The electric car is currently the fastest growing mode of transport on the planet. Drivers in their thousands are throwing in the keys to their diesel estates and petrol hatchbacks in favour of a zero-emissions alternative.
It may feel as if the electric car boom sprung from nowhere. World EV Day was only established in 2020 and charging stations have only begun to fill UK forecourts in the past couple of years.
In reality, electric cars have been around far longer than public perception would have you believe.
The Scots that started it all: 1830 - 1900
The story of the electric car begins in the birthplace of loveelectric: Scotland. In the early 1830s, an engineer by the name of Robert Anderson did away with his horse and fitted some rudimentary batteries to his carriage, powering the car. Behold, the first electric vehicle. Due to the incredibly limited technology of the time, the batteries couldn’t be recharged, consigning Anderson’s horseless cart as more of a novelty than a transportation device.
Cue another ingenious Scotsman: Robert Davidson, who in 1841 demonstrated an all-electric locomotive. With a top speed of 4mph, a range of 1.5 miles (before needing completely new batteries) and tow capacity of six tons. It really was a huge breakthrough for electric transport. This incredible piece of engineering garnered the unfortunate nickname of ‘devil machine’ from the local railway workers - who destroyed it after declaring it a threat to their jobs maintaining steam engines.
By 1859, batteries finally became rechargeable. This sparked inventors' imaginations across the globe and encouraged over three decades of advancements. In 1890, the chemist William Morrison (another Scot!) submitted a patent in the US for the world’s first ‘proper’ electric car.
It was front-wheel drive, had a purported top speed of 20mph and gained a blistering 4 horsepower from its 24-cell battery pack. The range was the most impressive milestone. Morrison’s vehicle could go 50 miles before needing recharging. These performance figures made the electric car a viable transportation option - for the wealthy at least - leading to an automotive arms race in the early 1900s.
Steam v. gasoline v. electric: 1900-1908
With a new century ushered in, the next 10 years became a battle of which fuel source would power personal transportation.
The most familiar source was steam. Coal had been a reliable producer of energy for centuries, powering hulking locomotives across the railways of the developed world. There was quite a drawback for steam-powered transportation however - it wasn’t the most time efficient.
To create enough steam to get the vehicle moving it needed to be heated to around 480°C. On brisk winter mornings in the depths of England, this process could take up to 45 minutes. This may have been a manageable timeframe if it was then able to achieve an incredibly long journey. But the necessity of refilling with water severely limited the range.
The public discourse of comparing gasoline-powered vehicles and electric cars was much the same in the early 1900s as it is today: noise, pollution and range.
Through consistent developments in the internal combustion engine, even the earliest examples were able to utilise a relatively small amount of fuel for a far longer journey. However, petrol cars of the era weren’t without their drawbacks.
Firstly, they were incredibly complicated to drive. Gear-changes required a large amount of manual effort to complete and the noise they produced was untenable for many. A serene countryside setting would quickly become a burbling cloud of noise and pollution if a petrol car clattered through.
The biggest barrier of all though was the starting procedure: a hand crank. In order to get the engine turning over, the driver would have to physically crank it using a metal bar. Unfortunately this often led to broken thumbs.
Electric cars however, were simple, clean and quiet. They became extremely popular within urban environments and upper-class women, mainly due to the omission of a manual hand crank start. Engineers at the time recognised the potential for a smoother, smarter way to travel and set to work.
One of these engineers was Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, the Porsche. Ferdinand created the Porsche P1 in 1898. The world-leading sports car brand’s first ever vehicle was an all-electric car. An incredibly compact electric drive gave the P1 around 3hp. It was, however, fitted with what was essentially a ‘sports mode’. This upped the output for a short while to 5hp and an accompanying max speed of 35kph. Achieving a range of 80 kilometres was impressive too, especially with the limitations of the technology at the time.
McLaren has stated its contemporary bonkers hybrid-hypercar earnt the ‘P1’ namesake from the company’s involvement in Formula 1. But - knowingly or otherwise - the British automaker has continued the legacy of the P1 name, a model designation with an incredibly long and steeped history in electrified powertrains.
Shortly after the P1, Porsche turned his attention to combining the efficiency of the electric motor and the power of the petrol engine. In 1900, the world’s first functional hybrid car was unveiled. Named the ‘Semper Vivus’ - latin for ‘always alive’ - the vehicle used its onboard combustion energy to power a generator, feeding the electric motors with more energy. Although a successful use of the burgeoning tech, the vehicle struggled with a very familiar issue that still plagues electric cars today: weight. The hi-tech Porsche weighed nearly two tonnes, which may be a manageable weight today - but was completely impractical then.
With a multitude of the automotive industry’s finest collaborating and developing electric cars, it looked likely that the emerging battery-tech would prevail. However it wasn’t meant to be, with one man stopping the all-electric dream dead in its tracks.
The Rise of Motor City: 1908
In 1908, the popularity of the electric car took a steep nosedive - all thanks to Mr. Henry Ford. The introduction of the Ford Model T revolutionised personal transport and dashed any hopes of an electric car renaissance.
What set the Model T apart from its petrol-powered predecessors was twofold: design improvements and manufacturing technique.
Thanks to an inventor by the name of Charles Kettering, the electric starter motor became widely available for use within motor cars. This eliminated the need for a hand crank and vastly improved their popularity.
More importantly though, was the introduction of the moving assembly line. Henry Ford’s chief motivation was to create a car that could be bought by the very workforce assembling it. But to achieve this, manufacturing costs had to be kept to a minimum.
A bare chassis would move along the production line to specific stations. At those stations were piles of key components and parts. Workers would continue to add to the vehicle at their specified stations until the Model T was fully built. This allowed a Model T to be assembled - start to finish - in only 90 minutes. This was a revolutionary technique in time and cost savings. This system of production was so efficient in fact, that it became the production blueprint for the contemporary automotive industry.
By 1912, motoring was for the masses. Thanks to the huge manufacturing advancements and refinements in tooling, a gasoline car cost around $650 ($19,500)* to purchase. Whereas an electric roadster was $1,750 ($52,370)*.
*(Numbers in brackets demonstrate figures adjusted for inflation)
Aside from the stark contrast in price, electric vehicles began to become a - literal - vehicle for reinforcing gender norms. Due to the limited range, cleanliness and simplicity, EVs were heavily marketed toward women. The distinction between electric and petrol-power quickly grew, with a NY Times reporter finally surmising in 1909 that an “electric car…is essentially a ‘woman’s car”.
With men holding economic capital and thus purchasing power, the scales quickly tipped in favour of internal combustion. Before long, electric cars faded into novelty and irrelevancy.
Detroit remained the home of automotive production for decades and by 1950, it had a population of 1.5million with over 296,000 manufacturing jobs. The desire for gas-guzzling, cheap-to-produce automobiles culminated in the 60s with the introduction of the muscle car.
From producing one iconic vehicle to another, Ford unveiled the Mustang - a car that epitomised the public consciousness of the time. Just like its forefather - the Model T, a brand new ‘64 Mustang was priced for the mass market at around $21,000 (adjusted for inflation). Powering it was a giant thumping V8: 289 cubic inches of all-American cast-iron. Petrol remained cheap, so the 16.6mpg figure wasn’t much of a consideration for the average motorist.
The fires of Detroit’s automotive factories roared on for another decade or so until geopolitical influences distinguished those flames of oily optimism.
Clean Air Act & Global oil crisis: 1970-1975
By the 1970s, the cultural landscape was vastly different to the decade preceding it.
In 1970, US Congress passed the Clean Air Act which required a 90% emissions reduction in all new automobiles produced from 1975 onward. The EPA was also established and given the responsibility for regulating pollution from all motor vehicles. The new standards are implemented across the board and compel the automotive industry to drastically innovate.
Problems in the Middle East also lead to a huge energy crisis, culminating in the Arab oil embargo of 1973. In response to the West’s support of Israel against Egypt, the price of crude oil rocketed, quadrupling from $3 per barrel to $12 by 1974.
Suddenly gas-guzzling V8s were no longer viable ‘everyman’ cars and miles-per-gallon figures mattered. But Detroit’s Big Three - Ford, Chrysler and General Motors - couldn’t respond fast enough and the age of the big, inefficient, carburetted engine was facing obsolescence.
With efficiency the main focus, Japanese automakers swooped in. For decades, the Japanese Government had been investing huge swathes of public money into companies such as Toyota and Nissan. The result was a hugely efficient manufacturing process and incredibly reliable cars. To achieve this, Japan’s engineers borrowed the best ideas from the leading OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers; automakers) of other countries. For example, they replaced Britain’s notoriously abysmal electrical systems with refined and well-engineered domestic alternatives.
Conversely, Detroit’s manufacturing process had become convoluted, bloated and inefficient - at complete odds with Henry Ford’s original concept. Order sheets could run into the dozens which was a nightmare for the production line. To keep production as efficient as possible, Japanese manufacturers offered a limited amount of options and colours, drastically reducing the time and cost to build a car. In short, Japanese cars were far more refined, infinitely more reliable and competitively priced.
As a result, Western markets were flooded with Japanese cars, snuffing out the once dominant power of Detroit.
Surprisingly - or maybe not so surprisingly - the global fuel crisis and introduction of stringent emissions regulation, did little in the way to buoy the popularity of electric cars. Quite the opposite in fact. Even with the sanctions and exorbitant fuel prices, liquid black gold and internal combustion won out again. The Government continued to subsidise the petro-chemical industry and public interest in electric cars and battery technology waned once more.
But whilst the automotive industry floundered, research into battery technology surged and before long a huge breakthrough was achieved.
Lithium-ion battery breakthrough: 1973 - 1991
Electric cars still faced big limitations that prevented mass-market uptake - the largest of which was battery technology. There just weren’t any batteries available that had a large enough capacity, were stable enough and could be recharged, severely limiting the viability of a commercial electric vehicle.
However, in 1973, the chemist M. Stanley Whittingham and a team of colleagues made the most important technological breakthrough in relation to electric vehicles - the rechargeable lithium battery.
Whilst working for Exxon - one of the globe’s largest oil and gas corporations - Whittingham experimented with using titanium disulfide and lithium metal as the electrodes for a battery. Initial tests were successful; the battery had a modest capacity but could also be recharged. Unfortunately, they were extremely unstable. Often prone to sudden combustion and short-circuiting, Exxon halted the project.
John Goodenough further researched the technology. In 1979/1980, Goodenough discovered a cobalt oxide cathode that allowed voltage to pass through at a higher rate and was more stable than Whittingham’s earlier prototypes. But it still wasn’t to be. Cobalt wasn’t a financially viable material to implement on a commercial scale, reducing its practical application.
The battery-baton was finally handed off to Akira Yoshino. To increase stability and reduce cost, he changed the battery’s anode to petroleum coke. This proved to be the final discovery needed and Yoshino went into the history books as the creator of the world’s first lithium-ion battery. Using Yoshino’s design, Sony released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991 - revolutionising personal technology and transport for decades to come.
Electric Car Trailblazers: 1996-2018
With fully rechargeable lithium-ion batteries available for commercial usage, the auto-industry began to heavily invest in all-electric transportation.
General Motors EV1: First produced in 1996
The GM EV1 was the first ‘proper’ all-electric car from a major industry stalwart and was intended to revolutionise the OEM’s automotive line-up. Considering the limited technology of 1996, it actually housed some rather impressive features.
Most notable of which was the inductive charging panels. No messy cables or plug-types to worry about, just a simple paddle at the front of the car and charging commenced. Range wasn’t great in the earliest models - a light-footed driver could maybe eke out 100 miles from a single charge - but it was a major statement of intent from America’s biggest carmaker.
Although, they weren’t actually available to buy. General Motors only made the EV1 available for leasing, which at $399 per month ($753 when adj. for 2022 inflation) wasn’t the cheapest option. But it was incredibly aerodynamic and marked a significant milestone in the electric car pantheon. Good luck trying to get hold of one though as GM crushed most of them after the project was canned. Shame.
Toyota Prius: Released 1997
Although much maligned by many motorists, the Prius is the first example of a car with an electrified powertrain to reach huge mainstream popularity. It is of course a hybrid. But hybrid technology allowed the idea of electric cars to be introduced to the average motorist.
Winning Japan’s car of the year in 1998, the Prius (Latin for ‘to go before’) was an instant success in its home country - by 2000, more than 40,000 units had been sold.
Its hybrid technology allowed a theoretical range of 560 miles with a combined fuel economy of 57.6mpg, making it far more economical and green than any of its direct competitors. The Prius was also the first car to be sold in Europe with a five-year mechanical warranty. To bolster its green credentials, Toyota committed to recycling any Prius at the end of its life as well.
The runaway success of this humble hybrid proved to the world a thousand times over that cars need not rely on fossil fuels alone.
But there were still two large factors that restricted the mass adoption of all-electric cars. The first, was an image problem. Cars like the G-Wiz and Citicar had done little for the desirability of an electric car. They were small, utilitarian and slow. Secondly, range was still pretty abysmal. A G-Wiz for example, had an official range of 50 miles - although drivers were hard-pressed to get anywhere near that figure on the road.
Then one car changed it all.
Tesla Roadster: Released 2008
Enter stage left: the Tesla Roadster. A slick looking, two seater sports car à la the Lotus Elise with a headline-grabbing range of 245 miles from a single charge.
Brainchild of billionaire Elon Musk, the Tesla Roadster wasn’t just good ‘for an EV’ - it was great, full stop. It had performance figures that rivalled even the most premium of petrol-powered sports cars. 0-60mph took 3.7s with a top speed of 125mph. These were impressive stats made all-the-more impressive by the Roadster producing zero-tailpipe emissions.
It cost circa. USD$110,000 to buy and there were only around 2,400 ever sold. But the Tesla Roadster represented what electric cars could be: desirable and practical. Tesla knew the Roadster wasn’t a car for the masses, but it served as the genesis for the electric cars that Tesla dominates with today.
Nissan LEAF: Released December 2010
The world’s first mass-market 100% electric vehicle. Released in December 2010, the Nissan LEAF offered emissions-free motoring to the general public and revolutionised transport forever.
Shaking the eccentric reputation electric cars had garnered, it was produced by one of the most reputable companies on the planet. The styling of the body was conservative but housed some of the best tech on offer: setting the air-conditioning from a phone, for example. With a range of 200km and a price-tag of £28,350 (£23,350 after the then-generous UK government grant), the Nissan LEAF was priced higher than its petrol-powered rivals - an unfortunate premium that electric cars are still subject to today.
Regardless of the price premium, the LEAF successfully changed the course of electric car uptake. The Japanese automaker worked closely with governments and electricity companies to develop charging infrastructure, too - enhancing the practicality and credibility of electric cars as an eco-alternative to traditional hatchbacks.
Horse-powered carts to high-horsepower cars: 2018-present day
Even with the introduction of the LEAF, electric cars remained a bit of an oddity. Although far more popular and the most practical they’d ever been, uptake remained somewhat stagnant.
Then over the course of 3 years, that changed.
In 2019, the UK had around 37,850 registrations of new electric vehicles. The following year, that figure had jumped dramatically - up to 108,000 registrations. Come 2021 and another 191,000 electric vehicles had hit UK roads. Why the dramatic surge? In November of 2020, the UK Government announced a total ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 - a hugely significant piece of legislation.
After the annual energy bill freeze, we briefly examined whether the increase in electricity cost would have an impact on EV uptake in the future.
Even taking into account the global supply chain shortage and energy crisis, it’s unlikely that electric car uptake is going to slow.
Models like the Mercedes EQE are pushing the upper-limits of electric car luxury, offering an enormous range of 385-miles from a single charge and stuffed with all of the best tech the auto-industry has to offer. Kia has brought eco-motoring to families, producing the practical and affordable Niro EV.
Soon, we won’t even make the distinction between the two: electric cars will simply become ‘cars’ and petrol-power will become a novelty for enthusiasts.
It may have taken over 120 years, but the age of the electric vehicle is firmly upon us. Electric cars are mainstream, range is constantly increasing and manufacturers are producing all-electric flagship models.
As a proud Scottish company, loveelectric is further emboldened to continue the story Robert Anderson began all those years ago. Our home soil is steeped in EV history. We’ll continue to serve businesses and employees alike, ensuring everyone has the chance to go electric in the easiest and most affordable way possible - via our industry-leading salary sacrifice scheme.
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