A History of Electric Vehicles and Where They May Take Us
Updated: Feb 28
A recent wave of electric cars is taking the world by storm, with Tesla, Nissan and Volkswagen leading the charge. New technology from the 1980s, along with the newly recognised need to become a greener world, has pushed the EV sector to the point where the internal combustion engine has become near obsolete. However, this method of transport has been around much longer than many realise, and the resurgence of these vehicles is only one part of the interesting story they have to tell.
First Electric Cars
Electric motors that could propel a vehicle were created by Ányos Jedlik in 1827, creating a tiny powered car the following year. This car couldn’t propel a human, with the first “real” electric car considered to be the Flocken Elektrowagen of 1888. It became one of the most popular modes of transport for the time due to its comfort and ease of use compared with a gasoline engine, with a fleet of nearly 30,000 worldwide by the end of the 19th century. While this may not be considered much by the standards of today, it should be noted that these vehicles were all made completely by hand, and with the Oldsmobile Curved Dash not coming out for some 13 years they were not mass produced.
These electric vehicles were popular with engineers and inventors of all descriptions. In fact, the electric vehicle held the first 6 land speed records, the fastest, La Jamais Contente, achieving 65.8mph in 1899, still before the first mass-produced car in 1901. Regardless of the positives, these cars were phased out in the 1910s due to the electric starter motor, and the lack of ease regarding charging electric cars.
Uses for these vehicles were largely similar to the uses of the modern day car. London had a particularly large amount of electric vehicles. Bersey’s cabs was a notable taxi service. They employed a series of electric cars to hire when all around were horse-drawn carriages.
Outside the realm of cars, the electric vehicle had several uses that are still used today, albeit in a more refined guise. The subways of New York, the London Underground, and the trams of San Francisco are all powered by electricity. The first locomotive of this kind was a Scottish invention of 1837. A larger version was made some 4 years later, the Galvani, and ran along the tracks to demonstrate its capability. It was later, however, destroyed by the workers as they feared it would make them redundant. A patent for the electric rails for locomotives was issued in 1840 in England. They were later used in coal mines to avoid using what oxygen was in there and prevented the deaths of many miners.
These initial EVs were all technically similar to one found in the modern day, however the same issues arose regarding the batteries. With the basic batteries for the time, many were not rechargeable, and the ones that were proved ineffective, and the internal combustion engine became much more widespread.
EVs of the 20th Century
The use of electric cars declined at the beginning of the 20th century, with large petroleum reserves being found across the world dramatically lowering the cost of gasoline cars. In addition to this, roads started to be made with motor vehicles in mind. This in turn would mean that cars could travel further, faster, and the slower EVs were left behind with their small range. There were, of course, still electric cars being made, and the idea was never completely abandoned. The electric car started to get more traction again in the 1960s during the oil crisis. Several manufacturers attempted different technology with batteries and charging, but none of them could create anything that could compete with an internal combustion engine. They sold some when using “gliders”, similar to how Tesla used Lotus gliders to make their Roadster, however these were in small numbers and they weren’t popular with the consumer and so the end result was to make internal combustion engines with less emissions using catalytic converters, EGRs and other emissions technology.
There were still many applications in which the electric vehicle was still used, many of which we still see today. The milk float in the UK, forklift trucks, and the famous New York Subway system. The New York subway has been in continuous operation for over a hundred years, with the only exceptions being in cases of evacuation or distress and has run on electricity the entire time.
The metal-oxide semiconductor field transmitter, or MOSFET, microprocessor was the catalyst for the information era we currently live in, and is the most widely made item of all time with over 1.3x10^22, that's 13 with 21 zeros at the end, made as of 2018. Along with this brought large advancements in electric vehicle technology. Faster chips meant a reduced power loss, the vehicles are easier to drive, and the ease of manufacture made them cheaper to make, and with the addition of the lithium-ion battery the range that they needed to become viable was readily available, so much so that the inventors of the LI battery, Yoshino and Goodenough, even won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in 2019.
Tesla, Nissan and Toyota all made great progress in making electric cars, be it plug-in or hybrid, with the Tesla Roadster being the first commercially available electric car that was certified as highway capable in 2008. Since then, the insurgence of electric cars for the sake of the planet has been a talking point across the planet. Many countries consider them to be a changing point in the way we commute. Initiatives to go all electric, government grants to buy electric cars, and many more besides. There are many benefits to electric vehicles for the consumer, with reduced running costs being at the forefront, other than in China, and the ability to charge while working or shopping reduces the need to stop for fuel.
The Tesla Model 3 is now the most sold electric vehicle of all time, overtaking the Nissan Leaf, and the first to reach over a million sales.
Away from the consumer, the realm of sports has started to move towards these vehicles, with Formula One making hybrid cars and Formula E being purely electric. Typically, the innovations made for these sports are created with money generated from the sport and implemented into consumer cars. We also see the return of land-speed record electric vehicles, now having their own category and reaching 341mph in the Buckeye Bullet.
In the modern day, electric vehicles are abundant. Going to any office block or shopping centre and you’ll see a collection of electric cars being charged. BMW, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and others are all producing electric and plug-in hybrids that have become a common sight, with 18.5% of all new registered vehicles being electric. Not only this, but data shows that the numbers are to increase even further, given that the number of EVs sold in the 2021 alone was more than in the 2016-2020 period combined, regardless of the global semiconductor chip shortage. New companies with designs for electric vehicles are born with high value; Rivian being worth nearly $60b after only making 1000 vehicles.
Along with this, Nottingham, Brighton, Blackpool, and a few others have brought back the tramway, a system of public transport used before the bus became popular that is halfway between a bus and a train. It can go through a town with regular stops but is carried along tracks by electricity, either overhanging or with an electrified rail. Trams, or streetcars, are quicker and more reliable than busses, with the additional bonus that they are more eco-friendly and can last for over 100 years in constant operation. In comparison, the oldest bus currently running in London is little over 20 years old. Trams were phased out as busses and cars became more and more popular, the last in Edinburgh being taken out of service in 1956, but the revival of these light railway vehicles has long been in question due to their resilience and larger capacity. Recent years have shown that trams are not only more efficient than busses, but that consumers are more likely to stop using cars and other personal transport in favour of using the tram, due to the reliability, speed, and costs.
Fuel cell electric vehicles, FCVs, utilize hydrogen to generate electricity. The use of hydrogen is controversial, given the nature of the element. While in use it is carbon neutral, the generation of hydrogen itself is almost impossible to make completely carbon neutral for widespread use of the cars. Hydrogen is generated either by electrolysis of water, creating hydrogen and oxygen, or thermolysis of methane, creating carbon monoxide and hydrogen. These both pose problems, not only with the vast amounts of energy needed to generate the hydrogen, but with the bi-products being poisonous in the case of thermolysis and explosive in the case of electrolysis. While many sources will state that no explosion takes place in the combination of hydrogen and oxygen within the fuel cell, the reaction between this two is explosive, releasing large quantities of energy as heat, light and sound. Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess expressed that "the physics behind [hydrogen vehicles] are so unreasonable", and that "you won't see any hydrogen uses in cars".
Other Notable EVs
It has been shown that there are multiple other uses for EVs, with locomotives and trams playing a large role here. However, the realm of EVs continues on through some of the biggest events in history. The Lunar Roving Vehicle is one such vehicle. The Lunar Roving Vehicle, or Moon Buggy, is perhaps one of the most famous vehicles in history and was created by NASA to work in a vacuum with low gravity. Naturally, this made electricity the perfect method, given the fact that even if there were air to cool an internal combustion engine, the high temperatures of the moon would render the radiators useless. Instead, 4 electric motors were attached, and the frame made as light as possible, to give the largest range possible. In fact, all of the landing vehicles and rovers sent to other celestial bodies are powered by electricity. Electricity is more reliable, as well as being easily powered by solar panels or other means, without adding additional weight during launch.
Other noteworthy EVs are the recent Solar Impulse planes. Solar powered aeroplanes with the ability to traverse large journeys generating their own power, the Solar Impulse II is the first solar -powered plane to cover the circumference of the Earth, taking just 17 stages to accomplish this feat. It is hopeful that we will see this on a larger scale in the future, and that we can stop using fossil fuel powered flight at all in favour of this more renewable and eco-friendly method.
To conclude, I would like to say that the current state of EVs is positive. While many may not be particularly well built, with Tesla being second from bottom in reliability surveys, this has failed to stop the consumer from wanting to buy more and more, and the carbon dioxide emissions being vastly reduced as a result. Continuing along our current trajectory, the gradient of users choosing electric vehicles should continue to increase and the planet healthier as a result.