A Brief History of Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for a long time. As early as the late 1800s, people have been tinkering with ways to make cars run on electricity instead of gasoline. A lot has changed since those first attempts at making an electric vehicle, but EVs still face many challenges as they try to catch up with their gas-powered counterparts.
In the Beginning
The first electric vehicle was invented in the 1800s. It didn’t have a driver’s seat, so it wasn’t able to go very far on its own. It could travel short distances, but not very far (about 6 miles per hour), because the batteries of that time weren’t powerful enough.
Regardless, the 1800s were a time of great innovations. During this time, Gustave Trouvé improved a small-sized electric motor first developed by Siemens, attaching a rechargeable battery to a tricycle—an invention of a British inventor named James Starley—and created what some would claim was the world’s first electric-powered vehicle. However, this invention was not patented, although it was successfully tested on the Rue Valois road of Paris on April 19, 1881.
In 1884, an inventor named Thomas Parker created the first electric car in Wolverhampton, England. Accordingly, England and France were among the first countries to support the development of EVs. In the late 19th century, electric vehicles became popular on the streets, setting many records for their speed and range.
In 1897, electric taxis, which were developed by an engineer named Walter Bersey, started appearing on London streets. Also, at this time, electric cars were fancied by the wealthy—they usually drove them around the city. For this reason, the limited range of electric vehicles didn’t present a significant obstacle.
The initial development of electric vehicles was hampered by the lack of power-supply infrastructure. However, by 1912 many families were connected to the grid, causing an “explosion” in the number of EVs. Accordingly, EV sales peaked in the early 1910s.
After the resounding success in the early 20th century, electric cars gradually lost their market position, giving way to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. With the expansion of the interurban road system in the US, people demanded greater and greater range. At this time, electric cars couldn’t meet consumer needs when their range was only 35 miles—with a speed of no more than 15 mph. Meanwhile, improved gasoline-powered cars could travel longer and faster than comparable electric cars.
The appearance of Model T would sound the death knell for electric vehicles. In 1912, the discovery of large oil deposits caused a reduction in fuel prices. At the same time, mass production also caused a decrease in gasoline-powered cars. The competition peaked when inventor Charles Kettering introduced a new starter kit, removing the crank on gasoline cars.
The Late 20th Century
It seemed that electric cars were doomed to fall into obscurity. However, the improvement of rechargeable batteries, the energy crisis in the 1970s– 80s, and climate change all led to a renewed interest in electric vehicles.
In 1959, American Motors Corporation (AMC) and Sonotone Corporation announced their research of manufacturing electric cars using “self-charging” batteries. That same year, Nu-Way Industries also introduced an experimental EV with a plastic body, which went into production in early 1960. In 1976, the passage of legislation on Electric Vehicles and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Performance in the US demonstrated the government’s encouraging acts toward EV development.
Since 1990, many outstanding battery inventions have brought electric vehicles back to the “vehicle race.” In 2004, the California automaker Tesla Motors developed the Tesla Roadster and started delivering it to customers for the first time in 2008. Accordingly, the Roadster was the first fully-electric car mass-produced using lithium-ion batteries. This new technology allowed the Roadster to travel more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) on a single charge.
After that, many OEMs entered the EV market with improvements in rechargeable batteries, vehicle range, and features. For example, the Nissan Leaf, first introduced in Japan and the US in December 2010 became the first fully-electric 5-door family hatchback. This was one of the first cutting-edge EV models to be launched to the mass market by a major OEM.
From 2010 to 2020, sales of plug-in EVs and light commercial trucks hit the 10-million-unit milestone. In early 2020, the Tesla Model 3 surpassed the Nissan Leaf to become the world’s best-selling electric car. According to statistics, in March 2020, the total number of these cars sold was estimated at over 500,000 units.
The 21st Century
Today, EVs are becoming more popular than ever. In fact, electric car sales have been increasing for the last decade. Today, there are more electric cars in the US than ever before.
To cope with unpredictable climate changes and natural disasters, many countries are now turning to zero-emission vehicles, joining hands to improve the environment. Hence, electric vehicles will become the mainstream vehicle dominating the future market.
Electric vehicles are likely to dominate the automotive landscape in the future. In the Global EV Outlook 2022 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) assessed that only a few clean energy sectors could be as dynamic as the EV market. Accordingly, global EV sales will continue to grow massively in 2022, with 2 million units sold in the first quarter of the year, an increase of more than 75% over the same period in 2021.
There’s a lot of history behind electric cars—and there are still a lot of advancements to be made. It’s important to keep in mind that electric vehicles are still a relatively new technology. Even though they’ve been around for decades, there still face many challenges
We hope you enjoyed learning about the history of EVs. We think it’s an exciting subject, especially as more and more people are beginning to drive EVs every day. There’s still a lot of room for innovation in this industry, which means there will always be new history being made!
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