It may be billed as the vehicle of the future, but the electric vehicle has a history that goes back almost as far as powered locomotion itself.

In fact, the first electric vehicle was invented in the 1830s by Scot Robert Anderson and featured non-rechargeable power cells.

The US market saw the first electric car debut in 1890, when William Morrison introduced a six-person vehicle capable of travelling at 14 miles per hour.

And these were no fad — by 1900 electric vehicles accounted for a third of all vehicles on American roads. They were more reliable than steam-powered vehicles and less difficult to drive than gasoline-powered cars, which were noisy, required gear shifting — a very new idea at the time — and needed cranking to start their engines.

At one point in the early 1900s electric vehicles accounted for a third of all cars on the road. A Baker Electric advertisement for Life Magazine

Across the Atlantic, a then-unknown Italian engineer produced an electric vehicle in 1898. The P1 was a three-horsepower, 1.4 tonne carriage, with two-thirds of the weight taken up by batteries. It had a top speed of 33km per hour and a cruising speed of 25, with a range of 80km. 
In a clear a sign of the years of dominance to come, the P1 won a 24-mile all-electric race in Berlin by 18 minutes.

Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, invented in 1898, sat unnoticed in a barn in Austria for 100 years

Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the car at the age of 22, went on to make a petroleum-electric hybrid — a series hybrid drive in which the combustion engine drove the electric motors.

Electricity’s most famous innovator has a vision

Other famous names were also working hard to tap electricity for automation.

Back in the US, Thomas Edison was working with his friend Henry Ford on an affordable electric vehicle that would be priced at a similar range (then $US500-$750).

A prototype of the Edison-Ford electric vehicle was produced in 1913 and was powered by lead-iron batteries.

Edison’s vision, articulated to Automobile Topics in 1914, turned out to be very much ahead of its time;

“I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future” – Thomas Edison

The Edison-Ford electric vehicle in front of Ford’s Detroit Plant circa 1913. Source: Collections of the Henry Ford

That vision never came to fruition in Edison’s lifetime, and after $US1.5 million (the equivalent of $AUD52 million today) had been invested and 100,000 Edison batteries purchased, the plan was abandoned around 1915.

Ultimately, it was Edison’s friend Henry Ford, with his mass-produced Model T that really sounded the death knell for the electric car. At $US650 it was far cheaper than electric alternatives and better suited for a geographically dispersed US market. Electrification was rare outside major cities, and the discovery of Texas crude oil meant cheap gasoline was transportable to rural areas. With gas stations mushrooming around the country, the age of the petrol engine was at hand, and electric vehicles had all but disappeared by the 1930s.

Energy politics breathes new life into EVs

The Arab oil crisis of the 1970s restarted interest in the technology. With oil prices skyrocketing, the US Department of Energy was tasked with supporting research and development into alternative means of transport.

General Motors, with the EV1, and the American Motor Company produced prototype vehicles but they were hampered by both range and speed.

Innovation dwindled until the 1990 Clean Air Act and following Bill Clinton’s election, a Partnership for the Next Generation of Electric Vehicles was launched.

Toyota saw an opportunity to innovate and shift perceptions as a low-cost copycat car maker.

The company invested $US1 billion into the project and when released, the Prius attracted celebrity endorsement from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Rising oil prices during the first Gulf War, fuelled demand and more than 50 thousand Priuses were sold in 2004. By 2010 the company had sold more than 2 million vehicles.

Elon Musk with the Tesla Roadster on the day of the company’s IPO in 2010. Pic: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

“Boring but virtuous” was the image that dogged EVs for most of the 2000s until a brash young entrepreneur named Elon Musk decided to transform the image of the electric vehicle. Tesla’s original founders had worked on the EV1 and, appalled by GM’s decision to recall and destroy the car, convinced Musk to become an early investor. Not long after, he became CEO. With canny marketing quirks like “ludicrous mode” for high-speed acceleration, consumer perception started to shift away from EVs being the preferred vehicle of cashed-up, Chai-sipping hippies and towards performance car excitement.

Government intervention moves the market

Increasingly tight emissions standards on petrol and diesel engines in the EU are driving automakers to introduce more EV models. New rules voted on in January will require new cars to emit 37.5 per cent less carbon dioxide from 2030 onward.

China is already the world’s largest producer of electric cars, and by 2020 will mandate quotas for the number of EVs automakers must sell. Given that 26 million cars were produced in China in 2016, any changes to emissions rules in that country will cascade onto the global market.

But with so many EVs likely to hit the road in coming years, work is also being done to ensure there is a solution to both range and charging issues. In Australia, the Productivity Commission has declared charging stations one of its high-priority initiatives, forecasting that 30 per cent of all cars will be electric by 2040.

In October, a $15 million high-speed charging network linking Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney was announced, along with one for Perth’s north-south corridor.

The goal is for stations to be capable of charging an electric vehicle to a range of 200-400km in less than 15 minutes, sourced from 100 per cent renewable energy.

Both the Victorian and NSW Governments are co-investing, with fast-charging points planned for major regional corridors.

Designers are also excited by the transformative power of an electric drive train and are rethinking the way a car is made. 
At Jaguar, the all-new I-PACE has reimagined what it means to not accommodate an engine by dramatically expanding the size of the cabin.

In ranking the I-PACE in his top six cars for 2018, The Australian’s motoring editor Phil King, wrote that the car’s “cab-forward design tears up traditional Jaguar proportions but does so without denting the brand. It liberates exceptional cabin and cargo space. Its chassis is the love-child of the F-TYPE sports car and F-PACE SUV, neither a slouch when it comes to handling. That makes it a winner among the mainstream makers, with a worthwhile lead.”

Indeed, Jaguar is harking back to its racing heritage by launching an all-electric racing series, the Jaguar I-PACE eTROPHY series.

The eTROPHY races will be the official support series to 10 ABB FIA Formula E Championship races, held on the same weekends and on the same racetracks, with the first race taking place on December 15 in Saudi Arabia.

Across both the I-PACE series and the FIA Formula E, manufacturers are perfecting the performance possibilities.

With electric vehicles increasingly capturing the attention, and consideration of the public, the race to a cleaner, quieter driving future has well and truly begun.

Extracted from The Australian