The History of the Electric Car

Blog post posted on 03/09/21 |

As an Ambassador for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) who was drawn towards the excitement of land speed records and as a third generation of mechanical engineers, I have always been interested in motor vehicles. My STEM interest made me investigate the history of the motor car. At the start of the 1800s we saw the start of the horseless carriage and they were at that time operated using steam engines, then using petrol which was purchased through local stores. Starting a petrol engine and for many years thereafter, involved a starting handle being cranked while the driver adjusting the ignition and fuel mix on the steering wheel. Basically, a two-person operation.

This was not something that certain members of society, wanted to attempt and so a market for battery powered cars was created. Charge the lead acid battery at home, refit and just press the starter button. This was so much easier and did not require specific skills, no brute force or require two people.

So, what happened to the electric car? Quite simply as the market for the automobile grew, so did the demand for petrol, however it was only once a network of filling stations was established that petrol and in due course diesel engine vehicles started to dominate. The network enabled cars to be refuelled along the way and the vehicle owner was thus able to drive much further afield.

To move on then, by almost a century, America and in particular, Los Angeles, was experiencing considerable pollution due to the number of petrol cars on their roads so air quality regulations were introduced, and one enterprising automobile company spotted a gap in the market. If they could develop and produce a small battery powered car that allowed their customers to drive around town without causing any pollution a new market would be created.

In 1996 General Motors (GM) introduced just that vehicle and it was called the EV1. Only 800 were made and as it was thought people would be wary of how long a battery would last, they leased the cars. What then happened was the new owners were delighted with their cars as they were so convenient and could be charged overnight at home.

Coincidentally other car manufacturers were going in the opposite direction. California was the only part of USA that had introduced the air quality regulations and as petrol at the time was only 1.5 dollars, they decided to make a new type of vehicle that was big and brassy. The Sports Utility Vehicle or SUV was born, with big tax breaks as against the tiny allowances given for battery cars. The oil industry just loved it. The gas was ‘guzzled’ and the car dealers made more money from the bigger vehicles for service and repair. A win, win situation with no consideration for the environment.

At the end of the leases of the EV1s and perhaps not surprisingly, the owners were so delighted with the electric cars that they asked to keep their car and buy it outright.

By that time GM had different ideas, they refused to sell the cars, took them back at the end of the lease and every single one was sent to the crusher! Now you may ask why was this? As the EV1 was loved by the owners, surely, they could have just kept them, and everyone would be happy. Well, the owners would have been happy however the car industry and the oil industry had understood the possibility, if this little start-up had caught on, their lucrative business model and their engine, transmission, and replacement parts model, would be in tatters and ‘big oil’ would lose a huge amount of business. Strangely enough a similar thing had happened with the trolley bus in the States. They were bought up and just scrapped to give way to the diesel bus and we did the same in the UK with the tramcar. Taken off the road to give more room for cars and buses. For interested readers wanting to learn a little more, visit YouTube and search for a short film, “Who killed the electric car” by Chris Payne.

It often takes someone with no prior sector knowledge to act as a disrupter and Elon Musk who invented the Tesla is one such person. Our own Sir James Dyson was almost there with his electric car however despite the several billion pounds that he had invested, decided that actual production was just going to be too costly. (No need to mention Clive Sinclair and the C5.)

Next time I will take the story further and we can understand how the story moves on with a disrupter at the helm.

Article by Peter McCree