Vehicle technology is constantly developing and improving, and the automotive industry we know today vastly differs from its origins. Electric vehicles may seem like a modern concept, but they actually date back to the 1800s! Here’s a rundown of the history of electric vehicles.
After electricity was ‘discovered’ in the mid-1700s, many inventors and scientists were looking for new ways to utilise it. In the early 1800s, horse and carriage was the primary method of transportation, but with electricity now on the cards, new developments were taking place.
The first EV to be invented was an electric-powered carriage, created by Robert Anderson some time between 1832-1839. The carriage ran using non-rechargeable batteries with a low capacity. This proved the concept of an electric vehicle, but it wasn’t much use in terms of practicality. In 1859, Gaston Plantè invented the lead-acid battery, the first rechargeable battery. Although limited in use, the design was the base for future developments, with Camille Alphonse improving the design and capacity of the battery in 1881.
In the 1880s, British inventor, Thomas Parker, successfully tested a prototype battery-powered train in Birmingham. After this, he began experimenting with road-based vehicles, creating various prototypes. In 1884, he designed and produced an electric car using high-capacity rechargeable batteries.
(1) Thomas Parker in his electric car (middle)
This was the first EV model with the ability to be mass-produced. Parker’s invention faced difficulties due to the Locomotive Act (1865), also known as the Red Flag Act. This Act placed limitations on all mechanically powered road vehicles, stating that they must have three operators on board, not exceed a speed limit of 4mph on open roads (limited to 2mph in towns) and must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag to warn the public that the vehicle is approaching. The speed limits enforced within the Red Flag Act were not increased until 1896, and again in 1903.
In 1886, the first gasoline-powered vehicle was produced. This didn’t seem to stunt the development of electric transportation, and in 1897, Walter Bersey designed and introduced a fleet of battery-powered taxis to London. These vehicles helped show Londoners how effective electric transportation would be, kicking off the 1900s with EVs in high demand.
(2) Walter Bersey’s electric-powered taxi
Entering the 1900s, inventors across the world were continuing mass development for electric transportation. EVs were favourable over gasoline and steam-powered vehicles due to their lack of vibration, smell and noise. EVs also had no gear changes, which was desirable. Although steam-powered vehicles also had no gear changes, they suffered from long start up times, taking up to 45 minutes to start in colder weather conditions.
In the year 1900, Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) released a prototype for the first hybrid car, running off both electricity and gasoline. It was called The Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus, meaning ‘forever alive’ in Latin. In 1914, Henry Ford (also that Ford) partnered with Thomas Edison to explore low-cost EV options.
(3) The Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
From around 1920, the demand for EVs began to slip behind its gasoline counterparts. EVs were limited to city driving only, so gasoline and steam were favoured for any longer distances. On top of this, road infrastructure began improving which reduced travel times, and many drivers wanted more range from their vehicle than the EVs of the time could provide. Worldwide discoveries of petroleum reserves resulted in petrol becoming widely available for a low-cost, so by 1935 almost all of the world’s EVs had disappeared from the roads.
Fuel prices began to rise in the 1960s, which made many people look back to previous electric transport methods. Unfortunately, EV technology simply couldn’t compete with gasoline vehicles, so interest in EVs remained low and new developments were extremely few and far between. This was until 1971, when NASA sent the fully electric Lunar Rover to the moon. This sparked a new interest in electric transportation, which only further increased when the lithium-ion battery (the same battery used in EVs today) was commercialised in 1991.
(4) NASA’s Lunar Rover
With lithium-ion batteries becoming readily available to manufacturers who wished to use them, Tesla released the Tesla Roadster in 2008. This EV model was the first to ever travel over 200 miles on a single charge. In 2010, Nissan released the Nissan Leaf, the first modern pure electric, zero tailpipe emissions family hatchback car that was produced for mass market by a major manufacturer.
(5) Tesla Roadster
(6) Nissan Leaf
2016 marked 1 million global sales of pure electric cars and vans. This total had reached 10 million by 2020. In the UK alone, 500,000 ultra low emission vehicles were on the roads by 2021.
Throughout the 2000s, the term ‘electric vehicle’ has been modernised with new technology to create the EVs that we know today. Some models of EV can now travel over 500 miles on a single charge and often have similar top speeds to petrol and diesel counterparts. EVs were once favoured around 100 years ago, but they’re looking to take top spot once again within the next decade or so.