Electric cars: a revisit from history

Neelesh Vasistha Jan 14, 2021 · 5 min read

Hey. You there — how do you imagine the past? No, not one event, but the march of history. The picture most of us have; a linear timeline ascending into the present, is but one of many. Ancient cultures, alternatively, saw time as cyclical —with good and bad times repeating themselves like seasons. I mention this to warm the oven for our main message: electric cars aren’t a flower of modern times. They existed almost 200 years ago. In this article, we peek through a time tunnel at their birth, demise and return.

19th century: the conception

Just like today, the first electric car suggested an alternative. For centuries, the main form of transport was the trusted horse and carriage. Artifice powered by nature. But in the 1830s, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson took the first lunge at conceiving the electric car. Aiming to eliminate the horse altogether, he strapped a battery and motor onto a carriage. The result was crude, but the concept was groundbreaking.

The ball was picked up again half a century later, by another Scotsman William Morrison. He developed powerful storage batteries and installed them on a horse-drawn carriage, attaching an electric motor to the rear axle. It was a success. Through various innovations, he upgraded it from a prototype to a drivable, and later raceable model. It graced a city parade in 1888, and caused tailcoated commotion at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. Around the same time, and across the ocean, one company operated a fleet of electric taxis for on the streets of London, a venture that lasted two years.

By the end of the century, electric cars had soared in popularity, offering an attractive, clean and quiet driving experience compared to other automobiles, while not requiring tiresome hand-cranking to start. These graces meant electric cars were marketed toward luxury consumers, and women in particular.

Early 20th century — the (first) glory years

By the turn of the century, every third car on the road was electric; with almost 34,000 registered in the US. Innovators were leaping onto this trend, including legendary inventor Thomas Edison, who claimed it to be the future. It was also around this early time that the world’s first hybrid car was invented; the Porsche Mixte, powered by both battery and engine.

While the sweep of electric cars was slowed by limited power infrastructure, many homes were wired for electricity by 1912. This enabled a surge in popularity. Most electric cars remained deluxe toys for wealthy customers, and featured palatial carriages. By the early 1910s, sales of electric cars had peaked.

1920’s onward — decline and flickering resurgence

While the electric car flourished, it was soon to be outstripped by its gas-powered cousin. Ford’s mass-produced Model T, later crowned car of the century, made gas-powered cars widely available and affordable. In 1912, the electric starter was added, lifting gas-powered vehicle sales even higher. The discovery of cheap Texas crude oil hastened the inevitable and by 1935, electric cars had all but disappeared. Gasoline had won.

In the age of motoring that followed, characterized by mass production and an explosion of consumer choice, gasoline cars became the standard vehicle type. Gas was so cheap and abundant that there was little demand for alternative fuel. Electric cars fell from mainstream consciousness into the eccentric realm of low-performance vehicles like milk floats, or hobbyist car builders. Some manufacturer interest murmured over the decades, but this rarely boiled over into production. Notable, however, is a brief spike in the 1970s, with the rollout and modest success of the Citicar, as well as a breath of attention around the electric lunar rover.

It was in the 1990’s, however, that consumer interest began to churn — prompting carmakers to make dolly steps into electric transport. Out of this era came the first mass-produced electric cars: the Chrysler TEVan and the GM EV1. Indeed, with its futuristic tadpole shape, the EV1 had potential to father a new lineage of electric cars. GM however, discontinued the car in 2002, withdrawing all models from the road, and crushing them. This drastic discontinuation will forever be stapled to EV1’s legacy, with many claiming GM ‘killed’ the car to protect oil interests.

Conspiracies aside, the electric car market remained small, and the technology primitive. Nevertheless, these cars were the first rays of a new dawn in electric vehicles.

21st century — resurgence

At the turn of the millennium, growing public awareness of a climate emergency created a coalescence of scientific, social and political movements. The electric car, once a luxury alternative, was resurrected as an imperative symbol of the war against climate change.

Manufacturers fed this public appetite for renewable energy. While electric vehicles have been plagued by sticky concerns about charging viability and range, these issues are currently shrinking through a combination of better designs and infrastructure. For the average consumer today, electric cars present a realistic alternative. This also reflects in sales, which have been on a steepening climb for a decade. There will be an estimated 23 million electric cars on the road by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. The resurgence is also propelled by a coalition of government initiatives: more than 14 countries have made ambitious promises for the mandated phaseout of fossil-fuel cars.

But while the future for electric vehicles looks bright, we must adjust expectations for the developing world. Over a third of the world’s population lives in India and China; two giant industrializing countries that depend overwhelmingly on ‘dirty’ power. Transitioning to electricity would require colossal investment in power infrastructure, without mentioning the vast electricity then needed to satiate new demand. For the time being, it is the developed world that is leading the electric car revolution.

A comeback story

For a symbol of sleek, green modernity, electric cars are anything but modern. They existed two centuries ago, not as a dusty blueprint in a prescient inventor’s workshop, but as popular production models that thousands of people enjoyed.

But the timeline, in this case, isn’t linear. After their stumbling demise at the hands of gas, electric cars have bubbled back to our society’s surface. However, they now have the thrust of the environmental revolution behind them. Although it might take a while for gas-powered cars to disappear entirely, demand for alternative transport is unstoppable, fanned by both national and consumer action. It seems that this time around, the electric car is here to stay.