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The history of electric cars

March 7, 2016 | Vivian Zhou

Electric cars are nothing new under the sun. They've been around for more than 100 years. They soared around the turn of the 20th Century, faced extinction from the pre- to post-war era, saw the light again in 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 the 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 .

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 was powered by electricity and a gas engine. Thomas Edison believed that electric vehicles were superior 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. In fact, electric cars accounted for 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

However, EVs 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 only remained available in cities. Over the next 30 years, electric vehicles saw little advancement. Cheap, abundant gasoline and continued improvements to 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, which created a growing global interest in lowering the society'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, suffered from a number of 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 interest didn't discourage scientists and engineers from trying. Over the next 20 years, automotive companies modified popular models to electric variations, hoping they could improve the batteries, and achieve a range and speed closer to that of 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 over carbon pollution have helped make the Prius the best-selling hybrid worldwide.

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 the competition 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 range and cutting EV battery costs by 50 percent over a span of four years. This in turn has helped lower the cost of electric vehicles overall, making them more affordable for consumers.

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

The Present

With a continued increase in the adoption of electric vehicles across the world, charging infrastructure has become a pressing issue. Without sufficient and compatible facilities to charge EVs, there's simply no way to sell citizens on the benefits of electric driving.

By 2009, Estonia was the world’s first country with a nationwide EV fast charging network.

Over the next three years, Western Europe, Japan, China, and the U.S. deployed around 50,000 public EV charging stations. By 2014, the EU issued a Directive ensuring a minimum coverage of charging infrastructure across member states.

Our founders Bram and Huub anticipated the growing need for charging infrastructure. In 2010, EVBox was born.

EVBox's partnership with Nuon-Heijmans in 2016 will help its home country, The Netherlands, expand its charging infrastructure in major cities; Amsterdam being the first. 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 being challenged by the growing adoption of renewable and self-generated energy, as well growing interest in electric driving. Aside from climate change and oil dependence, we're also seeing that it's simply easier and more efficient to design, engineer, and build electric cars

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.


Sources: US Department of EnergyUnion of Concerned ScientistsInternational Energy Agency

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