An electric car (also e-car, electric vehicle or EV) is a motor vehicle for the transportation of people and goods with an electric drive.
At the beginning of the development of the automobile around 1900 and in the following decade, electric motor vehicles played an important role in city traffic. However, advances in the construction of combustion engine vehicles and the filling station network have displaced them. It was only in the 1990s that the production of electric vehicles increased again. Powerful lithium-based batteries were adapted for vehicles in the 2000s.
At the end of 2019, the global inventory of cars and light commercial vehicles with only battery-electric drives, range extenders or plug-in hybrids was 7.89 million. Compared to the 1.40 million level reached at the end of 2015, this corresponds to a six-fold increase and an average growth of 54.1% per year.
Electric motors start automatically and deliver high torque over a very wide speed range. Unlike cars with a combustion engine, electric cars therefore generally do not need a transmission and achieve high acceleration values. Electric motors are quieter than petrol or diesel engines, are almost vibration-free and do not emit harmful emissions. They typically consist of fewer parts and are smaller with the same performance, their efficiency is significantly higher. Due to the lower energy density in batteries compared to fossil fuels in tanks, electric cars tend to have a larger mass than conventional cars, and their range is shorter. The charging times are longer than corresponding refueling processes. Today’s electric cars can recover braking energy through regenerative braking.
The history of the electric car began in the mid-19th century. Between 1832 and 1839, the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson probably developed the first electric vehicle in Aberdeen. The first known German electric car was the Flocken electric car from 1888; it was manufactured in Coburg. This four-wheeled electric carriage was probably the world’s first electrically powered passenger car. Around the same time, the Russian Jablotschkow and Romanov built the first cars with an electric motor. In the early days of motor vehicles, after the steam cars, but even before the vehicles with combustion engines, which were the basis of automobiles from around 1910, the electric vehicles were technically superior to the competition in several respects.
From about 1910, electric cars were largely displaced from the streets and led to a niche existence for almost a century.
It was only in the 1990s that more research was done on new battery technologies and electric drives, which were evident in a number of prototypes, small series vehicles and new model series. The main reasons for this were the growing air pollution in the metropolitan areas due to the widespread use of vehicles with internal combustion engines, supply problems with oil in the 1970s, and efforts to limit climate change.
The development of the electric drive significantly determined the beginnings of electric cars. Michael Faraday showed in 1821 how a continuous rotation could be created with electromagnetism. From the 1830s, a wide variety of electric motors and types of batteries resulted in various electric vehicles and table models, for example by Sibrandus Stratingh and Thomas Davenport. Davenport tested his electric motor on a model locomotive, which he let go round on a circle of rails about one meter in diameter. Around 1832, Robert Anderson is said to have built an “electric cart”. In 1839 he built the first electric vehicle in Aberdeen.
The Scotsman Robert Davidson (1804–1894) tested an electrically powered vehicle on the railway line between Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1842, which reached a speed of four miles per hour, but no further loads or passengers could be carried. In 1840, in Frankfurt, Johann Philipp Wagner succeeded in having a small, electric-powered car with a trailer run on a 20-meter rail circle.
The US patent officer Charles Grafton Page (1812–1868) began building a locomotive powered by two electric motors near Washington, DC in 1850 with a government grant of $20,000. The 15 kilowatt “reciprocating” motors basically consisted of two electromagnets that moved an iron rod back and forth by alternately switching on the coils like in a piston steam engine, this movement was carried out via a crank mechanism transferred to the wheels. On April 29, 1851, a test drive was carried out with this machine, which was powered by a voluminous battery, at a top speed of up to 31 km/h, which the locomotive only reached temporarily. The Daniell cell was invented in 1836, William Grove’s improved the battery in 1839, and from 1860 there were rechargeable lead batteries. They date back to the invention by the French Gaston Planté in 1859.
Werner Siemens, in 1879, in Berlin, built a two-axis electric locomotive pulling three cars with wooden benches for six passengers on the former industrial exhibition on a 300-meter circuit. Similar exhibition railways were soon presented elsewhere. For example, at the Viennese industrial exhibition of 1880, Béla Egger, a former employee of Werner Siemens, had a motorized platform car driven back and forth on a 200-meter route that was suitable for five to six standing people and also pulled a trailer seat attached behind it.
First electric road vehicles (from 1881)
The first “officially” recognized electric vehicle came from M. Gustave Trouvé in Paris in 1881 (and is often mistaken for the subsequent vehicle by Ayrton and Perry).
Gustave Trouvé drove a three-wheeled bicycle (Starley Coventry) through Paris in 1881, which he used as a test for the electric motors he built. He used lead accumulators from Gaston Planté, in which the lead plates were arranged in a spiral. This world’s first vehicle of its kind drove 12 km/h with a range of 14 to 26 km.
The Trouvé Tricycle was exhibited at the International Exposition of Electricity in Paris in 1881. Trouvé was thus ahead of the Ayrton & Perry electric vehicle, which was launched a few months later and was equipped with a further development of the Plantés lead accumulator by Camille Alphonse Faure.
On April 29, 1882, Werner Siemens demonstrated in Halensee near Berlin an electrically powered carriage, on a 540-meter test track. It was tied to a two-pole overhead line and is considered the world’s first forerunner of today’s trolleybuses.
Ayrton & Perry
A few months later, two English professors, William Edward Ayrton and John Perry, built an electric tricycle with two large wheels on the front axle and a small wheel on the rear. They used a tricycle from Howe Machine Company in Glasgow for their electric vehicle. The speed was regulated by individually switching on and off of the ten battery cells of Camille Alphonse Faure. These had a capacity of 1.5 kWh and 20 volts. The engine developed 0.37 kW (1/2 HP). This vehicle had a range of up to 40 kilometers and a top speed of around 14 km/h. In addition, unlike Trouvès vehicle, it no longer had pedals and was therefore completely dependent on the electric drive. In October 1882 they drove their electric vehicle on Queen Victoria Street for the first time. The Ayrton & Perry Electric Tricycle is the first vehicle with electric lights. A reconstruction of this vehicle is exhibited in the Autovision Museum.
The Parisian car maker Charles Jeantaud, with the support of Renier and Faure, built a wagon with electric motor in 1881 and exhibited it at the International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. The Tilbury is a light, uniaxial gig that was probably equipped with a third wheel and steering for this purpose, similar to the 1887 Volk Electric Dog-Cart. The idea was not convincing. The breakthrough came a little later.
Jeantaud carried out the first experiment (date not known) in front of his workshop. He drove a few meters until the batteries were drained due to a short circuit and the vehicle stopped.
Magnus Volk from Brighton built his first electric coach in 1887. The three-wheel dog-cart had an electric motor from Acme & Immisch from London, which produced ½ HP. The car drove nine miles an hour on asphalt. In 1895, Volk built a four-wheel electric car for the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid.
Andrew L. Riker
The first American followed with his electric vehicle in 1890 – again a tricycle. Four batteries gave the vehicle an output of 1/6 hp. Since the cruising speed was only 12 km/h, the maximum range of 48 kilometers was further than that of the Trouvé Tricycle.
In 1896, Riker was the winner of the first circuit race in the USA in Providence (Rhode Island) in front of another electric car, the Electrobat II.
First electric cars (from 1888)
The first known German electric car was built in 1888 in Coburg. It is believed that this four-wheeled electric car was the world’s first electrically powered passenger car.
Among the other manufacturers of electric cars is the American inventor and chemist William Morrison. He is considered to be one of the first manufacturers of functional, electrically powered cars. Between approx. 1887 and 1896, up to twelve vehicles were built, of which only the first two were well occupied. They were made between 1887 and 1890. The vehicles, which were typical of the time, were mainly used to test the battery he had patented and were sold when he no longer needed them. Details of an indefinite Morrison Electric (probably the first) list eight batteries that supplied the power for a 2.5 HP electric motor, sufficient for a speed of 10–12 km/h.
The best known Morrison Electric is the second. It is not only the first truly successful four-wheel electric car and was widely portrayed in the media when owner Harold Sturges exhibited it at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Morrison designed it with a 4 HP engine under the vehicle, rear-wheel drive, Siemens fittings (his own patent followed later) and a patented steering system using a hand lever and yoke rod. 24 batteries under the seat provided the drive current. Sturges registered the vehicle with a new engine at the Chicago Times Herald Contest of November 28, 1895, where it failed early.
Morris and Salom
The engineer Henry G. Morris and the technician Pedro G. Salom are among the most important pioneers of the electric vehicle in the USA. Their vehicles were created using many components from different carriages, with Salom responsible for the electrical engineering and Morris for the chassis and body. They received support from Isaac Rice and his Electric Storage Battery Company (ESB); the latter hoped to be in a favorable position in good time if a market for electric cars were created. From this cooperation began in the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company (ECWC) in 1897, the first commercial electric car manufacturer in the US. The company was sold after 13 units were built.
Electrobat II from 1894 is the second working vehicle of this type in the USA after the Morrison Electric and a more mature one. It had two 1.5 HP Lundell engines and ESB batteries. This vehicle also started at the Chicago Times-Herald Contest. Both failed, but Morris and Salom received a gold medal for the construction. Team Hiram Percy Maxim was drawn as the referee in the race. This brought him into closer contact with electric cars for the first time, which prompted him to suggest his employer, the Pope Manufacturing Company, shortly afterwards. Maxim was then chief engineer at Columbia Automobile Company in Hartford (Connecticut).
According to an article in The Telegraph from 2009, Thomas Parker invented the first electric car back in 1884. However, historical evidence is missing. The only historical document shows a Parker electric car, circa 1895, in front of his home in Tettenhall.
The Kriéger brand was once the most widespread among electric vehicles in Europe, especially in the taxi business. The Electric Cars Company (Société des Voitures Electriques), founded in 1897 in Courbevoie near Paris by the Frenchman Louis Antoine Kriéger (1868–1951), initially produced prestressed wagons with wheel hub electric motors (avant-trains) for horse-drawn carriages, and from 1898 also complete vehicles.
The great era of electric cars (1896-1912)
In 1897, the founding assembly of the Central European Motor Vehicle Association took place in Berlin. Its President Oberbaurat on September 30, 1897, stated: “As motor vehicles, which carry their energy for locomotion with them, three types are currently remarkable, namely: vehicles moved by steam, vehicles moved by oil engines and vehicles moved by electricity. The first class is likely to be mainly used in the future for wagons on rails and heavy road vehicles, while the large area of the vast country will be rushed through by oil motor vehicles and the smooth asphalt surface of the big cities as well as the street track will be livened up by wagons powered by electricity.” The range of the historic vehicles, at just over a hundred kilometers, was significantly lower than at present, at up to over 600 kilometers. Around 1900, nearly 34,000 vehicles were electrically operated in the United States. In 1912, most electric vehicles had been sold to date. After that, the market share fell massively. Between 1896 and 1939, 565 brands of electric cars were registered worldwide.
Electric cars were manufactured commercially in the United States from 1897. The first were again Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom, who took an interesting path as partners and technical managers of the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company (ECWC). Salom, in particular, was convinced that maintenance and upkeep were too complex to be mastered by untrained private individuals. Instead of handing over individual vehicles to customers, they first wanted to build a fleet of the same vehicles that would be charged and serviced via a common charging station. These vehicles were to be rented to customers based on the model of the rental stables that were widespread at the time.
The company very quickly became the focus of investors who wanted to take over the taxi monopoly in major European cities with electric vehicles. They bought the ECWC in 1897 and the competitor Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) from Isaac Rice, which for a short time was the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Albert Augustus Pope brought a reorganization on board as a production specialist. Its own electric car company, the Columbia Automobile Company, was established as a joint venture managed by EVC and Pope and manufactured the vehicles of both brands. EVC took over the rental concept. Maintenance and loading costs were also regulated in the individually negotiated contracts, and driver training was also simplified. A network of service stations had been established in several cities. The taxi project failed due to financial and technical problems. The latter included the insufficient range of the vehicles, which would have required far too many charging stations for profitable operation to be possible. Nevertheless, the first motorized taxis in New York and other major cities were operated electrically.
By 1900, 40% of automobiles in the United States were steam cars, 38% electric cars and 22% gasoline cars. In 1901 there were even 50% electric cars and 30% steam cars in New York; the rest were naphtha, acetylene and pneumatic vehicles. The peak of the electric car wave was reached in 1912: 20 manufacturers built 33,842 electric cars; however, with a total of 356,000 automobiles and 22,000 commercial vehicles, that was less than 10% of the market with a downward trend. Ford alone built more cars than all electric car manufacturers put together and came to 22% with 78,440.
Other well-known US electric car manufacturers of the time were Detroit Electric, Baker Motor Vehicle and Studebaker Electric. Henry Ford developed an electric prototype based on a Ford Model T. However, series production did not take place, while between 1908 and 1927, 15 million units of the gasoline-powered station wagon were built in the USA.
Detroit Electric alone produced a total of 12,348 electric cars and 535 electric trucks from 1907 to 1941. The widespread use was reflected among other things in Comics by Grandma Duck.
In 1899, the Lohner-Werke presented the Egger-Lohner C.2 at the automobile exhibition in Berlin. In 1900, Ferdinand Porsche, who worked in the electronics industry, came into the public eye with an electric car at the World Exhibition in Paris, which he had built on behalf of Lohner. The Lohner- Porsche had wheel hub motors on the front wheels. Porsche saw the greatest advantage of the electric drive in the fact that neither gears nor other mechanical elements were required for power transmission. The otherwise short range of the car had also occupied his mind, which is why he functionally combined an electric motor with an internal combustion engine. The petrol engine supplied electricity for the accumulator via a generator, which in turn fed the electric motor. In the year 1900, a racing version was built, which reached a top speed of 60 km/h with a 1800 kg battery. This variant had the wheel hub motor on all four wheels.
Historical speed records
The French racing driver Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first speed record for a land vehicle on 18 December 1898 with the Jeantaud Duc electric car from Charles Jeantaud in Achères ( Yvelines department, near Paris ). The speed reached was 62.78 km/h. This was on January 17, 1899 by the Belgian Camille Jenatzy in the same place with the electric car CGA Dogcart broken at 66.66 km/h. On the same day, in the same place, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat won the record for himself and Jeantaud with the Duc and 70.31 km/h. Ten days later, the speed record in Achères went back to the CGA Dogcart, which was now driven by Camille Jenatzy, at 80.35 km/h. On March 4, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat with the Jeantaud Duc Profilée and Jeantaud broke the record for the third time at 92.78 km/h. This record was lost to Camille Jenatzy, who was the first person to drive over 100 km/h, precisely 105.88 km/h, with his La Jamais Contente electric car.
The Dutch technology historian and literary scholar Prof. Dr. Ing. Gijs Mom takes the position that the decades of stagnation in the development of (individual) electromobility cannot be explained from a scientific and technological perspective. He explained that cultural factors in particular prevented the spread of electrically powered cars. It was already known in the 19th century, the strengths of battery-powered electric vehicles in local transport, where they can even be superior to vehicles with combustion engines, as a technical journal clarified in 1958. It was also concluded that “one should be interested in all economic sectors in the interest of the national economy for all to use electric vehicles where appropriate operational requirements are met.” But even after the oil crises of the 1970s the rethinking to electric drive with rechargeable batteries didn’t happen.
However, the electric drive found widespread use in vehicles that did not have to carry the driving energy in batteries, but rather, could get from overhead lines ( electric locomotive, trolleybus, tram, diesel-electric drive ).
A niche in which motor vehicles with electric motors were kept was local transport with small vans, for example for the daily delivery of milk bottles in Great Britain and parts of the United States, the milk floats. Several tens of thousands of these cars were in operation, particularly in Great Britain. The leading manufacturers of milk floats in Britain in the 20th century were Smith’s, Wales & Edwards, Morrison Electriccars, M&M Electric Vehicles, Osborne, Harbilt, Brush, Bedford and Leyland. With the decline in home deliveries, only Bluebird Automotive remained, Smith Electric Vehicles and Electricar Limited left. Smith Electric Vehicles was the the largest manufacturer of vans and trucks with an electric drive by 2008. The Dutch manufacturer Spijkstaal has been producing electric vehicles since 1938, mostly for special tasks.
The use of electric vehicles for postal administrations is particularly well known, for example at the German Reichspost (for example parcel delivery vehicles from Bergmann), the German Bundespost, the German post of the GDR, the Austrian post and telegraph administration or the German post AG, this operates with its subsidiary StreetScooter even has its own production company for electric vehicles.
Another niche in which motor vehicles with electric motors were able to assert themselves was the transport of ice and fish in the fishing ports, since the use of internal combustion engines was not permitted in the auction halls due to their exhaust gases. Borgwards Hansa-Lloyd AG in Bremen developed specialized electric tractors for this area of use in the interwar period, some of which remained in use until after the year 2000. One of these vehicles is now in the collection of the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, Auto Union built electric vehicles based on the DKW high-speed truck in 1956, which were used, among other things, by electricity companies to exchange meters. Later there were various trial runs with hybrid and duo buses. The developments were based on political support programs and ended soon after the end of these programs. In the GDR 1953 electric vehicles were put into operation for the post in Berlin.
The Enfield 8000 of Enfield-Neorion was developed in 1969 and built from 1972 to 1975, including 120 in the UK. The car was equipped with a 48 V 30 kWh battery. Half of the vehicles were sold to an electricity company, with no commercial success.
During a car sharing trial in Amsterdam that started in 1974, electric cars by the inventor Luud Schimmelpennink were used as a means of transport. The three-wheeled two-person car reached 30 km/h and its batteries could be charged at stations within seven minutes. The “Witkar” project, however, remained without lasting resonance and was abandoned in 1986 due to a lack of target achievement.
Between 1981 and 1986, two prototypes of the Hope Whisper were manufactured in Denmark. Series production never happened, however. At the premiere of the first generation, an accident involving a prototype of the Whisper W1 occurred in front of the eyes of 3,000 invited guests, including the then Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlüter.
Efforts to use electric motors in the automotive industry for propulsion were increasingly tackled after the oil crisis in the 1990s triggered by the Gulf War and growing environmental awareness. Above all, the regulation drawn up by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and passed as a law in California in 1990 to gradually offer zero-emission vehicles forced the automotive industry to develop new products.
This not only led to new types of batteries that could replace the lead batteries as traction batteries, but also to the development of a large number of electric cars that were later only partially available on the car market. During this time, battery technology was mainly driven by the rapidly increasing demand for cell phones and notebooks.
In 1992, the Horlacher Sport I electric car concept vehicle with a battery charge reached a range of 547 kilometers (at an average speed of 55.4 kilometers per hour). BMW developed the BMW E1 with a sodium-sulfur battery in 1991, but stopped the project before it was launched on the market. Only the design language (aerodynamically glazed headlights etc.) was adopted for the new E36 model generation.
The development of Nicolas Hayek’s Swatch-Car, planned as a small car with electric drive, began in 1993 in cooperation with Volkswagen. After production was canceled, two design studies were carried out until March 1994, now with Mercedes. However, the Mercedes subsidiary MCC gave up the planned electric drive and developed the Smart from it – “The petrol-powered Smart is a product from Daimler-Benz and has nothing in common with the plans of the former Swatch team”
Between 1992 and 1996, 60 cars were tested on the latest generation of electric vehicles on the island of Rügen.
The production of most electric cars was discontinued after the CARB legislation was relaxed and deliveries stopped. According to the claims of the respective manufacturers, this was due to “lack of demand” or “supply of spare parts that cannot be guaranteed”. Since the vehicles were only given to end customers on a leasing basis, the manufacturers were able to object to an extension of the contract and to have the fully functional vehicles moved in – partly by force – and scrapped. For example, while newly produced Honda EV Plus were scrapped again immediately after production and only a few individual units of the GM EV1 escaped the scrapping, the scrapping of most Toyota RAV4 EVs was prevented through citizens’ initiatives such as Don’t Crush!.
VW tried the Golf CitySTROMer between 1992 and 1996 on an electric version of the Golf. Only 120 units were made and delivered to large energy suppliers. The vehicle was not freely available for purchase. The technical data were checked by the Research Center for Energy Economics and found an efficiency of 49%. The energy consumption from the socket was around 25 kWh/100 km. The reason for the rather high energy consumption was above all the high vehicle weight due to the original basis as a combustion car as well as the lead battery cells used and the poor efficiency of the charger.
The Hotzenblitz, a small 2 + 2-seater electric car developed in Germany, was produced in small numbers from 1993 to 1996 and is considered the most consistent German electric vehicle from that time.
From 1994 to 2012 the CityEL was produced by the forerunner of Smiles AG in Aub near Würzburg. The beginnings of the vehicle go back even further, the vehicle was designed as early as 1987 and the first models of the predecessor MiniEL were manufactured in Denmark. The Twike has been in production for around the same time. It was originally developed and manufactured in Switzerland and is now manufactured by Fine Mobile in Rosenthal near Marburg in Germany. Both vehicles represented a large part of the electric car scene in German-speaking countries at the turn of the millennium. The electric vehicle Samis originally a development project of a Swiss university of applied sciences and was first sold with lead accumulators. After a new development with lithium batteries, the relaunch was started a few years ago, today the vehicle is produced in Poland. The general importer in Germany is Elemo.
From 1996 to 1999, General Motors built a series of approximately 1,100 electric scooters with the EV1. Of these, 800 vehicles were given to selected customers, such as celebrities. The remaining vehicles were available through leasing contracts, but the contracts were not renewed after three years due to the lack of spare parts. Toyota built around 1,500 of the all-electric RAV4 EV, Nissan built around 220 “Hypermini ” and Honda built the Honda EV Plus.
Sales of the Toyota Prius, the first large-series model with hybrid drive, started in 1997. By the end of 2016, almost four million of these vehicles had been sold. In total, Toyota sold more than nine million hybrid vehicles by the end of 2016.
The A-Class electric developed by Daimler-Benz was brought to series production until 1997. The Zebra traction battery used ensured a range of 200 km at 30 kWh. In the A-Class, a double floor for the batteries was planned in the underbody. The A-Class has been following the relaxation of the “lean Air Act and zero emission mandates brought but only with internal combustion engines on the market and is largely unknown in the electric version in Germany. Since the raised floor now remained without heavy batteries, the A-Class lost its low center of gravity and the well-known moose tests occurred, in which the A-Class rolled over in rapid alternation curves.
New developments (from 2005)
Since 2005, a new generation of electric vehicles has started with models such as the Tesla Roadster and Tesla Model S from Tesla as well as various small car series such as Think City from Think Global, the Citysax and the Stromos.
Because of the comparatively short ranges, long charging cycles and high purchase costs, these models were not yet fully competitive with the combustion engines. However, the advantages of these models come into play for short and inner-city short journeys. This sparked a new dynamic on the market, so that many manufacturers started the production of electric vehicles again.
In 2012, a total of 15 (partially) electric vehicle series from the major automobile manufacturers were offered on the German market – 12 of them fully electric – from manufacturers such as VW, Daimler, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Groupe PSA, Volvo and Toyota. However, demand in Germany remained weak and government funding was unable to boost it. However, electric cars were increasingly used for car sharing in inner-city areas.