The history of the electric car

Posted by Christian Pfäffli on

Electromobility, electric cars and alternative drives are currently on everyone's lips. But all these things are not new. Because a glance into the history books proves it: As early as 1821, people were already looking at the electric drive, which played a key role in the early days of the electric car.

At that time, Michael Faraday demonstrated how electromagnetism could be used to create continuous rotation. Almost ten years later, a wide variety of electric motor types and battery variants were used in various electric vehicles and table models. Robert Anderson is said to have built an "electric cart" around 1832. In 1839 he built the first electric vehicle in Aberdeen. Thus, at least over 180 years ago, it was already possible to electrify parts of the traffic

The first electric motor in a locomotive

But as early as 1834, the birth of a real electric motor is considered to have taken place in a locomotive. The inventor, Davenport, was still practising on a model. However, the first electric locomotive on rails was not long in coming: in 1851, it achieved a range of 31 km. However, it was not yet possible to imagine conventional individual mobility. The forerunner was an electrically powered tricycle, which was presented at a Paris electricity fair in 1881. A top speed of 12 km/h was reached with it. It became known under the name "Trouvé Tricycle".

The combustion engine, not yet an option

But what about gasoline as a means of propulsion? The "combustion engine" was not the focus of attention at that time, was perhaps not even known. Instead, so-called lead accumulators were used. These were used, for example, in the electric carriage "Elektromote" by Werner Siemens in Berlin.

Ayrton Perry, Jeantaud, Volk and Andrew L. Riker were other names that repeatedly made headlines in connection with their electric drive vehicles. In 1880, an electrically powered passenger car, manufactured by the machine factory "A. Flocken", hit the road for the first time. In the USA it was Morrison who designed twelve automobiles between 1887 and 1896. A maximum of 12 km/h could be reached with them.

Nikola Tesla lays the foundation

Nicola TeslaThe development of the two-phase electric generator from the pen of Nikola Tesla, who was born in today's Croatia, advanced the idea of the electric car at that time. Instead of using direct current, which had been used up to then, Tesla focused on using alternating current to transmit energy, and he also worked on the construction of suitable electric motors. By superimposing several phase-shifted alternating currents, Tesla succeeded in generating a rotating field whose inductive effect drove an armature. This resulted in the multiphase motor and, based on this, the multiphase alternating current system.

Today, Nikola Tesla is associated with even more than the inventor of the multiphase motor. He is also the name-giver of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, who has been considered a pioneer in the technology of electric cars for years.

Three drive systems for the future

In 1897 the founding meeting of the "Mitteleuropäische Motorwagen-Verein" took place in Berlin. There, its president D. A. Klose reported on three forms of drive and predicted the future of each. A distinction was made between steam, electricity and oil engines. Klose dared to make an assessment, according to which he saw the future of the type of propulsion with steam on the rails, the electrically driven vehicles on road tracks and the mass of people, i.e. the individual traffic, he saw best served by oil.

In any case, he was not allowed to be right until 1912 - electric vehicles were considered the most sold vehicles until then. In the USA there were already 34,000 electric cars on the roads and by 1939 there was an unbelievable number of 565 electric car brands.

First electric car-sharing approaches

In the USA, charging using electricity was considered too costly for private individuals and the rental of such vehicles was the preferred option. Service and maintenance also played an important role, which the car manufacturers did not want to see in the hands of consumers. The financial world was banking on the same card and bought up companies that were active in this field. They actively began to implement this and a network of service stations was set up. A project with taxi rides as its core idea failed due to financial and technical difficulties.

The decisive factor at that time was the insufficient range of the vehicles, which would have required far too many charging stations to make the profitable operation possible. In Europe, every few years a different country stood out with individual productions. At the turn of the century, the top speeds of these vehicles were already around 60 to a maximum of 105 kilometres per hour.

The USA around 1900: Alternative drives dominate the road

Around 1900, 40 % of steam cars, 38 % of electric cars and 22 % of petrol cars were on the road in the USA. In 1901, New York alone had 50% electric cars and 30% steam cars; the remaining drive systems were naphtha, acetylene and compressed air cars. Combustion engines were hardly noticed as an alternative. In 1912, the electric car wave reached its peak. 20 manufacturers put 33,842 electric cars on the road. In the meantime, however, the market share of electric cars was only less than 10%, as a total of 356,000 cars and 22,000 commercial vehicles were registered in 1912 alone.

What happened? The electric cars had to be operated with a crank. A constant expenditure of power and time. Added to this was the problem of the short-range. Two serious disadvantages compared to gasoline engines. Oil prices were also comparatively cheap. And demand determined to supply. The decline seemed to be unstoppable and already in the 1920s, motor vehicles with electric motors no longer played a serious role.

Cultural factors against electric cars

The advantages of purely electrified vehicles were already known in the 19th century. As is the case today, these are mainly in local transport. It was just not understood to use this chance consequently.

As a result, the Dutch technical historian and literary scholar Prof. Ing. Gijs Mom took the position that cultural factors, in particular, prevented the spread of electrically powered cars. No comeback despite oil price crisis In the 1970s, long after electric cars had been replaced by internal combustion engines, the oil price crisis occurred, but this had no consequences for individual mobility, at least in so far as people continued to rely on internal combustion engines and did not switch to electric cars. The oil price rose astonishingly in October 1973 from around three US dollars per barrel to over five dollars and a year later to over twelve US dollars per barrel worldwide.

As a direct reaction to the crisis, Germany passed an energy security law, based on which a general driving ban was imposed on four car-free Sundays and general speed limits were introduced for six months. Austria partly followed this approach. Italy went a step further, driven by fear of potential holidaymakers being lost, and subsequently introduced petrol vouchers to buy subsidised petrol.

E-vehicles will henceforth lead a niche existence

From then on, electric vehicles were a niche market. For example in local transport with small delivery vans, for example for the daily delivery of milk bottles in Great Britain. The transport of ice and fish in the fishing ports was also largely electrified because the use of combustion engines was not permitted in the auction halls because of their exhaust fumes. In the GDR, electric vehicles were put into operation in 1953 for the post office in Berlin. In 1974 an attempt was made in Amsterdam, Holland, to use an electric car-sharing system. The three-wheeled two-passenger car used achieved 30 km/h, and its batteries could be recharged at stations within seven minutes. However, since the response was not particularly good, this project also ran into the sand.

1990: renewed upswing

It was not until growing awareness of the problem and the consequences of the oil crisis in the 1990s that the advantages of electric drive systems were recognized. In 1990, California passed its first legislation requiring a certain proportion of production to be offered as zero-emission vehicles. This forced the automotive industry to produce electric cars. This pressure on the industry had an effect and technical developments began. Innovations in mobile phone and notebook batteries made it easier to optimise batteries.

The corresponding technology also found its way into the new e-autogeneration. However, as fast as progress came, it was slowed down again. After the California Air Resources Board legislation was relaxed, manufacturers stopped most of the production of the e-cars and stopped deliveries. Manufacturers indicated that production had been stopped due to "lack of demand" or because "spare parts supply could not be guaranteed".

Exhaust gas scandal makes a comeback

It is only in the last fifteen years that e-mobility has slowly gained a foothold again. It began in 2005 with a new generation of e-cars, such as the Tesla Roadster, the Tesla Model S or several small cars like the Think City, the Citysax and the Stromos. The alternative drive system was finally revived by the diesel or exhaust gas scandal, also known as Dieselgate, which forced manufacturers to act in order not to lose face in front of society.

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Since then, both long-established manufacturers and young start-ups have regularly come up with new e-cars, plug-in hybrids and vehicles with alternative drive systems.

(The original article was first published in Electricar magazine issue #1 // Sep.-Nov. 2019.)




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