The History of Electric Cars

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Posted on 14th September 2016 – Electric Cars

Although there are still a few voices insisting that climate change doesn’t exist, the quest for renewable energy is driven by another factor which is probably more significant to large businesses than saving the environment: one day, we will run of crude oil and all transport will stop unless we have found other ways to power vehicles.

Several alternatives are being explored, with various success: solar energy would be an endless and clean source but the technology isn’t yet good enough at transforming and storing sun rays; hydrogen-powered cars would be incredibly cheap to run as, potentially, all you would need is water and a system to separate hydrogen from oxygen. Unfortunately, dihydrogen (H2) is also highly explosive so it isn’t the safest solution for the consumer market.

The most viable solution, at this point in time, seems to be electric cars. While we may think of them as a futuristic never-going-to-happen gadget along with driverless cars, they have, however, been around since the 1800s when inventors in Hungary, the UK, the Netherlands and the United States started experimenting with the idea of a battery-powered vehicle.

In the 1890s, an American chemist created an electric vehicle capable of carrying six passengers and reaching the vertiginous speed of 22.5km/h (14 mph)! New York had a fleet of electric taxis, and at the turn of the twentieth century, sales of electric vehicles continued to prove themselves strong.

Although petrol cars existed at the time, they were perceived as difficult to drive, noisy and smelly, which is why electric cars, which were quiet and cleaner, enjoyed such popularity in cities. As roads outside towns were often in poor conditions and undrivable by any car, the limited range offered by electric cars wasn’t an issue. In addition, the development of a power grid meant that it was easy to recharge them.

Many well-known names saw the potential in electric cars and invested time and resources into developing models: Ferdinand Porsche, the founder of the sports car company who also created the world’s first hybrid car; Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to name but a few.

Unfortunately, not unlike today, costs prevented the adoption of electric vehicles by the consumer market: an electric roadster cost about three times as much as a petrol car. Not to mention the fact that vast reserves of crude oil were discovered making them cheap to run too.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when oil prices started to soar, that the interest in electric cars was rekindled in a bid to reduce dependence on foreign oil. However, with top speeds of 70 km/h (45 mph) and a range of 65 km (40 miles) on a single charge, their performance was underwhelming so it is no surprise that they wouldn’t capture people’s attention. Interestingly enough, however, they gained fame in another area, space exploration, when NASA used an electric vehicle as a lunar rover which became the first manned vehicle on the moon in 1971.

This wasn’t enough to give electric cars a second lease of life and interest in them died completely until the 1990s when new international regulations on air pollution and energy made it a priority to find renewable alternatives.

During this time, car manufacturers developed electric vehicles by modifying existing petrol models, which means that they were working within certain constraints from the start, explaining perhaps why, technically speaking, electric vehicles didn’t improve sufficiently to be commercially successful.

General Motors was the first one to think about electric cars differently and design a model that was destined to be an electric vehicle from the start: the EV1. Launched in 1996, it had a range of 130 km (80 miles) and was able to go from 0 to 80km/h (50 mph) in seven seconds, representing an impressive improvement in performance. It gained a faithful following but was victim of its high production costs, which resulted in its production being discontinued in 2001.

The turning point in the history of electric cars really didn’t happen until the 21st century when some manufacturers created models that were more affordable and offered good performance. Produced by Toyota and released in Japan in 1997, and worldwide three years later, the Prius can be considered the world’s first mass-market electric car.

The other major game-changing event in the industry was when Tesla Motors, a small Silicon Valley start-up company, announced in 2006 that it would produce a luxury electric sports car with a range of over 320 km (200 miles).

In 2010, Tesla released the Chevy Volt which marked another milestone. Fitted with a petrol as well as an electric engine, the former would come into action once the electric drive was depleted, extending the autonomy of the vehicle.

How is Tesla doing? Well, in 2010, they received at loan of NZ $635 million from the government, that they were able to repay in full in 2013… 9 years early. Need we say more…?

Since then, the technology has been evolving rapidly, improving performance, bringing prices down and making electric cars a reality for the future. Government-funded initiatives are underway to build nationwide recharging infrastructures where electric cars can be plugged in on the go; R&D in batteries has produced more efficient devices such as lithium-ion batteries, and consumers now have a larger range of vehicles to choose from.

With oil prices still high, it is clear that electric cars and hybrids will be part of our landscape. Current statistics place the number of electric vehicles sales at 3% of all sales worldwide but it is predicted that it could more than double by 2020, heralding the end of the fossil-fuel era.

If you are wondering how to import an electric vehicle to and from Australia, talk to McCullough. Our 20 years’ experience and 1-2-3 streamlined process make the whole process stress free. Get a quote online, contact us via our form or give us a ring on +64 9 303 0075.

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