Electric Cars: Past & Future
An early spark
In the last few years of the 19th Century, Thomas Edison set about trying to make a battery powerful enough to run an electric car. It’s an issue that remained a barrier for the next hundred years or so, because as technology advanced, we became much more demanding in what constituted ‘powerful enough’.
By the turn of the century, electric cars had already been around for about a decade. People had been trying to make them for a while, but the first one that could be reasonably deemed a success was made by a man called William Morris in 1891. A few manufacturers took notice, and by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair there were a handful of electric cars on display.
The Chicago World Fair was an enormous international exposition designed to showcase the pinnacle of modern civilisation and give its viewers a glimpse into the future. Nothing symbolised this more than the relatively new phenomenon of electric power, but this was something of a sore-point for Edison. He championed direct current (DC), whereas his rivals Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse advocated alternating current (AC). Edison’s quote to power the Fair using DC was undercut by Westinghouse’s quote to use AC, which came in at nearly 30% cheaper. Edison lost the ‘War of the Currents’, and although DC works better for batteries, but Edison never managed to make one powerful enough to run a car.
Luckily, others did. In the last few years of the 19th Century and the first few years of the 20th, electric cars saw their (first) heyday. Large-scale production saw electric cars make up 28% of the United States’ 4,000 motor vehicles, with that percentage much higher in the big cities.
However, in 1908 Henry Ford released the Model T, a car that would dominate the market and revolutionise the automobile landscape. This, coupled with the invention of an electric starter that eliminated the need to hand-crank petrol-powered cars (a difficult and unpleasant task), meant that by the 1920s, the electric car industry had run flat.
For the rest of the 20th Century, petrol-fuelled engines ruled the roads. More and more households got a car, then they got a second, and maybe even a third or fourth. Almost none of them were electric.
A new buzz
In 1997, seemingly out of nowhere, Toyota unveiled the Prius. It was the world’s first commercially-produced hybrid car, and captured some of the futuristic excitement of the first electric cars at the Chicago World Fair a century earlier. It sold remarkably well – 18,000 units in its first year alone – but the Prius’ eco-credentials were ahead of their time, and it was dismissed by many as being the vehicular equivalent of soya-bean sandals.
A decade later, electric cars became cool. In the same year that Al Gore released ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Elon Musk and his company (named after Edison’s rival) released the Tesla Roadster. This was an electric sportscar that looked the part, and performed almost as well as its petrol competitors.
Governments began to get behind them. Obama allocated $2.5bn to the resurgent industry, and the UK government gave £2,000 subsidies to each purchase of an electric car. As an environmental conscience became vital PR, more and more manufacturers started releasing hybrid or fully-electric models, and more and more charging stations sprung up through our streets like trees2.0.
Still, it came as a shock when earlier this summer it was announced that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040. Unexpected, perhaps, but everyone (that I’ve spoken to at least) seems to agree it’s for the best. The vast majority of the population have accepted that climate change is real, and that this decision is a step in the right direction.
I think that people have accepted that the future’s electric for a while now. Growth predictions and emissions targets have tended to be overly optimistic, but at least the 2040 ban gives us something of a timescale.
People will get used to charging their cars just like they got used to charging their books. The real debate over the future of cars isn’t about what’s powering them; it’s about whether we’ll still be driving them.