With the adoption of electric vehicles soaring in recent years, it may come as a surprise to learn that the history of electric cars dates pretty far back. Despite Elon Musk’s revolutionary concepts and imaginative ideas in the modern EV industry, electric vehicles have been on the road for almost 200 years - predating internal combustion engines, if you can believe it.
Though electric cars have been around for a long time, they have only recently become an economically attractive alternative to their fossil-fuelled counterparts.
With the advent of advanced technology, extensive research and development, and increased awareness about the impact of greenhouse gases on our environment, the electric car market is growing rapidly.
This article provides a brief history of electric cars and describes what the future holds for this promising technology.
Pinpointing an exact invention date and singular inventor of EV technology is difficult. In fact, a series of inventions were known to contribute to the earliest developments. From the introduction of the battery to the electric motor, the 1800s was a significant period in EV innovation.
During a time where the primary mode of transportation was horse and carriage, famous inventors in Hungary, Britain and the US were thinking ahead and experimenting with electric-powered transport.
Ányos Jedlik, a Hungarian inventor and physicist, unveiled
the first small-scale prototype of the electric motor in 1828.
Scottish inventor Robert Davidson is credited with inventing the first full-size electric carriage powered by
non-crude rechargeable batteries believed to have taken place sometime between 1832 and 1839.
Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from the US, was an early pioneer in electric cars. He built
a small-scale electric car in 1835 that was powered by the first DC motor.
This one is particularly important because, unlike the previous inventions, Davenport's locomotive was the first practical electric vehicle ever designed.
Fast forward to around 1842, Davenport and Davidson developed their concepts, producing much more successful electric road vehicles using non-rechargeable electric batteries.
The inventors’ and leading manufacturer’s passions to enhance the quality of electric vehicles continued years after. Great Britain and France were the main countries that focused on the improvement of the vehicles.
One of the biggest breakthroughs at this point in EV history came in 1859. While there had been other electric vehicles prior to Davenport’s, these earlier inventions led to more research on electric vehicles.
This research soon had its impact in the advancement of the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery created by French physicist Gaston Planté. He made electric motoring a practical proposition.
As a matter of fact, the electric cars we know today owe their existence to this revolutionary invention.
In 1859, Gaston Planté invented an even longer storage battery, which was then improved by colleague Camille Fauré in 1881.
This advancement in battery technology made electric cars viable, but better-capacity storage batteries were still needed for electric vehicles to become practical in day-to-day life.
Also in 1881, British inventors William Ayrton and John Perry built an electric tricycle - the first vehicle with electric lighting. With a range of 10 to 25 miles, it could reach a maximum speed of 9 mph and used lead-acid batteries.
In 1884, British inventor Thomas Parker constructed the very first electric production car in London - soon to be labelled the Elwell-Parker. He also invented a steam-powered generator to recharge the vehicle.
Electric Construction Corporation was formed in England in 1888 by the merger of Elwell-Parker Company and rivals. It obtains a monopoly on electric car manufacturing in the upcoming decade as a result.
Many major milestones were passed towards the later end of the 1800s as the 20th century was approaching. As expected, this sector evolved with more people were switching from horse and carriage to electric vehicles taking the market by storm.
The following key developments would be crucial for popularising the electric vehicle industry.
In 1891, William Morrison introduced a simplistic electric wagon to the USA. This six-passenger wagon could reach a top speed of around 14mph, becoming a raging success that inspired many more inventors and manufacturers at the time.
In 1896, a specialist car dealer was established in the US for the first time. All of its vehicles were electric.
In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche presented his first design - an electric car known as the P1. After exploring the possibilities of electric cars, he also developed the world’s first hybrid electric car that was a leading concept to incorporate both electric and gas.
Between 1901 and 1908, nickel-iron batteries were invented by famous inventor Thomas Edison, and they became popular for automobile applications.
From 1912 to 1920, electric vehicle production enjoyed success. Over this period, more and more people were acquiring electric cars as their primary method of transportation. Many early models of EVs were designed with luxury interiors, intended for use by the upper class.
The rapid emergence of better electric modes of transportation was quickly adopted by the population as an easier, quieter and more efficient way to drive. EVs were so popular that between 1900 and 1912, electric vehicles made up a third of all vehicles on US roads.
The early 1900s saw a shift in the automotive industry from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric vehicles. The advantages of electric cars included their lack of vibration, smell, and noise.
After many successful years of innovation and evolution in the EV sector, the electric vehicle began to decline in popularity. This is down to multiple reasons.
By the 1920s, America had invested in a much better system of roads that connected cities, allowing people to travel faster and farther. This created a demand for longer-range vehicles that could travel on these smoother surfaces with more comfort and safety. EVs at the time could not achieve this or meet the demand.
In contrast to electric cars, gas-powered cars became significantly cheaper after Henry Ford mass-produced internal combustion engines. In fact, the cost of gas-powered cars fell by half between 1900 and 1920. This was in part due to the fact that they were now being manufactured on an assembly line rather than being handcrafted. The other factor contributing to this price drop was that it was no longer necessary for people to buy their own machine shop equipment in order to make parts for their own vehicles.
The electric vehicle had all but disappeared by 1935, due to a lack of demand, incapability to go long range and the decreasing prices of petrol.
Eventually, automakers began to explore new avenues as the cost of fuel began to rise later in the decade. Gas prices in the US rocketed during the 1960s and 1970s, spurring interest in electric vehicles. In spite of this, electric cars produced during the 1970s were still unable to compete with gasoline-powered vehicles.
This was due to a number of factors: battery technology was not advanced enough to allow for long-distance driving; electric motors were underpowered and not yet mass produced; the cost of batteries was prohibitively high.
Over time, however, improvements were made in all three areas. Battery technology advanced rapidly from lead-acid batteries to nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries, which allowed for greater energy storage capacity. This led to an increase in power output from electric motors (Ni-Cd batteries are now prohibited due to the toxicity of cadmium).
Other big developments of this era include:
NASA helped take electric vehicles back to prominence in 1971. In the first manned mission to the moon, electricity powered the Lunar rover.
In 1974, the CitiCar was designed by Bob Beaumont and constructed by Sebring-Vanguard, a company he set up. The CitiCar was considered an environmentally friendly vehicle because it did not pollute the environment like other cars did at the time. It did not require fuel or oil changes, so there were no hazardous materials involved in its operation or maintenance.
It wasn't until the early 1990s that California's clean air agency started advocating for more fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles, such as electric cars.
1996: Car manufacturers were replicating existing combustion-engine models and making them electric to meet new demands.
1997: The first mass-produced hybrids also go on sale including the Toyota Prius and Honda's Insight. The Toyota Prius became a worldwide success, becoming a popular EV model amongst celebrities and high-profile individuals.
In 2004, Tesla Motors was founded by Elon Musk, who wanted to create a fully electric sports-car inspired motor. The company has continued to grow ever since, and it goes without saying that Tesla is continuously commended for their solid impact on EV technology.
How was EV technology developed over the course of the 2000s?
In 2008, Musk developed the Roadster as an answer to the limited range of electric cars at the time. It was fully electric and could go approximately 244 miles on a single charge. Other manufacturers began to develop their own vehicles in order to match up to standards now set by Musk.
Starting around 2009, as the world had begun to shift toward electric vehicles, manufacturers around the world began developing charging networks to accommodate drivers.
Nissan's Leaf went on sale in 2010, and it quickly became the world's best-selling electric car. Tesla added the Model S sedan, Model X SUV and lower-priced Model 3 to their lineup of electric vehicles.
In just a few years, we’ve gone from having a handful of models on the road to having an entire fleet of electric vehicles available to consumers. And while many people are still sceptical about whether they will ever replace traditional cars, it seems clear that they’re here to stay - especially with various fuel crises heavily impacting the availability and price of petrol and diesel.
As more and more manufacturers enter the EV space - and as battery technology improves - electric vehicles are becoming an increasingly viable option for consumers who want to switch away from gas-powered vehicles.
But what have we learnt about the past decade in the EV space?
By the end of 2020, over 10 million electric vehicles were on the roads worldwide.
Despite the Pandemic, electric vehicle sales grew by an average of 41% globally in 2020. This growth has been attributed to a number of factors, including the lack of gas stations and the fact that electric vehicles are generally cheaper to operate than gas-powered cars.
In the UK, 2021 evidenced that EV car registrations continue to climb exponentially year on year.
In May 2021, the UK Government announced that over 500,000 ultra low emission electric vehicles were being driven on roads across the country.
The announcement was made as part of a wider strategy to reduce air pollution in cities, which causes thousands of premature deaths every year.
This initiative has put the UK at the forefront of the electric vehicle revolution, with the government committing to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
Here at Allstar, we are focussed on helping our customers and the wider community with EV adoption. We achieve this by connecting businesses across the UK our growing multi-branded electric charging network. Our continued dedication and commitment to an all-electric future puts us at the forefront of the green evolution.
To accelerate your EV knowledge as the landscape changes and develops, explore our EV Hub.
If you’re a business owner or fleet manager and want to find out more about our electric charging solutions and how we can help you access efficient charging facilities and make your payments simple, enquire with us today.