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The history of electric cars

January 24, 2022 | Wesley van Barlingen and Callum Biggins

Whilst electric vehicles (EVs) have only recently started to challenge the internal combustion engine (ICE) for the future of our roads, electric cars have been around for over a century.

Many people don't know that at the turn of the 20th century, there were more electric cars on the road than traditional petrol-powered ICE vehicles. But when Ford’s moving assembly line made passenger cars more accessible for the wider population, their prevalence was challenged. Ford, empowered by the knowledge that petrol was more widely available than electricity, built a transportation system based on petrol that would last over one hundred years. 

Whilst there were those tinkering with electric mobility in the intermittent decades, it wasn’t until the dawn of the next century that electric cars saw the light of day again. Fast forward 20 years and electric cars have returned stronger than ever. 

The history of electric cars is an interesting tale filled with many twists that gave rise to this nascent technology. This article gives an overview of the history of electric cars, the current state of electric mobility, and what the future is predicted to hold for the EV revolution.

The brief history of electric cars

The history of electric cars can be broken up into five distinct periods: the early pioneers of electric mobility (1830-1880), the transition to motorised transport (1880-1914), the rise of the internal combustion engine (1914-1970), the return of electric vehicles (1970-2003), the electric revolution (2003-2020), and the tipping point (2021 and beyond).

An infographic showcasing the history of the electric vehicle from the 1830s until today.

The early pioneers of electric mobility (1830-1880)

Throughout the early 1800s, a series of technological breakthroughs in batteries and motors led to the development of the first electric vehicles by engineering and automotive pioneers on both sides of the Atlantic.

When was the first electric car made?

As early as the 1830s, investors in Hungary, the Netherlands, the UK and the US were focusing their efforts on combining these technological developments to create a powered motor vehicle. Although it’s a disputed topic, many say the first small-scale electric cars were developed between 1828-1832.

Who made the first electric car?

It is said that the first electric vehicle was displayed at an industry conference in 1835 by a British inventor by the name of Robert Anderson. His vehicle used a disposable battery powered by crude oil to turn the wheels. 

Anderson was not alone in his pursuit of electric mobility. Around the same time, Hungarian scientist Ányos Jedlik and Dutch professor Sibrandus Stratingh both invented model EVs. And on the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Davenport, an American blacksmith-turned-inventor is also said to have invented integral components of the electric motor which produced the first electric car.

However, all were little more than prototypes of electrified carts—travelling at top speeds of 7 mph with cumbersome steering, and little range. Then in the 1860s, a French physicist by the name of Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery—a huge breakthrough for electric mobility. However, it wasn’t until the late 1880s that these inventions batteries and electric motors were put together by electric mobility pioneer William Morrison to create the first 'practical” EV.

What was the first electric car?

In the US, the first 'practical' electric car was built by William Morrison, a chemist who lived in Des Moines, Iowa. Morrison’s vehicle was a traditional horse-drawn Surrey carriage—popular in 19th Century America—which was converted to fit a battery. Morrison’s electric carriage could carry a maximum of 12 people and had a maximum speed of 20 mph.

The transition to motorised transport (1880-1914)

Around the turn of the 20th century, many people began swapping their horses and carts for motorised vehicles. As a result, the automobile rapidly grew in popularity and the battle for the future of mobility began. The options: steam, petrol, or electric. At that time, on American roads there was a fairly even split between the three: roughly 40 percent were powered by steam, 38 percent were electric, and only 22 percent powered by petrol. 

Steam vehicles had been growing in popularity since the 1870s, and held a slim majority over the US market, yet they had a major setback that ultimately led to their downfall. Stream vehicles required a 45 minute startup time and continuously needed to be refilled with water, limiting their range. In the end, while steam was reliable for powering factories and trains, it proved not to be very practical for personal vehicles. 

Around the same time William Morrison was working on his electric-powered carriage, Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz simultaneously developed the world’s first automobiles in 1886 in Germany. However, petrol-powered cars required the driver to change gears and start the vehicle with a heavy hand crank. They were also far noisier than their steam or electric counterparts and emitted pollutants from their exhaust. 

In comparison to steam and petrol, electric cars proved to be a competitive option. They did not emit any unpleasant pollutants, require gear changes, or have long startup times. This meant they were easier to drive and much quieter. 

As a result, electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents where electricity was readily available, and as more people gained access to electricity, the more popular they became. However, this momentum would soon come to an end, with the creation of Ford’s cost-efficient assembly line and the wider availability of petrol.

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The rise of the internal combustion engine (1914-1970)

Electric vehicles entered their darkest hour when the mass-produced internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle was introduced. With the introduction of Ford’s Model T, petrol-powered cars became widely available and affordable. 

And after the discovery of oil in Texas, petrol became cheap and readily available for many, while electricity only remained in available cities. Over the next 30 years, EVs saw little advancement, and by the mid-1930s they were almost non-existent. 

Cheap, abundant petrol and continued improvements to the internal combustion engine hampered demand for alternative fuelled vehicles, and solidified petrol vehicles dominance. As a result, the electric car lay dormant for the better part of a century.

The return of electric cars (1970-2003)

Fast forward to the 70s’, as oil prices and petrol shortages reached a new high—peaking with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo—interest in lowering the society's dependence on oil grew.

Vehicle manufacturers, feeling this social shift, started to explore options for alternatively fuelled vehicles, including EVs. For instance, General Motors developed a prototype for an urban electric car and even NASA helped raise the profile when their electric Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle on the moon. However, electric cars still suffered from several drawbacks compared to petrol-powered vehicles, including limited range and slow top speeds, which consumers were not interested in. 

Yet, the lack of public interest did not discourage scientists and engineers from trying. Over the next 20 years, vehicle manufacturing companies modified popular models to create electric variations, hoping they could improve the batteries and achieve a range and speed closer to that of petrol-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 EV. In 2000, the Prisu was released worldwide and became an instant success. However, the real turning point would come in 2003, when two entrepreneurs by the names of Martin Eberhand and Marc Tarpenning saw an opportunity.

A Tesla model X sitting against a concrete backdrop.

The rEVolution (2003-2020)

After seeing the growth of lithium-ion battery capacity in their previous venture, Eberhard and Marc formed Tesla Motors in 2003. Fast forward to 2006, and the Silicon Valley startup had announced it would start producing a luxury electric sports car that could go more than 198 miles on a single charge. 

Tesla’s subsequent success spurred many big vehicle manufacturers to accelerate work on their own electric cars. 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 electric car. 

At the same time, new battery technologies entered the market, helping to increase range and cut battery costs. To demonstrate this, the price of lithium-ion batteries has declined by 97% since 1991. This, in turn, has helped lower the cost of electric cars overall, making them more affordable for consumers. 

In the years since, almost every mass-market vehicle manufacturer has hopped on the electric bandwagon and many have vowed to stop building the internal combustion engine altogether.

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The tipping point (2021 and beyond)

The growth in electric mobility has been profound. From whichever metric you measure it by—electric car sales, electric cars on the roads, government EV mandates, EVs as a percentage of all vehicle sales, or simply vehicle manufacturers making electric mobility pledges—it is undeniable that it will play a large role in the future.

This growth is not only limited to a few countries either. Around the world there has been continuous growth in electric car sales across all major markets. Despite China continuing to have the largest electric car stocks in terms of numbers, Europe is experiencing faster acceleration, and overtook China as the global driver of EV sales in 2020, representing the 15 top markets for EV sales

This rapid growth in electric mobility, according to McKinsey & Company, meant that we had already reached the tipping point—or the point beyond which significant and often unstoppable effects or changes take place—in terms of passenger electric car adoption in the second half of 2020. 

And this growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. As governments, companies, and individuals look towards a sustainable future, many are turning to electric cars as an integral step in their decarbonisation journey.

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The future of electric mobility

As you might expect—as an electric car charging leader in Europe dedicated to empowering forward-thinking businesses to build a sustainable future—we’re pretty bullish about electric mobility.

Whilst the jump from one to ten million electric cars on the road may have come quickly, the next step will be much larger. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by the end of the decade, there could be as many as 145 million EVs on the world’s roads accounting for roughly 7 percent of the global vehicle fleet. 

What’s more, year on year, many governments and businesses continue to up their commitments to sustainable transport. In the UK, by 2030 the government is expected to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars, along with many other countries around the world proposing the same. 

In line with this, many vehicle manufacturers have stated their intentions to stop ICE sales and go electric. For example, GM plans to stop making gasoline passenger cars, vans, and SUVs by 2035. Cadillac, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes, Mini, Volvo, and Volkswagen have all made similar commitments.

Whilst we may not know exactly what the future holds, together these factors point to a bright future for electric mobility.


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