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An introduction to electric cars

Once the car had been invented in 1885 by Karl Benz, it didn’t take long for a massive global industry to spring up, with thousands of tiny companies around the globe each building small numbers of cars. The thing is, while the internal combustion engine (ICE) was in its infancy at the turn of the last century, so was the widespread use of electricity. As a result, car buyers could choose between electric and ICE models – while there were also a few steam options.
Many of the cars being built back in the late 1800s and early 1900s were powered by electricity, because while they took ages to charge and had a very limited range, they weren’t much less practical than a petrol-powered car. The latter had to be hand cranked to get them started and they were slow, noisy and unreliable once they were running. Electric cars could be started instantly and were much easier to drive as well as less anti-social as they were far quieter.
At this point, most people were still relying on horses to get around and as a result few people travelled very far back then, but as the car evolved to become faster, more efficient and much more usable, the electric car got left behind. What effectively killed off the electric car in one fell swoop was the Ford Model T; it cost little more than a third of the electric alternative as it was mass produced.

Electric car production peaked globally in 1912 and by the mid-1930s the electric car was pretty much consigned to the history books. And that’s how things stayed until very recently, when serious investment began to made in producing much more usable electric cars.
The problem with electric cars (or EVs, for electric vehicles) has always been the battery technology, which for decades made no progress thanks to a lack of investment and hence a lack of technological breakthroughs. Limited production numbers also meant high unit costs as there weren’t the necessary economies of scale to keep prices down. Even in the early years of the 21st century there were no viable options for anyone wanting to buy an electric car for everyday use – but soon that all changed.
From the 1960s many major car makers continued to develop prototype EVs but the lack of suitable battery technology meant they could never be a production reality. The lead-acid batteries most EVs relied on back then were incredibly heavy and inefficient, but when the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, interest in EVs was renewed. That crucial battery technology breakthrough remained elusive though.
Another key to producing a really good electric car was to develop one from the ground up, rather than to just re-engineer a petrol-powered car with a battery pack and electric motors. The first truly impressive attempt at doing this was the GM EV-1 of 1996. Just 1117 examples of this futuristic-looking electric car were made, available for lease only. Initially the batteries were lead-acid but by 1999 they were much more efficient Nickel Metal Hydride items. It looked quirky and GM lost money on each one, but the EV-1 had started something.
Then, in 2006 something seismic happened; start-up company Tesla announced it was set to introduce a luxury electric sportscar wih a 200-mile range. It was no empty promise either; when the company fulfilled its mission it made the mainstream car makers sit up and take notice and by 2010 the Nissan Leaf had gone on sale around the world.
Because EVs had forever been fundamentally flawed, consumers met these new arrivals with huge scepticism, which meant big subsidies had to be offered for them to sell. It also meant buyers accepting a degree of compromise as these EVs weren’t as convenient as an ICE-powered car, but as with any new technology (even though this tech was actually decades old) it meant early adopters blazing a trail to pay for a new generation of much better EVs.
Seven years after the Leaf arrived there’s a wider choice of new EVs than ever, although many are still just regular ICE models that have been converted to battery power so they will always be compromised. These include the Volkswagen Up and Golf, Citroen C-Zero and Peugeot Ion along with the Mercedes B-Class. But there are also several very impressive EVs that were designed from the outset to run on battery power. First was the Nissan Leaf then came the Renault Zoe along with the BMW i3. Most impressive of all though is the Tesla Model S which has since been joined by the Model X.
In a future blog we’ll look at just how green the electric car really is and whether or not you should buy one, taking into account the cost, usability and efficiency. Most buyers won’t consider an electric vehicle because of ingrained assumptions about the lack of practicality but if you’re looking to save money you might just find that driving an EV could save you a packet right now. Just bear in mind that we’re in a golden period with plenty of subsidies available to help you cut the cost. But once EVs have been adopted on a wider basis these incentives will disappear…
Richard Dredge