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A review of the electric car: its history and its future

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Electric cars may seem a recent innovation, but in fact these vehicles had been invented a long time ago and their revival is due to the practicality that lead to their dominance over petrol cars in the 19th century. In fact, there were more electric than petrol vehicles in the U.S. before the Ford T model revolutionized the market. Does an e-Golf’s range of 200km seem revolutionary to you? You should think twice. The 1890 Morrison Electric had a range up to 280km and while it was obviously un-comparable to the modern e-Golf, people preferred it over petrol cars at the time. Why did the electric cars’ progress stop at the time, and what’s next for them today?

(The 1890 6-Seat Morrison Electric; Source: American-Automobiles)

In 1800, the battery was invented, quickly followed by the electric motor. It did not take long until those inventions were installed on carriages, which was the most popular means of transport at the time. The first practical electric cars appeared around 1870, about the same period as petrol cars was invented. William Morrison created the first successful electric vehicle in 1889. The carriage cannot be really considered as a car by today’s standards, but the petrol’s chassis wasn’t much different. Electric cars had many advantages over petrol cars at the time. In fact, petrol cars needed to be cranked up to start, whereas electric ones did not. Electric cars were quiet, and did not give off any dirty gas or dust. Moreover, it was way easier to maneuver electric cars as no difficult gear changes were needed (the transmissions at the time were terrible). By the 1900, electric cars accounted for around a third of all vehicles on the road.

The 1908 the Ford T model brought the popularity of electric cars to an end. While an electric roadster cost around $1750 at the time, the Ford T model only cost $650. By 1920, the invention of the electric starter eliminated the need for cranking up petrol cars, and the increased availability of petrol and larger road networks requiring vehicles with longer range were the fatal blow.

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(Historical crude oil prices Source: Wikipedia)

The wide availability of petrol in the 20th century eliminated demand for electric cars, which resulted in close to zero progress in the field of electric vehicles until the oil shocks in the 1970s. The U.S. realized their high dependence on oil from abroad on the one hand and on internal combustion powered means of transport on the other, was increasingly problematic and the country started supporting research in alternative means of transport. Several car producers began developing electric cars from scratch, but for a long time only managed to produce slow vehicles with very short ranges.

From the 1990s, the onset of environmental concerns sparked the renewed interest on the field. However, low gas prices were still stopping electric cars from being the primary investment target by car giants.

Nowadays, despite their higher costs, range concerns, and low awareness, industry developments together with government sponsorship are making electric vehicles, like in 1800s, a practical as well as an environmental conscious choice. For example, a study from a McKinsey report states that 41% of Electric Vehicle buyers in Norway had decided to purchase an EV primarily because of cost savings. It is estimated that by 2040, 67% of the new cars sold in Europe and 58% sold in the U.S. will be electric, thus surpassing the sales of petrol-powered ones.

This surge in sales will be driven mainly by the increasing affordability of electric cars as economies of scale and further technological developments should drive the cost of production down to the level of producing gas-powered vehicles. For example, greater efficiency will mean that a battery that cost $1000 in 2010 is forecast to cost only $73 by 2030.

In conclusion, the evolution of the internal combustion engine was powered by its demand, and its popularity long obscured the development of EVs. Fast forward to the present, environmental concerns have now ignited the revolution of EVs, which is increasingly being fuelled and nurtured by convenience.




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