Electric vehicle history (2)

Electric vehicles have existed for longer than most people think. They long pre-date petrol and diesel.

The first dc electric motor (1866). Pic: Siemens UK.

Following the discovery of the electric battery (by Allessandro Volta in 1800), and that a magnetic field could be obtained from electric current (Hans Christian Oersted in 1820), and the electromagnet (William Sturgeon, 1825), inventors worldwide sought to build an electric motor. They used two main approaches: rotating, or reciprocating like the steam engines of that era.  

The first realistically powerful rotating electric motor was developed in 1834 by Moritz Jacobi. By 1838 he had improved it to the point where it was powerful enough to drive a 14 passenger boat. Meanwhile (1835) Sibrandus Stratingh and Christopher Becker developed an electric motor but only powerful enough to drive a small-scale model carriage. The first electric motor patent was granted to USA’s Thomas Davenport. It had negligible power yet, to this day, most US sources wrongly credit Davenport as ‘inventing’ both the electric motor and electric car. It was not until 1866 that Werner von Siemens (in 1866) developed the basis of the dc motors still used today in some electric cars.

Electric vehicles were also hampered by the only realistic source of electricity requiring a constant supply of diluted acid. These ‘batteries’ (to some extent they can be seen as fuel cells) produced electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen.  They worked, but there is no record of them being used to power an electric car.

In 1859, Gaston Plante developed the first practical rechargeable lead-acid battery. Whilst bulky and heavy, such batteries enabled electrically powered vehicles to be practical. The first known major usage, however, was not until 1897 - with a fleet of electrically-powered taxis in New York.

The first electric powered taxi – New York late 1980s. Pic: taxifarefinder.com

Electric cars’ original acceptance was the turn of the 20th century. Most back-then were far quieter and smoother than the first petrol-fueled cars. Electric cars started instantly, needed no ‘warming and appealed to many in that no gear changing was required. There were even hybrids (in 1916, the Woods Motor Vehicle Company developed a car with both petrol and electrical engines). See also Electric Vehicles – Hybrids.

The market was primarily the USA but there was some usage in Europe. A fleet of electrically-powered taxis, designed by Walter Bersey, was used in London from 1897. They became known as ‘Hummingbirds’ – due their curious sound.

A London Hummingbird electric taxi – in use from 1897 for many years.

End of an era

A downside of electric vehicles of that era was that a lack of electrical control technology limited the speeds of early electric vehicles to about 30 km/h.  

By 1920 or so, the road structure (particularly in the USA) had massively increased – particularly inter-city. This required vehicles to have a range beyond that feasible from batteries, that were still of similar weight and size as 80 years before. Recharging facilities, however, were inadequate beyond urban areas. 

Meanwhile petroleum became so cheap that it enabled it to power cars and trucks more cheaply and over far longer distances than feasible electrically, and their mass production made them far more affordable. Within two years, Henry Ford’s introduction of the mass-produced model T car virtually killed the sale of the few remaining electric passenger cars.

Electric vehicles remained popular for use where only limited range was required. Particularly in the UK, for example, most milk delivery floats were electrically powered.

In the late 1950s, Henney Coachworks and Exide batteries developed an electrically-powered Renault Dauphine. It attracted some sales but could not compete in price with conventional cars. Production ceased in 1961.

General Motors EV1

In 1990 a mandate from the California Air Resources Board required the U.S.'s seven largest vehicle makers to have 2% of its products zero-emissions-free if they were to be used in California. Honda, Nissan and Toyota also developed zero emissions vehicles.

General Motors produced a so-called EV1 – that was supplied on a lease-only basis. Whilst customer reception was positive, General Motors saw electric vehicles as unprofitable and sought to cease production. The major US car makers accordingly (legally) questioned the California Air Resources Board’s requirement, resulting in a relaxing of the obligation. This in effect permitted the development and production of low emissions vehicles including, natural gas and hybrid engines rather than electric-only.

The General Motors EV1. Pic: Wikipedia

Usage of the EV’s made was discontinued in 2002. All those made were rigidly repossessed. Most were crushed. A few were given to museums etc but with their motors deactivated. The only one intact EV1 was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.


The right concept at the wrong time

The electric car (and truck) was essentially the right concept at the wrong time. It awaited control technology and lighter and smaller rechargeable batteries. Control technology improved dramatically but that of rechargeable batteries did not. As late as 1990, the size, weight and energy stored in a lead acid battery was much as in 1890! 

In 1996, the University of Texas conceived the lithium-ion battery. These batteries store three to four times the energy as lead acid batteries of the same size and weight and can release huge amounts of energy over a short time. They can also be charged at a far higher rate. 

Right now (2019) these batteries make it feasible to produce electric-only cars with a range of 350-550 km (dependent on speed) between charges. This is still borderline, however it is inevitable that battery technology will advance: 1000 km is already being seen as feasible. So too are 4WD off-road vehicles: In April 2009, Toyota announced it would have an electric-powered Hilux by 2025.

Further information

It is already totally feasible to use home and other solar (with and without grid-connect) to charge electric cars. Full details of this and associated battery technology are detailed on our companion site: solarbooks.com. For details on using solar to charge electric cars click here. Further articles on all aspects of electrics cars will be progressively published on this website. This will include details of technology and charging.

Books by Collyn Rivers

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