It might seem like only a few years since the first electric cars went into production, and we’re still a long way from fully electrifying the public roads, but battery-powered vehicles are not a new invention by any means.
An electric two-wheel bicycle was exhibited as early as 1867, with a tricycle tested in Paris in 1881, and the first true production electric car was invented in 1884 by England’s Thomas Parker.
This might sound early, but it’s not that unlikely – there were electric trams around the same time, and electric minecarts that could be used underground without the risk of carbon monoxide and other exhaust fumes.
With the advent of the internal combustion engine, the relative limitations of battery-powered cars meant they fell out of favour, but even in those early days, proponents of the technology were concerned about emissions from combustion engines, and it is believed this may have been part of Parker’s inspiration too.
Electric vehicles in the 20th century
Following a 50-year gap, interest in electric vehicles was sparked again in the second half of the 20th century, and development has continued steadily ever since.
The US led a brief charge in the early 1990s, when the California Air Resources Board was keen to promote the uptake of zero-emission vehicles.
However, this came up against resistance from motoring manufacturers who were reputedly reluctant to see sales of petrochemical-fuelled vehicles fall.
As a result, in some cases they sold electric vehicles on a fixed-term lease-only arrangement, forcing motorists to hand them back when their contract was up, even though many would have preferred to buy the car outright.
Stronger support since the 2000s
In the early 21st century there has been stronger support for fully electric vehicles and good development in terms of the capabilities of pure EVs.
Figures from the US Department of Energy show that in 2011, only three fully electric production vehicles were commercially available, and none had a maximum range over 100 miles on a single charge.
By 2017, there were 15 fully EV models on the US market, with a median range of 114 miles per charge – and the best performing model, the Tesla S 100D, offered a range of 335 miles per charge.
It’s worth remembering that some EVs are designed as urban runabouts, so for example the 2017 smart fortwo Electric Drive Coupe could cover just 58 miles on a full charge, bringing the average down overall.
Are EVs here to stay?
To answer the original question – yes, electric vehicles are here to stay. Ongoing investment is creating the infrastructure to charge many thousands more EVs all around the UK, and you’re likely to see a public charging point in your main town centre car park or some other prominent location.
Fuels like diesel are under continuing pressure too, with an ever-tighter focus on emissions, and it’s likely that this will progress to petrol engines in the years to come.
Until then, manufacturers are working on a whole range of technologies, hybrid engines and pure battery-powered EVs, which is producing highly economical, environmentally friendly cars with the kind of range and charging infrastructure needed to finally make this 150-year-old technology the mainstream option for motorists.