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How We Got Here: A Brief History of Electric Cars

How We Got Here: A Brief History of Electric Cars

The history of electric cars is truly unique: unlike many other technologies, the path of battery-powered vehicles has been marked by highs and lows and unexpected turns of events. Despite various theories regarding the date of birth of the first electric car, many argue that the earliest electric cars on a small scale were developed between 1828 and 1832.

14 May 2024

The early experiments

Many scholars argue that the first electric vehicle was showcased at an industry conference in 1835 by a British inventor named Robert Anderson. Robert Anderson's vehicle used a disposable battery powered by petroleum. Around the same time, Hungarian scientist Ányos Jedlik and Dutch professor Sibrandus Stratingh invented two other models of electric vehicles. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Davenport, an American blacksmith, designed integral components of the electric motor, which proved crucial in the years to come.

However, vehicles of that era were little more than electrified prototypes, traveling at a maximum speed of 12 km/h, with bulky steering and limited range. In the 1860s, a French physicist named Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery, which represented a breakthrough for electric mobility.

William Morrison's attempts

It was only by the end of the 1880s that electric mobility pioneer William Morrison combined many patented technologies up to that point to create a more practical electric vehicle. Morrison's vehicle was a traditional "Surrey" carriage drawn by horses – popular in 19th century America – which was converted to allow for the installation of a battery.

Morrison's electric carriage could carry up to 12 people and had a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). After Morrison's electrified wagon debuted, some American manufacturers began to produce similar vehicles, making them increasingly popular in urban areas.

The decline of steam-powered vehicles

In 1900, 38% of all cars on the road in the United States were electric, 40% were steam-powered, and only 22% were gasoline-powered. However, steam engines quickly fell out of favor because they constantly needed to be filled with water, had limited range, and required a long starting time (up to 45 minutes).

Electric vehicles were easy to drive and were excellent for short round-trip journeys in cities. However, gasoline cars began to gain a growing market share, which had been limited until then by some flaws such as manual transmission, difficult engine starting (requiring a crank), and loud noise.

Soon, the situation changed: the widespread adoption of electric cars in the United States was limited by the lack of electricity in rural areas, the low cost of gasoline, and the lower cost of combustion vehicles. Batteries also became a limiting factor. They were heavy and required a complicated and lengthy recharging process based on fixed generators. The definitive turning point came when Charles F. Kettering patented an electric starter motor for gasoline cars, eliminating the cumbersome crank.

The gasoline car boom

By 1935, electric vehicles had nearly disappeared. Cheap gasoline and continuous improvements to the internal combustion engine hindered the demand for alternative fuel vehicles and cemented the dominance of gasoline vehicles, leaving electric vehicles in decline for almost 40 years. In the 1970s, there was a renewed interest in electric cars due to rising fuel prices. For example, General Motors developed a prototype urban electric vehicle, and even NASA conducted experiments.

However, electric vehicles still had several drawbacks compared to gasoline cars, such as limited range, low maximum speeds, and little consumer interest. The lack of public interest did not discourage scientists and engineers from experimenting. Over the next 20 years, automakers tried to produce models with satisfactory range and performance.

The resurgence of electric cars

One of the most significant breakthroughs was the introduction of the Toyota Prius, launched in Japan in 1997 (later sold worldwide), which became the first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. In 2003, entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors. Three years later, in 2006, the Silicon Valley company announced that it would start producing an electric sports car capable of traveling over 320 km on a single charge.

Tesla's well-known success encouraged many major automakers to accelerate work on their electric vehicles. At the same time, new battery technologies entered the market, contributing to improved range and reduced costs of batteries for electric vehicles. Interest grew over time, reaching two million electric vehicles in circulation by the end of 2016, a number that reached 16 million by the end of 2021.

Present day

The recent past is evident to all: more and more automakers have begun producing electric cars, technology improves year by year, and more and more modes of transportation – urban and otherwise – are beginning to have their electric counterparts. Companies like Plenitude and its subsidiary Be Charge are part of this journey thanks to a growing charging network that now counts more than 20,000 charging points installed in Europe and over 300,000 usable points through the app.

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