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  • Jul 9, 2019

  • 7 min read


A history of the electric vehicle; from carriages to milk carts to Tesla

The future of transport is electric. The electric vehicle market is growing - slowly, maybe, but it’s one of the only areas in the automobile sector that is growing. More so, most car manufacturers have acknowledged this, and are slowly moving their manufacturing capability to account for this shift in focus.

Electric vehicle technology has made such rapid leaps, and it may surprise you to find out that their history stretches back as far as the development of the motor car itself.

Our team of electric vehicle specialists travel across the country meeting people interested in electric vehicles and answering their questions. One common misconception is that the electric vehicle is new, and somewhat unproven technology. This is very far from the truth...

Humble beginnings...

Electric vehicles have existed for nearly two hundred years, before Queen Victoria was on the throne. There’s no specific inventor as such, rather their development was the result of several curious minds experimenting with batteries and electric motors in the early 19th century.

One such EV pioneer was the Hungarian Ányos István Jedlik. Back in 1828, he built a small electric vehicle using one of the earliest electric motors. Between 1832 and 1839, a number of inventors in disparate parts of the world would - independent of each other - push the development of “electric carriages”. Similar cars were assembled by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh in 1834, and Thomas Davenport in the same year. Then, in 1837, Robert Davidson of Aberdeen designed and built one of the first electric locomotives. These initial vehicles were, understandably, quite rudimentary. However, over time, designs improved.

Electric motors found widespread adoption in the early twentieth century, particularly with trams, trains, and intercity vehicles used mostly by the upper classes. As the nation’s road network grew, people wanted to travel longer distances. Oil and its derivatives seemed a surer way of getting about, and electric cars began losing their appeal. When Ferdinand Porsche was cutting his teeth in high performance vehicles, his first attempt was the all electric P1 (as with all designs around this time, essentially a horse carriage with an electric motor strapped to the rear axle).

Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T (and its assembly line manufacturing process) in 1908 meant that the motor car, once the preserve of the wealthy, was now affordable. Early internal combustion engines’ drive systems were in fact pretty ungainly, with the crank system making driving a laborious (if not downright dangerous) process. But in 1912, Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric starter motor made cranking obsolete.

This, and the abundance of oil available for refinement, gave the internal combustion engine the clear advantage over battery-powered vehicles.

In the 1960s and 70s, as the issues over “global warming”, and the worries over the reliance on fossil fuels started, research and design crews started to look again at electric vehicles. The development however laboured due to issues of charge, range, and power; the technology wasn’t ready to catch up with what ambition there was, and there was no real economic push as a glut of cheap oil fueled the use of combustion engines. Meanwhile, electric vehicles were effectively consigned to more ‘pedestrian’ forms of transport, like milk-carts, golf carts and fork-lift trucks.

The electric vehicle renaissance

Interest in electric vehicles never died, but the potential benefits of electric cars became increasingly evident, in the 1990s, as warnings mounted over greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

An increasing number of global car manufacturers, including Toyota and Honda, foresaw an emerging market. They began developing electric cars and hybrids as a climate-friendly alternative to conventional vehicles, with varying success.

In 1997, the Toyota Prius became the first mass-market vehicle to promote electric drive and captured the imagination of the new generation of environmentally-conscious motorists (and Hollywood stars desperate to show off their green credentials). The Prius offered a combined petrol engine and electric motor. It was a radical concept at the time, but performance was comparable with petrol-powered equivalents, while offering considerable fuel efficiency, while halving CO2 emissions. It was a significant leap forward, and paved the way for the next generation of truly electric vehicles.

When Tesla unveiled its Roadster in 2008, it was the first production line electric car powered using a lithium-ion battery. Even better, it claimed to have a range of over 200 miles on one charge – more than enough for most journeys.

Tesla’s Master Plan was to launch the Roadster as a practical (but pricey) electric car for the luxury market, and then use the profits to begin work on a cheaper car, the Model S.

The final part of the Master Plan was to use the earnings from the Model S to fund an affordable, mass market vehicle. The result, Tesla’s newest car, the Model 3, shakes things up further. With a Real World range of up to 313 miles, the Model 3 proves lithium-ion battery technology is capable of incredible performance at relatively low cost. We’ve now finally seen the arrival on these shores of the Model 3, and the response has been pretty overwhelming. In just two years it has become the biggest selling electric car in US history, and we can't wait to see what it does over here.

As the second decade of the 21st century progressed it wasn’t long before other car manufacturers were clamouring to enter into electric vehicle territory. Nissan (with the incredibly popular LEAF, Renault, Chevrolet, BMW and, most recently, Jaguar have all started carving their share of this growing market, too.

While trailblazers like Tesla and Nissan made electric cars more mainstream, increased competition and better technology have driven down prices, and with Government incentives encouraging new purchases, electric cars are in a fantastic position in the UK. Although admittedly starting from a very low base, electric vehicle registrations have shot up exponentially over since 2013, from 3,500 to around 220,000 by the end of June 2019, and there are now over 16,000 electric vehicle charge points around the UK.

There is no longer a question of whether electric vehicles are coming; car manufacturers, infrastructure projects and buying habits. In fact, these super sleek, ultra-modern vehicles are becoming so much the norm it’s rather like the 19th century again!