Back to the future - a brief history of the electric car

Earlier this month, there was a small flurry of headlines about the rapid growth of electric vehicles (EVs) – whizzing past the two million mark globally in 2016.

Before you get too excited, 2 million is very little compared to the total number of cars on the planet right now – it’s only 0.2% of total passenger light duty vehicles.

Still, that two million is 60% up from 2015, and as a lot of the press picked up, electric vehicles were pretty much unknown a few years ago (unless you count milk floats, lunar rovers and golf buggies…).

A few years ago, maybe, but go back further – a bit over a century, to the early 20th century – and things might would been a different matter. Because today we’re getting used to thinking about electric cars as the future but, once upon a time, that’s been true before too.

Look, for example, at this beauty. It’s a London electric cab from 1897.

electric cab 1897

The first electric cars date back a lot earlier, with small-scale models developed in Hungry, Scotland, the US and the Netherlands in the 1820s and 1830s.

The problem with the early electric car designs is that until someone had invented a rechargeable battery that you could store in the car and drive around with, they weren’t really all that much use.

Long before Elon Musk and Tesla, there was Thomas Parker and the Elwell-Parker Company which and sold electric trams, helped electrify the London Underground, and put the first electric car into production Parker tinkered with the more advanced battery designs available by the later 19th century, and had a marketable electric car in 1884.

By the turn of the century, electric vehicles could compete with petrol, horse and steam based options. In the US, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest motor car manufacturer in 1899. EVs weren’t the fastest, and they couldn’t go long distances without needing a charge, but they were quieter, smoother, and cooler (as in they didn’t produce a load of excess heat). They were, apparently, Edison's choice.

The cab company that owned the EV above had a fleet of over 75 cabs. In New York, the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company started with twelve Electrobats (the first US electric cars) in 1897. Two years on, and they had several hundred.

Petrol might rule in the countryside, and steam would take us up and down the country, but electricity would work for cities. Indeed, many felt it might do for a fair bit of inter-city travel too. As Alexis Madrigal puts it in his book on the history of US green tech, Powering the Dream, a betting man at the end of the 19th century might well have invested in centralised, electrical transport – something more akin to a fleet of electric Ubers or Zipcars than the oil-based model of personal ownership that ended up dominating the 20th century.

The big problem with electric cabs was that the batteries needed changing if they were going to compete with petrol-based equivalents. As Madrigal describes, the New York outfit cooked up an intricate design for swapping batteries in and out of cabs quickly, converting an old skating rink on Broadway into a central battery-swapping station. In London, a battery swapping station at Lambeth similarly employed a hydraulic lifting system, turning them around in a few minutes.

So where did the EV go? Was it just that petrol cars were better, faster, able to go further? Histories of technological choice are rarely so neat. It was partly improvements in the design of petrol cars, and a drop in the price of oil. It was partly that roads developed, and that people bought into an idea of independence that the petrol car offered (though that’s partly marketing and infrastructure – there’s a 20th century imagined future, as well as a very possible 21st century one that has a concept of EVs as freedom at its core). It’s also been suggested that EVs were seen as women’s cars, and the rather monopolistic zeal of some of the American electric transport entrepreneurs put people off, or led to bad business decisions. In London, the cab company had an expensive problem with tyres (amongst other issues).

Whatever the mess of reasons, in the 20th century, petrol-based transport was allowed to dominate, and we’ve built a whole load of our lives around that.

And why does this matter? Because transport is one of the things we need to electrify if we’re going to kick the fossil fuel habit. It accounts for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The figure is even higher in some parts of the especially polluting parts of the world, like the US or the EU.

Electrify a system, and you can feed it with a range of energy sources – so you’re options include wind, hydro, solar and nuclear, not just coal, gas or oil – whereas you’re a bit more stuck if you’re working with an engine based on petrol or diesel. We’re a long way from an electric plane – for all the hype around that solar plane – but when it comes to cars, buses and trains, that’s something we can get on with now. With increasing evidence of the dangers of air pollution caused by oil-based cars too, it’s about time we got a wiggle on