Stories from across the energy transition

The Unexpected Journey of Electric Cars

Firms like Tesla are making waves, not only with their fully electric models but also through groundbreaking autonomous driving technology. At first glance, electric cars seem like the children of the modern era, but their roots delve deeper into history than you might assume.

Consider the Benz Patent Motorwagen from 1886, commonly acknowledged as the first automobile. Yet, rewind a bit further to 1884, we believe to have spotted the real pioneer (see below) the first electric car cruising the streets of London, thanks to the ingenuity of British inventor, Thomas Parker. Yes, an electric car was already in operation a year before Karl Benz introduced his acclaimed invention to the public!

Fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th century, electric cars were more than a rare sight. In 1900, 800 out of 2,370 automobiles in New York, Chicago, and Boston were fully electric, overshadowing the 400 gasoline-powered cars. The rest, fittingly for that era, ran on steam. Even the famous inventor Thomas Edison owned one (see the Blog feature picture). He and Henry Ford, his next-door neighbour and close friend, even contemplated creating an affordable electric car, which sadly didn’t materialize.

President Nixon in an electric golf buggy

Despite the early lead, electric vehicles faced setbacks due to limited range, high costs, and practicality issues, and the 20th century became the era of the internal combustion engine. This revolutionized personal mobility, while electric cars found niche roles, like the 1947 Milk Float or golf buggies.

Electric Milk float from 1947

However, the turn of the millennium saw a resurgence of electric cars, with milestones like the General Motors EV1 in 1996, Toyota’s iconic hybrid Prius in 1997, and Tesla’s game-changing Roadster in 2008. With advancements in battery technology, rising fuel prices, and political pressure to curb pollution, the electric revolution has gained momentum. Ambitious phase-out plans for petrol and diesel vehicles by various nations underline this shift, while automakers race to cater to the growing demand. Today, EVs are everywhere. All OEMs are setting high sales targets for their electric cars, and Tesla’s Model 3 just on announcement received over 400,000 pre-orders, proving the market’s appetite. It’s sister, the Model Y continues to be one of best selling cars in markets globally.

In an intriguing twist of fate, Ford announced its own electrification drive back in 2017, dubbing their team “Team Edison,” in what could have been seen as both a homage to the past and a cheeky jibe at their rival, Tesla. Thus, the journey of electric cars continues, weaving a fascinating tale of innovation, setbacks, and resurgence.

For some more great examples of early electric vehicles mashable have put together a really interesting article with some great photos.

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