be refilled with water, limiting their range. Gasoline-powered cars required the driver to change gears and start up with a hand crank. Needless to say, they were also noisy, and their exhaust was smelly.

Electric cars on the other hand, were quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit unpleasant pollutants like the other cars of the time. Electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents - especially women. As more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, it became easier to charge electric cars, also adding to their popularity.

This popularity caught the eye of many innovators. Porsche developed an electric car and created the world’s first hybrid; a car that is powered by electricity and a gas engine. Thomas Edison believed that electric vehicles were the superior technology and worked to build a better electric vehicle battery.

In the 1900s, Amsterdam and New York had a fleet of about 70 and 60 electric taxis respectively. Electric cars accounted in fact around a third of all vehicles on the road in the US. During the next 10 years, they continued to show strong sales.

The Dark Times

EVs however, entered their darkest times, when the mass-produced internal combustion engine car was introduced. Along with Ford's Model T, gasoline-powered cars became widely available and affordable. Gas was cheap and readily available for many, while electricity remained only available to cities. Over the next 30 years, electric vehicles saw little advancement. Cheap, abundant gasoline and continued improvement in the internal combustion engine hampered demand for alternative fuel vehicles.

The Resurrection

Fast forward to the seventies. Oil prices and gasoline shortages reached a new high - peaking with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, and created a growing global interest in lowering planet earth’s dependence on oil. Many automakers started to explore options for alternative fuel vehicles, including electric cars. General Motors developed a prototype for an urban EV and even NASA helped raise the profile, when its electric Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle on the moon. However, EVs back then suffered from drawbacks compared to gasoline-powered cars. Their limited performance (70 km per hour) and range (64 km per charge) made them far from being desirable.

Yet the lack of public interests didn't discourage scientists and engineers from trying. In the next 20 years, automotive companies modify popular models to electric variations, hoping they would improve the batteries, and achieve the range and speed closer to gasoline- powered vehicles.

One of the most significant turning points was the introduction of the Toyota Prius. Released in Japan in 1997, the Prius became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. In 2000, the Prius was released worldwide, and it became an instant success with celebrities. Since then, rising gasoline prices and growing concern about carbon pollution have helped make the Prius the best-selling hybrid worldwide during the past decade.

The rEVolution

Then, along came Tesla. In 2006, this Silicon Valley startup announced it would start producing a luxury electric sports car that could go more than 320 km on a single charge.

Tesla’s announcement and subsequent success spurred many big automakers to accelerate work on their own electric vehicles. Nissan raised above the bunch with its launch of the Nissan LEAF in 2010. This all-electric, zero-emission car would become the world’s all-time top selling EV.

At the same time, new battery technologies entered the market, helping to improve a plug-in electric vehicle’s range and cutting EV battery costs by 50 percent over a span of four years. This in turn has helped lower the costs of electric vehicles overall, making them more affordable for consumers.

All mass-market automotive manufacturers have hopped on the electric bandwagon by now. In Europe and the US, we have about 30 electric and 40 plug-in hybrid models to our disposal, and more to come in the coming year(s). By 2015, Norway (74,000+) and The Netherlands (90,000+) joined the list of countries with the largest EV stock, which had US (410,000), China (260,000) and Japan (130,000+) in its top 3.

The Present

With a continued increase in the adoption of electric vehicles across the world, charging infrastructure have become a pressing issue in the past few years. Without sufficient and compatible facilities to charge EVs, there's simply no way to endorse electric driving amongst citizens.

By 2009, Estonia was the world’s first country with an EV fast charging network with nationwide coverage. You can packing your car at a car port if you want, Our founders Bram and Huub anticipated this rising need for charging infrastructure and started their pursuit for a future of sustainable mobility. In 2010, EVBox was born.

Western Europe, Japan, China, and the U.S. deployed around 50,000 public charging stations in the next three years. By 2014, the EU entered a Directive to ensure a minimum coverage of charging infrastructure throughout EU countries.

As of 2016, EVBox's partnership with Nuon-Heijmans will help its home country, The Netherlands, expand its charging infrastructure in major cities; Amsterdam being the first and foremost frontrunner. By 2025, the Dutch capital may very well become Europe's first zero-emission city.

The Future

The future is looking bright for e-mobility.

Our dependence on oil is continuously, and critically challenged with underlying trends in the oil industry, with the growing adoption of renewable and self-generated energy, as well as with consumers' greater acceptance of electric driving. Set aside all the motivations with climate change and oil dependence - it's also been argued that building electric cars will simply become the better way to do a car.

With electric cars becoming part of our everyday commute, the implementation and optimization of charging infrastructure will face new challenges. Energy-efficient Smart Charging, self-charging and durable car batteries, high-tech charging roadways, self-sufficient charging stations that save and transmit energy between home and car...The opportunities reach far beyond what we've accomplished today.

Before we take you for a spin in future developments next time, here's a preview of the things we can expect this year.


Sources: US Department of EnergyUnion of Concerned ScientistsInternational Energy Agency

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