Gregory Miligan

Most people think of electric cars as a new thing. Modern, futuristic, cutting edge.

What they don’t realise is that EVs have a long history. Scale model electric vehicles were built by experimenters in the 1830s, an electric tricycle was shown at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris in 1881, and Thomas Parker in England put an electric car into production in 1884!

In 1897 both London and New York had fleets of electric taxis operating.

In 1899 the Baker company was founded, and although he didn’t drive, Thomas Edison

Thomas Parker's Electric Car
Thomas Parker’s Electric Car

bought one. In 1902 they built a car called the Torpedo, which was rumoured to have a top speed of 120 mph (approx. 200 kmh) but on its first public high speed run it lost control and crashed, killing spectators.

At the turn of the century in 1900 almost a quarter of new cars sold in the USA were electric, and over a third of the cars on the road were powered by electricity.

In 1900 Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the VW Beetle and founder of the Porsche sports car company, built an EV using hub motors in the wheels. He later went on to build a four wheel drive version which also had a petrol engine and generator, making it one of the first hybrids!

The big appeal of the EV in the early days? well, for a start they were quiet, they didn’t smell of motor spirit and oil, and there was no need to crank start them like a petrol car of the day nor a long wait to warm up like the steam cars. Many companies marketed them to women, and in fact the first woman in America to own a car had an electric…

In 1907 the Detroit Electric entered production, and Henry Ford bought one for his wife.

The cost of petrol cars fell rapidly after the Ford Model T came out in 1908, and the starter motor was invented in 1912 making petrol cars easier to live with, both of which affected EV popularity. By the beginning of the First World War electric cars were a small player in the industry…

Only a few manufacturers survived the war, and EV production had effectively ceased by the mid 1920s.

Very little happened until the 1950s, apart from the odd experimenter or tinkerer.

In 1959 a company purchased a number of Renault Dauphines and converted them to electric, selling them as the Henney Kilowatt. Less than 50 were made before production ceased in 1961.

In 1963 a man called Bill Doring converted a 1959 Ford Prefect to electric, which is now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

The oil crisis of the 1970s reawakened interest in electric cars in a big way, and it has never gone away. Several car makers built prototypes, a few companies offered conversions, and people began converting their own cars. In the early days the VW Beetle was one of the most popular cars to convert, as they were mechanically simple, common, and easy to set up as an EV. Beetles remain popular today, with several companies offering complete conversion kits to turn your Beetle into an electric car. EV West in California make bolt in kits that can be fitted in a weekend….

By the late 1980s interest was growing, but the sticking point was battery technology. Lead acid batteries are heavy and offer low range, nickel cadmium was being tried with some success, and others were being explored. Nickel Metal Hydride emerged as a front runner in the 1990s in the EV1 and Toyota used them in the Rav4 EV as well as the Prius hybrid, but it was the lithium ion battery revolution that brought EVs into the realm of practicality that they now enjoy.

California passed laws in 1990 mandating a portion of all cars sold to be zero emissions. The same year General Motors unveiled the Impact concept car, which emerged in 1996 as the production EV1 which was leased only and not sold to customers. In 2002 production stopped and in 2003 they were recalled and crushed by GM apart from a few deactivated examples donated to museums. In 2006 a documentary film “Who Killed The Electric Car” was made about the process.

Other vehicles were built for the Californian mandate, including the Toyota Rav4 EV, but legal action by car makers watered down the laws and they were all withdrawn from sale.

The EV seemed to be doomed to spend many years in a sort of suspended animation…enthusiasts converting cars and small specialist firms building low volumes, but then along came Elon Musk!

Musk’s Tesla corporation stunned the world in 2008 with the Tesla Roadster. This was the first production vehicle to use lithium ion batteries, and had unheard of range and acceleration. The Roadster was made from 2008 until 2012 when Tesla stopped production to concentrate on development of its next vehicle, which again redefined what was possible with an EV…the Model S.

The combination of lithium batteries and three phase AC motor with regenerative braking meant that the Tesla was fast, efficient, and had awesome range. This combination of technologies is basically the blueprint for all factory EVs today.

2009 saw the Mitsubishi i MiEV released in Japan. It came to Australia in 2010 for lease customers and a facelifted and revised model in 2012 for regular customer sales.

Nissan had launched its Leaf (unlike the i MiEV the Leaf was designed from day one to be an EV, not converted from a petrol model) in 2010 in the US market, and it launched in Australia in 2013.

These two cars brought electric vehicles down to a price that many could afford (although the Leaf was released at nearly $60,000 it soon came down to $40,000) as well as providing range between 120-160 km per charge.

In 2012 the much awaited Tesla Model S arrived…a full size luxury sedan with a range of up to 500 km and performance to rival Ferrari. It isn’t cheap…on its launch in Australia in late 2014 a base model cost almost $100,000 and a top of the range fully loaded performance model almost $200,000…but it competes with luxury sports sedans on their own terms and holds its own.

Tesla are working on the Model X SUV and on a mid size sedan for release later. This will be followed by a midsize sedan to be called the Tesla 3, coming in at half the price of the Model S.

BMW also released a range of electric cars and plug in hybrids, beginning with the i3 compact car and the i8 hybrid sports car.
The i3 is distinctive for its carbon fibre body, and for the optional small petrol powered generator (using the engine from a motor scooter) which can act as a range extender or a “get home” device.

The other current trend is for plug in hybrids…the first hybrid on the market, the Toyota Prius (and the range of Toyota and Lexus hybrids which followed) have small battery packs and cannot be plugged in to charge. They get all the electricity from a generator attached to the petrol engine and are merely a way of increasing the efficiency of a petrol powered car.

Plug in hybrids on the other hand, have a large battery pack and can be charged at home then driven for significant distances on stored electricity.

The first of these to hit the market was the Chevy Volt, sold in Australia as the Holden Volt (and in Europe as the Opel Ampera) which was driven by an electric motor, but had a four cylinder petrol motor and generator to give it range equal to a conventional petrol car. When the battery gets low, the petrol engine kicks in and recharges them.

Mitsubishi released the Outlander PHEV in 2014 and are planning a series of plug in hybrid models, and other manufacturers will follow suit.

The future for EVs is bright…very bright!