19 July 2020

Most people think electric vehicles (EVs) are a recent development, but they have actually been around for a very long time. The history of EVs starts almost around the same time as that of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In fact, initial versions of the EV were on the road as early as the 1800s.

Here’s how electric vehicles have evolved over time.

The early history of electric vehicles

In the early 1800s, inventors and innovators across Europe and the USA were working on the concept of an electric car:

  • 1828 - Ányos Jedlik from Hungary developed an early form of the electric motor, which he then used to power a small model car.
  • 1834 - Thomas Davenport from Vermont built a battery-operated vehicle that moved on electrified tracks.
  • 1835 - Professor Sibrandus Stratingh from the Netherlands developed a small electric car that ran on non-chargeable cells.
  • 1837 - Robert Davidson, an inventor from Aberdeen, Scotland, developed what is considered the early electric locomotive.

However, British inventor Robert Anderson was the first to develop what could be considered an early electric carriage between 1832 and 1839.

In spite of all these developments, it was only in the late 19th century when these vehicles became ready for practical use. This was after French physicist Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery in 1859. These batteries had a larger capacity and could be manufactured on an industrial scale. Most importantly, they could be recharged.

Electric vehicles were a practical option and became extremely popular in France and the UK as a result.

vintage electric carriage on a white background

In London, Walter Bersey launched a fleet of electric cabs in 1897, which became known as hummingbirds due to the sound they made.

Around 1900, EVs had become more popular than ICE vehicles. Manufacturers tailored them to appeal to women, with attractive upholstery and other decorative details.

Looking back through the history of EVs, this was the time they were in widespread use, with about a third of all vehicles in the USA being powered with batteries.

At this point, people were still working on engines powered by petrol and steam as well as batteries. Steam was soon ruled out as an impractical option, but electric and petrol-fuelled vehicles continued to gain traction.

Even then, electric was the preferred option as these vehicles did not emit noxious gases and were extremely quiet. Furthermore, since electricity became easily available around the 1910s, it was also easier to charge EVs.

As EVs were so popular, developers focused their efforts on them. In fact, the world’s first hybrid vehicle was developed around this time too.

A turning point in the history of electric vehicles

Around the 1920s, the history of EVs changed course. This was because of the following factors:

The popularity of the Ford Model T

Henry Ford was one of the original innovators working on the evolution of the EV, but his mass-produced Model T car was priced much lower than the other cars in the market, making this ICE-powered vehicle very popular.

Affordable fuel

Around the world, the discovery of oil reserves was driving down petrol prices. The abundant oil led to an increase in the number of petrol stations. This easy access meant that using petrol cars became more convenient. This resulted in the evolution of EVs slowing down.

The second wave of electric vehicles

With easy access to cheap petrol, it is easy to see why ICE vehicles became more commonly-used. However, from the late 1960s to early ‘70s, oil prices started to rise. This is when car manufacturers started looking at electric options again.

The biggest drawback in the evolution of EVs at this stage was that they suffered in comparison with petrol and diesel cars. Since these were decades ahead in development, EVs appeared slower and more difficult to maintain compared to their ICE counterparts.

However, around the 1990s, there was growing interest in the protection of the environment and, as a result, in EVs. This is when certain car manufacturers started modifying some of their more popular cars to become electric.

In the early 2000s, EVs saw a surge in popularity, but they really became mainstream when Tesla Motors announced their intention of producing a luxury electric sports car.

Small orange toy car with a plug coming out from the back

The future of electric vehicles

At present, there is a growing number of people who are driving or want to drive electric. This trend is supported by increasing awareness of the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment.

As a result, consumers are motivated to look at more sustainable and healthier options. EVs are the answer to this problem, as they are quieter, more fuel-efficient, and have zero emissions, so are less draining on the environment.

In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the uptake of EVs and this trend seems to be on the rise. As a result, EVs are expected to be the cars of the future.

Further reading

While the evolution of electric cars provides quite an interesting read, their future is even more exciting. If you are looking at going green, take a look at these relevant articles.

Would you like to know more about how you can start incorporating EVs in your fleet? Call us on 0844 854 5100 or email CSalmon@sgfleet.com to get the information you need.

A finger about to press a button with the text 'E-Mobility Start' on it