History of the electric car
An emissions-free adventure through the timeline of EV’s
I’m an ADI from Nottingham and I only teach in a fully electric Nissan Leaf. This series of articles explores the realities (no fairytale figures) of life in an electric car both as a driving instructor and for family use. For this article we’ll delve into the turbulent history of the EV and it’s recent modern revival.
We shall begin by travelling back in time over 100 years to the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. This is an era where electric cars are preferred over the combustion engine because they are quiet, smooth, easy to drive and don’t emit toxic fumes. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Ferdinand Porsche are among those who explored the development of car battery technology. This fascinating quote from 1902 by Thomas Edison gives an insight into the past of this superior technology :
“Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.”
So where did it all go wrong for the electric car? A medley of factors derailed the continued development of electric vehicle technology. The predominant influencing factors were the discovery of cheap Texas crude oil, the invention of the electric starter motor, the rise of the petrol station infrastructure and the success of the Ford Model T. Between 1900-1915 transportation was available in steam, petrol or electric and EV’s accounted for a third of all self-propelled vehicles. Sadly by 1935 electric car advancement had fizzled out thus depriving us of the benefits belonging to full technological development.
The Dark Ages
Cheap and plentiful fuel resources ensured a 30-year combustion engine dominance with the electric car subdued. Rising oil prices in the 1970’s provoked a brief renewed interest in EV’s marked by examples developed by various automakers, yet still plagued by 50-mile range limitations interest soon retreated. Between 1996-1999 General Motors produced the fully electric EV1 and the late 1990’s saw the success of hybrid technology from the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. Spurred on by environmental regulations battery and electric motor technology was in brisk development behind the scenes. Out of the blue in the early 21st century a small start-up company known as Tesla declared their intention to create a 200-mile range electric car. This moment would become the spark that propelled rival automakers into action, the vice chairman of General Motors recognised “that was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam.”
Between 2010-2015 the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and Tesla Model S led the foundation of the new breed of EV’s. Within barely a decade battery technology advanced rapidly with production costs swiftly declining. 2018 saw the achievement of 200-300+ miles as a new standard for electric car range and the same year marked a significant turning point as demand outstripped supply provoking long waiting lists and $300 billion of investment from manufacturers reacting to undeniable demand. Across the next 5 years, we will see the fruits of this investment as the infrastructure expands and economies of scale take effect. As of July 2019 the charging network in the UK exceeds 14,000 chargers and is expanding at an impressive rate of over 500 new connectors every month. EV sales are achieving exponential growth whilst the traditional car market flounders.
Let’s take a short step forward to 2030. EV’s represent over 50% of all new vehicle sales and every car manufacturer has electrified their entire range which has the side effect of bringing closure to the manual car. The National Grid continue their upgrade plans and the new battery storage technology coupled to the smart grid is beginning to address our historical power issues, for the first time we can now store excess energy and release at peak demand. Due to the final coal plants shutting down in 2025 the expanding renewables and nuclear industries allow for zero/low emission energy powering zero-emission vehicles. Our cities finally have clean, non-toxic air. The UK at this point has over 100,000 chargers (compared to less than 5,000 fuel stations) and 60% of the population doesn’t even require the public network due to having access to a home charger. The 300+ mile range EV’s exceed the daily needs of the vast majority of the population and regardless the network allows for 10-minute recharging. Car ownership is in decline as car sharing becomes more viable and we finally comprehend the inefficiency of 90% of our cars doing nothing for 90% of their life. The regulated closed loop system ensures the perpetual reuse of valuable minerals and all batteries undergo repurposing and recycling. New battery technology uses cheaper and more abundant minerals to drive towards a cleaner and more sustainable future. This near future is inspiring but Rome wasn’t built in a day.