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A bite-sized history of the electric car

Coming at you with a quick Friday history lesson that looks at the evolution of electric vehicles – from the very first invention of an electric motor to the multi-billion dollar success of Tesla.  

Here we go: In the 1800s, Hungarian engineer Ányos Jedlik started experimenting with, what he called “lightning-magnetic-self-rotors”, which resulted in the invention of the first electric motor in 1828, functional enough to power a small model car. You can actually find it at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest – it still works perfectly.

Then, a few years later in 1837, Scottish chemist Robet Davidson built the first known electric locomotive, powered by galvanic cells (i.e. batteries). Werner von Siemens – yes, the founder of multinational conglomerate Siemens – started playing around with the same concept and presented the first electric passenger train in 1879. (Fun fact: he also built the world’s first electric elevator).

However, it wasn’t until the invention of the lead-acid battery, which was the earliest type of rechargeable battery, that electric cars started coming into action. In 1880, French engineer Gustave Trouvé took the small electric motor developed by Siemens and, using this new rechargeable lead-acid battery, fit it to a tricycle – et voilà – the world’s first electric vehicle was born.

The electric movement quickly reached the UK, where English inventors began creating more prototypes for electric cars until the late 1890s, when interest in motor vehicles really took off. From battery-powered taxi cabs to city cars, electric vehicles became all the rage and preferable over their noisier, smellier gasoline counterparts. Sales of electric cars peaked in the early 1910s, with 38% percent of vehicles in the US powered by electricity.

But by the 1920s, things had shifted. After worldwide discoveries of petroleum reserves and the invention of the muffler, gas-powered cars became quieter, faster, cheaper to operate and able to travel long distances. When Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, initiated the mass production of these vehicles, it ultimately forced most electric car makers to stop production. (Ironically, Ford recently announced that they will sell only 100% electric cars by 2030).  

The speedy development of internal combustion engines (ICEs) put a pause on major revivals within the electric vehicle industry and decades passed without much change. In July 1971, however, attention shifted once more as an electric car became the first manned vehicle to drive on the Moon – the Lunar Roving Vehicle, developed by Boeing and General Motors.

In the early 1990s, California’s Air Resources Board began pushing for more fuel-efficient vehicles in a bid to improve air quality. Controversially, automakers did develop electric models but failed to promote them in order to suggest that consumers were not interested – and went so far as to join oil industry lobbyists in actually protesting the Air Resource Board’s initiative.

While consumers became more aware of the impact of ICEs on air quality, two major inventions led to what we now know as our modern electric road vehicles: the MOSFET (a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor, which essentially had much higher switching speeds) and the lithium-ion battery, which had longer charge retention. Combined, these two technologies meant that electric cars were now fast, cheap, easy to drive and capable of long-distance travel.

Then came Tesla. In 2008, Tesla Motors began selling the first highway legal serial production of an all-electric car using lithium: the Roadster, which became a catalyst for the 21st century demand for electric vehicles.

And so the race began: by February 2011, the Mitsubishi i MiEV became the first electric car to sell more than 10,000 units; by September 2013, Tesla’s Model S and the Nissan Leaf became the best selling cars in Norway for two months in a row and three years later, in 2016, cumulative global sales of pure EVs passed the 1 million unit mark. In early 2020, Tesla’s Model 3 became the world’s best selling electric car ever.

So here we are in 2021 – a crucial moment in history that, in the light of climate change and global warming, requires us to completely re-examine our relationship with our vehicles and asks us to make cleaner, greener choices when it comes to our transport options.

It looks like, for the time being, electric vehicles are here to stay, with the UK government banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and introducing financial incentives as well as Clean Air Zones to encourage a faster switch to electric, while global carmakers are partnering up to reduce the cost of developing new electric models. We’re excited to see what’s next.

You can find out more about going electric with Karshare here.