Although it may seem it, electric vehicles are not a modern-day conception, with their history dating back to the early 19th century. The original electric vehicle was not your typical idea of an EV, but instead took shape in the form of a small-scale model car. In the late 1820s, production of the first electric car began. Hungarian inventor and engineer, Ányos Jedlik, created both an electric motor and a small-scale car that fuelled its power from the motor. Then in 1834, with help from his assistant and the Netherlands, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen designed a model that ran on a small and electric-powered track.
These early inventions set the foundations for future innovative designs. 1837 saw the introduction of the first electric locomotive, which was built by chemist Robert Davidson of Aberdeen. However, the batteries did not provide sufficient power to the vehicle and therefore rendered its everyday use. After this, viable electric motors did not appear until 1860, right up to the end of the 19th century. The public started to prefer electric vehicles over gasoline ones, due to the lack of vibration, noise, and smell. Walter C. Bersey then introduced the first fleet of electric taxi’s in London during 1897. Though interest peaked during the latter half of the 1800s, the history of the electric vehicle is a rather turbulent one, with social interest dipping again at the turn of the century.
There were several reasons for the downfall of the electric vehicle, but these were some of the major factors of its social decline.
1. Fossil Fuels – These became much more affordable in comparison to EVs.
2. Modernity and the need for speed– The early 20th century was the era of modernism, encompassing technologically advanced machinery and speed. Unfortunately, electric vehicles were limited in the amount of speed that they could offer.
3. Range Ability – An increase in roads meant that people needed their vehicles to have the ability to drive longer ranges. Similar to the issue regarding speed, EVs could not deliver on the increased demand for range.
4. Henry Ford’s renown production line– With the mass-production of Henry Ford’s Model T, a vehicle powered by fossil fuels, it became a more affordable alternative to electric motors.
Production of electric vehicles came to a halt in around 1910 as a result of tough competition and a disinterest from society. Fast forward to the 1990s, and the concern regarding the state of the environment began to take centre stage with environmentalists and world leaders. Much like political concerns of today’s world, the topic of cleaner air zones and vehicles emitting less emissions fuelled the resurgence of the electric vehicle.
From then on, the conversation regarding cleaner fuel-emitting vehicles began. There wasn’t just a revival in the interest of EVs, but now a necessity for them in order to achieve a more sustainable future. After Gordon Brown spoke at the G8 summit in 2008, demanding for a “green car revolution”, the trial of electric cars began in the UK during 2009. The development and sales of plug-in electric vehicles increased in 2011 – with 1,082 units compared to only 138 in 2010. By 2012 there were 2,254 plug-in electric vehicles in the UK.
There wasn’t just a revival in the interest of EVs, but now a necessity for them in order to achieve a more sustainable future.
2010-2013 saw models such as the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Vauxhall Ampers, Renault Kangoo Z. E., and the Renault Twizy. An increase of new models appeared in 2014, ranging from the Tesla Model S, BMW i3, Mitsubishi Outlander P-HEV, and the Renault Zoe. In 2018, there were almost 60,000 registered plug-in electric vehicles, 44,437 plug-in hybrids, and 15,474 electric vehicles in the UK.
This rise of new models, and sales, shows a more welcoming attitude and belief in electric vehicles than ever before. Important industry figures from across all sectors are realising the importance of going electric, making statements to urge the government to allow for this process to be easier and more cost-realistic. Since then, the government have been pushing for both personal and commercial vehicles to change to electric – with a 2050 target “to ensure that almost every car and van in the UK is a zero-emission vehicle by 2050”. Different political parties keep debating the date, arguing that it should be bought forward, with Labour suggesting all car fleets should be electric by 2025.
Whilst this goal seems idealistic, is it still too ambitious to expect nearly every car on the road to be electric within the next 30 years? There is still an ongoing debate around the pros and cons of moving to an electric motor – with the cons heavily making people sceptical of the change.
1. Price– The cost of electric or hybrid cars are still substantially higher than vehicles that use fossil fuels. This causes affordability issues not only for the everyday person, but for fleet managers who would have to buy several, if not hundreds, of vehicles.
2. Losing charge– Probably the biggest concern regarding EVs/PHEVs is drivers worrying about losing charge during their journey and not being able to access a charging point in time.
3. Limited access to charging points– People who live in flats, or homes without off-street parking, are limited to where they can charge their car overnight.
4. Rural areas– A big concern is rural areas that currently are not supported with charging points compared to cities and big towns. It immediately limits those who live there with the ability to easily charge their vehicle. Also, drivers are wary of having to drive in rural areas, linking back to the issue of running out of charge mid journey.
5. Practicality- Whilst the idea of having emission-free vehicles is great, realistically the change to electric just isn’t that feasible for everyone – at least not as quickly as the government are intending.
However, whilst the change to electric can seem somewhat daunting and challenging, there
are many benefits to swapping to an EV/PHEV.
1. Sustainability– The most obvious benefit is that it will reduce the amount of emissions that are polluting our air and will create a cleaner and more sustainable environment.
2. Long term savings– Whilst EVs/PHEVs are an expensive upfront cost, studies and figures have shown that people end up saving more long term than they would if they had an ICE vehicle, due to electric being a cheaper option than diesel or petrol.
3. Variety– The choice of EVs and PHEVs that are available now are more varied than they’ve ever been before, with even more options looking to become available in the future.
4. Grants– There are several funding schemes to help you afford an electric vehicle, ranging from the governments ‘Low-emission vehicle grant’ to SSE offering its customers a year of free electric.
5. Low Emission Zones– Many cities are looking to introduce zero-emission zones which will allow EVs and PHEVs to drive through free of charge.
Electric vehicles, as they are known today, have come a long way since the beginning of the 19th century. Whilst there has been an increase in awareness, education and confidence towards EVs and PHEVs, there is still more left to achieve before we are living in a fossil-fuel free society. Government expectations and targets appear to be just a little too unrealistic for the time constraints that they are putting in place. So, will the evolution of the electric vehicle continue to exceed the limitations and stigma surrounding it, or, will it fall victim once again to its previously turbulent history?