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What’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you think ‘electric vehicle’?
Expensive? Eco-friendly? Sleek?
Have you ever thought, “Hmm, that’s from a couple of hundred years ago,”?
Today a beacon of clean energy transportation and, for the most part, an item of high-end luxury, the electric car had very humble beginnings in the 1800s. Over the next nearly 200 years, it faced recognition, rejection, resistance and almost disappearance. But it survived and evolved into a full-fledged industry that has been recording quite an upward bent in its demand curve for the past few years.
So what changed? To understand that, we will have to answer a different question first.
Where & When Did Electric Vehicles Begin?
The concept of an electricity-powered vehicle emerged in the early 1800s, in more than one country around the same time. Hungary saw the first electric motor spring to life around 1827 in the hands Ányos Jedlik, who, about a year later, reportedly built it into a small car. Then, sometime in the 1830s, a Sibrandus Stratingh from the Netherlands built his own version of a tiny electric car, while 9th-century Scottish inventor Robert Anderson came up with the first crude electric carriage.
Around the same frame, innovators were experimenting with electric-powered rail cars. Vermont-based blacksmith Thomas Davenport built America’s first DC electric motor around 1834. Thousands of miles away, in Scotland, inventor Robert Davidson modeled an electric locomotive in 1831 which went on to become a battery-powered, four-wheeled machine.
Then, there was chemist William Morrison, who used his ‘secret basement’ laboratory in Des Moines, US, to build a prototype of an electric carriage in 1887. He went on to improve on his invention to finally come up with America’s first practical, multi-passenger-carrying electric vehicle.
Over the next few years, automakers in different parts of the world began coming up with their versions of electric cars. Ferdinand Porsche, who is now immortalized in the name of a beloved sports car, built an electric car named ‘P1’ in 1898, and then went on to develop the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle.
Canada saw the final product of its first electric car dream around 1893, a few years after attorney Frederick Fetherstonhaugh joined hands with engineer William Still and Toronto-based carriage maker John Dixon to come up with one.
By the 1900s, electric vehicles were a popular mode of transport and recorded significantly robust sales over the next decade or so.
A 1905 Hedag Electric Brougham (Source: Pixabay)
Electric Vehicles’ Rise To Popularity
At the turn of the 20th century, motor vehicles were gradually becoming the status quo among the wealthy, especially in the West. And they had options to choose from – the steam-powered, the gasoline-powered and the electric vehicles.
While steam engines had already been around for a while by then, electric car’s primary competition was the gasoline car, which had entered the market roughly around the same time. But with all its gears, cranks, noise and exhaust, people quickly moved towards the electric alternative, which was quieter and more user-friendly. The increase in electricity accessibility around the early 1900s gave electric cars yet another boost among consumers, so much so that even some prominent gasoline cars manufacturers reportedly opted for them.
Inventor Thomas Edison, known for his contribution in the field of electricity, had also reportedly taken an interest in developing a better battery technology for electric vehicles around this time. But then, Henry Ford happened…
Electric Vehicles’ Fall From Popularity
Reports have it that Henry Ford, the industrialist who founded Ford Motor Company, had at one point in the 1910s reached out to Edison to look into the production of a cheaper electric car. Yes, even then, EVs were an expensive thing. And that turned out to be its Achilles’ heel.
Ford first introduced gasoline-powered Model T around 1908. It sure took some time to catch up, but eventually, its affordability began pulling people away from the much expensive electric alternatives. Some reports note that back in 1912, Model T Ford was available for around US$ 650. An electric car, on the other hand, is said to have cost in the range of US$ 1,700-1,800.
An Old Model T-Ford (Source: Pixabay)
As for its drawbacks, the use of a hand crank to start up an gasoline car was eliminated by innovator Charles F Kettering’s invention, the electric starter. Gradual makeovers took away most of the noise and gear-related issues too.
In the United States, the discovery that drove the final nail on electric’s fall from popularity was that of Texas crude oil in the early 1900s. As gas gradually became more accessible and less expensive to people, the switch to gas-fueled cars came quite naturally.
By the 1930s, roughly a century after its invention, electric vehicles vanished from the limelight it once enjoyed.
Electric Vehicles’ Comeback
For the next roughly 30 years, the electric car remained in the shadows of its much-popular stepsister, gasoline-fueled vehicle. The Western world was enjoying the abundance of gasoline and easily accessible gas stations, while electric vehicles struggle to make a mark in terms of evolution.
But then came the oil crisis of the 1970s. Gasoline shortage appeared and prices shot up as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) declared an oil embargo in October 1983. The embargo was meant to hit countries that were believed to in support of Israel in the Arab-Israel war, namely Canada, Japan, the UK, the US, etc.
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Pushed to a corner now, developed nations began looking into alternatives for not only foreign oil dependence, but also for gas-powered vehicles.
As a result, major automakers such as General Motors, American Motor Company, etc geared and produced urban electric vehicles in the 1970s. But the reimagined 1970’s electric vehicle still fell short before the glorified gasoline-powered car, mainly due to its limited speed and range performance.
A booming economy and once-again lowered oil prices in the late 1990s saw a large portion of the population, especially the middle class, remain loyal to the gasoline car. But the oil shortage of the 70s had put a dent in the illusion that was the perfect gasoline-fueled car for some. A section of people became more aware of the impact of oil exploration and car emissions on the planet.
As governments, too, began taking the problem of pollution seriously and passed more laws to put a check on emissions, automakers got down to renovating electric cars once again to bring them up to the level of gasoline cars. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a handful of EVs already had much improved speed and performance levels. General Motors’ EV1, for instance, became quite popular among a class of users, but its sky-high production cost forced the company to discontinue the model around 2001.
While the masses didn’t show much interest in electric vehicles at this time, enthusiasts, including engineers and researchers, were laboring away behind the curtains to come up with a better electric car technology.
Electric Car’s Rise To Popularity Act II
Once again at the turn of the century, this time the 21st, electric vehicle saw its true resurrection. More than one automaker came up with its own version of the revived EV around the same time.
Japan saw the launch of Toyota Prius in 1997, which quickly became first mass-produced hybrid EV in the world. In the US, Honda launched Insight hybrid in 1999.
And then, around 2003, a small startup named Tesla Motors (now Tesla Inc) was born in the Silicon Valley, which changed the whole ballgame of the electric vehicle industry as we know it.
©Kalkine Group 2021
Through the following years, more automakers entered the EV industry while governments looked into the charging infrastructure. Further evolution in the engine and battery technology has helped reduce EV prices from their lofty heights, though it still remained outside the range of many.
But times are still change. Automakers are looking to go beyond the one-percenters and make electric vehicles more affordable for a larger crowd. At the same time, more consumers are seeking for ways to ‘dump the pump’ and switch to greener alternatives to travel. As the two parties continue to try and meet somewhere in the middle, it has been causing an upward bent in the demand curve for electric vehicles in the recent years.
A recent study by Deloitte found that battery-powered and plug-in hybrid electric cars together saw annual sales of a record two-plus million in 2019. The COVID-9 pandemic did make the automobile industry hit the brakes last year, but the belief is that the accomplishments that the EV market achieved in the recent years “offer hope” for the future, the study pointed.