History of the electric car

The electric vehicle, a journey through more than 200 years of history

Transport History Electric cars Sustainable mobility Electric mobility

Electrically powered cars have been on the road for almost two centuries, but petrol cars took the lead after World War I. After several changes and evolutions in technology, these vehicles are considered the next big step towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly urban mobility. After various changes and evolutions in technology, these vehicles are seen as the next big step towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly urban mobility. But why were they invented and how have they changed over time?

Today's electric vehicles make it possible to travel daily distances in the city and require recharging for longer journeys.
Today's electric vehicles make it possible to travel daily distances in the city and require recharging for longer journeys.

Electric cars came about as a result of a number of factors. One of the greatest advances following the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century was the railway, which facilitated transport over long distances. However, individual transport of people was still relegated to the use of horse-drawn carriages, which prompted industrialists and engineers of the time to invest time and effort in finding a solution. In addition, the 19th century saw a great revolution with the advent of electricity, which completely transformed industry and later housing, transport and public space.


The first electric car in history

Many advances and improvements led to the creation of the electric vehicle. One of the most notable figures in its history was the Hungarian inventor and engineer Ányos Jedlik, who created around 1828 the heart of all electric machines, the world's first electric motor, which he later applied to a small model car. At the same time, the American blacksmith Thomas Davenport built a similar contraption in 1834 that ran on an electrified circular track. However, it is the Scottish entrepreneur and chemist Robert Anderson who is generally referred to as the father of the electric car. Between 1832 and 1839 he worked on and presented a prototype that offered an evolution of a traditional carriage powered by electric cells.

Many models were developed in later years, but the limitation of the battery (which was not rechargeable) made electric cars impractical. The real breakthrough came in 1859, when French scientist Gaston Planté invented rechargeable lead-acid batteries, which meant that the vehicle did not have to be connected to the grid. From that moment on, it was possible to store the energy for the vehicle to run. Furthermore, in 1881, the inventor Camille Faure perfected the model to the point of increasing the charging capacity of the batteries. These advances enabled the French engineer Gustave Trouvé to present a tricycle powered by an electric motor at the International Electricity Exhibition in Paris that year.

In 1888, what is considered to be the first electric car appeared in Germany, the Flocken Elektrowagen, invented by the inventor and entrepreneur Andreas Flocken. It had the design of a buggy, four wheels, a 0.7 kW motor, a 100 kg battery and could reach 15 km/h. The automotive world closed the 19th century with a historic milestone: in 1899, the Belgian Camille Jenatzy broke the 100 km/h speed barrier for the first time in the world, reaching a speed of 105.88 km/h.

When did electric cars come into use?

Following the advent of the rechargeable battery, the electric car became a hit in the early 20th century in cities. The first commercial users were New York taxi drivers. Some historians estimate that around one third of the cars on the streets of the United States were electric in 1900, while some sources claim that these vehicles outsold combustion engines in 1899 and 1900.

Taxi drivers in other cities such as London and Berlin followed suit, as did large hotels, which had fleets of electric vehicles to transport their guests. Among the vehicles sold were the Porsche Egger-Lohner P1 and the Baker Electric, and among the manufacturers, Ohio Baker Electric, which had batteries designed by Thomas Edison.

Electric cars became the vehicles of choice, especially for the upper classes because of their high price. They were noiseless, gave off no odour or fumes to make the occupants dirty, their range allowed them to cover everyday journeys, and electricity was beginning to reach most of the world, making them easy to recharge. A 1911 New York Times article described them as the cars of the future and stated that even petrol car manufacturers were using electric cars for their own personal use.

Why did combustion cars take over?

La producción de los vehículos eléctricos alcanzó su pico en 1912, pero los coches de combustión interna empezaron a ganar terreno por varios motivos:

 Automatic start
Its main problem was solved: activating the engine. Previously, it was necessary to turn a crank to start the combustion engine, a tedious process for drivers, but by introducing an automatic starter, the driving experience changed favourably. 

 Chain production
In 1908 Henry Ford revolutionised the automobile industry by introducing the Ford T, a combustion car built on a production line system that made the final price considerably cheaper. In 1912, an electric car cost about USD 1,750 and a petrol car USD 650. 

 Discovery of oil reserves

The discovery of significant oil reserves around the world made gasoline an affordable commodity.

 Discovery of oil reserves

The primitive electricity generation and distribution infrastructures and the perception of the car's range as one of the key points when making a purchase, relegated the electric car to the shadows. 

Al finalizar la Primera Guerra Mundial las necesidades de movilidad aumentaron y el foco se puso en los coches de combustión.

The resurgence of the electric vehicle

Interest in this medium was revived after the Second World War, due to fuel shortages during and after the conflict. In France, the Peugeot VLV, the brand's first electric car, was introduced in 1941, and in 1947 Nissan exhibited the Tama, a small vehicle with removable batteries, in Japan.

However, it was not until the oil crises of the 1970s (in 1973 and 1979) that the electric car was considered again. This was prompted by an awareness of the sector's over-dependence on energy and rising oil prices. Some manufacturers began to revive models for urban commuting, such as the British Enfield 8000 and the well-known Citicar from the US brand Sebring-Vanguard, although with little production.

The modern electric car owes much to the EV-1 introduced by General Motors in 1996. With lead-acid batteries, this model offered a range of up to 160 kilometres and went up to 225 kilometres with nickel metal hydride batteries. But its run ended early, in 1999, when GM ceased production. The brand claimed that the model was too costly and unprofitable, and most of the 1,117 vehicles produced were destroyed.

Tesla picked up the EV-1 baton and in 2008 launched Roadster, a model that brought the electric vehicle into the 21st century. It included new lithium-ion batteries that improved the range to a previously unknown limit: more than 300 kilometres. All current electric cars use similar technology to Tesla's, and the improved performance of these lithium-ion batteries encouraged several brands to launch new environmentally sustainable models.

These electric-powered vehicles now make it possible to cover daily distances in the city and make it necessary to "refuel" on the road during longer journeys: some models can reach 400 km without the need to recharge at an electric station. The installation of charging points has been boosted thanks to the commitment of companies such as Iberdrola, which has reinforced its strategy through its Sustainable Mobility Plan with specific policies and actions to "mobilise" all the actors involved: administration, companies, car manufacturers... The potential improvement in batteries, the reduction in the price of this means of transport and the regulations increasingly linked to the energy transition, augur a promising future for the electric car.