The History of Electric Cars

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Podcast Transcript

There is an old saying that everything old is new again. This is certainly true with electric cars. 

The recent surge in popularity of electric vehicles is technically a resurgence, because believe it or not, there was a time when electric cars were more popular than cars with internal combustion engines. 

Learn more about electric cars, their history, future, as well as their benefits and drawbacks, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Believe it or not, the electric automobile is almost 200 years old. 

In 1828, a Hungarian priest named Ányos Jedlik created a simple electric motor and may have created a device that converted it into motion. 

In 1832, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson created a very simple vehicle which was basically a carriage, a non-rechargeable electric battery, and a crude electric motor. 

It didn’t go very far and it didn’t go very fast, but it was a self-propelled electric vehicle. 

Electric vehicles were mostly novelties and weren’t something that could find practical use.  There was no centralized electrical generation at the time, there were no wires transmitting electricity, and moreover, every time you used the car you had to get a brand new battery.

Moreover, it isn’t believed that any of these early vehicles actually ever carried a passenger.

Many people in the mid 19th century created electrical devices which moved including prototype electric trains. However, the fundamental problems that electric vehicles ran into were poor batteries and very inefficient motors. 

The first big development came in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Planté who invented the acid-lead battery. This was a breakthrough in that the battery could be recharged over and over. Even though there had been improvements over the years, this is still basically the same type of battery found in most cars today. 

In 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé created the first thing that we would probably recognize as an automobile. It was an electrically driven vehicle that could carry a passenger down a public street. 

Trouvé, interestingly enough, also applied his motor to a boat, thus creating the first outboard motor. 

In 1882, Englishman Thomas Parker produced a commercial electric vehicle. 

It wasn’t until 1885, that German engineer Karl Benz invented the first internal combustion engine automobile. The name Benz should ring a bell to anyone even remotely familiar with cars. 

Throughout the 1890s, electric cars were far more popular than cars with internal combustion engines. Electricity was used for trolleys in many urban areas. 

In 1899, a Belgian rocket-shaped electric car named La Jamais Contente set the land speed record by breaking the 100 km/hr barrier and reached a top speed of 105.88 kilometers per hour or 65.79 miles per hour.

Ferdinand Porsche, another name you probably recognize, also created an early electric car. 

In the first decade of the 20th century, electric cars were still more popular than gas-driven cars, however, there really weren’t a lot of cars period. A survey done at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States found that 40 percent of automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline.

As electrification became more common, it proved to be a boon for electric cars. More people had electricity in their homes, which meant they could charge their vehicles easily. 

Up until about 1912, electric automobiles had distinct advantages over gasoline-powered cars. Electric cars didn’t require shifting gears. Electric cars didn’t have to be manually started by turning a crank. The infrastructure for electricity was more widespread at the time than the infrastructure for gasoline. Also, gasoline-powered cars were loud and dirty. 

Most of all, an electric vehicle is vastly more simple than an internal combustion engine. It took years of engineering improvements and new inventions to get the internal combustion engine to the point where it was clearly more practical than electric. More on this topic in a bit…

However, that did eventually happen. By the time the 1920s rolled around, gasoline-powered cars had taken the lead. 

The problem was electric vehicles were severely limited in the amount of energy they could carry. The batteries’ limited range meant they could only be used in cities. With improved roads, more people wanted to travel longer distances and they wanted to travel faster. 

Electric vehicles had a fundamental hurdle that they couldn’t overcome. Acid-lead batteries were very heavy and didn’t have enough charge to operate a vehicle at high speeds or long distances. 

Gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine automobiles became so dominant that electric cars all but disappeared. 

There was still some fringe interest in electric cars in the last few decades of the 20th century, and there were improvements in battery technology, but it wasn’t enough to come close to making electric vehicles competitive with gasoline vehicles. 

Electrical vehicles found a very niche market as golf carts and for use indoors where you didn’t want to be emitting exhaust. 

So what happened? What changed that eventually made electric vehicles a viable option to compete with internal combustion engine cars?

In a nutshell, batteries changed. Electric motors had improved throughout the 20th century becoming ever more efficient, but they were mostly used for industrial purposes.

In the 1990s, General Motors produced an electric car called the EV1. It had a range of 80 miles, and it took seven seconds to hit 50 miles per hour. The batteries were nickel metal hydride. 

Within a decade, the range, speed, and acceleration of electric cars tripled. 

In particular, it was due to the development of lithium batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries. 

Today, lithium-ion batteries are in everything, including the device you are probably using to listen to this podcast. 

Lithium is the third lightest element on the periodic table. Compare that to lead which is extremely heavy. If you’ve ever had to pick up a car battery, you know just how heavy they are.

Lithium-ion batteries also have a very high energy density. High enough that they were able to change the equation and make electric vehicles once again viable.

Just before I mentioned that electric vehicles were vastly simpler than internal combustion engines. They are. So much of what you have come to expect in owning a car just goes away in electric cars. 

An electric car is basically a battery and a motor. That’s it. I’m grossly oversimplifying it of course, but those are the two fundamental things that make the car go.

Consider all the stuff in a traditional car that is not in an electric car. For starters, you never need to change the oil, because there is no oil. There are no pistons that need lubrication. Hence, there is no oil filter.

There also is no radiator, because you aren’t producing so much heat, so there is no radiator fluid, no fan, no belts, and no hoses. 

Electric cars don’t have gears, so you don’t need transmission fluid, and nothing will ever go wrong with your transmission. 

There are no spark plugs, there is no air filter, there is no alternator, no muffler, no catalytic converter, and no tailpipe. 

Internal combustion engines are notoriously inefficient. They average about 20 percent efficiency, meaning that only 20% of the energy in the fuel is actually converted into motion. The vast majority of the energy is converted to heat. 

Electric motors are about three times more efficient than engines. In fact, diesel locomotives use diesel fuel, but they use it to run a generator which creates electricity to actually power the train. That is how efficient they are.

With all the stuff that is missing from electric vehicles, they are significantly cheaper to own and operate than regular cars are. This is especially true for companies with large fleets of vehicles. 

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the environmental benefits. Even if the electricity for an electric vehicle is produced at a coal-burning power plant, it is still more efficient than a gasoline-powered car.  

They hardly make any noise, which means the largest source of noise pollution in most cities would disappear as people switch to electric vehicles. 

Likewise, if you live in a place that snows, you might be used to the black sludge that accumulates on roads and near the tires of cars. Most of that would go away as well as there wouldn’t be any particulate exhaust. 

The performance of electric cars has overtaken traditional cars as well. They are no longer the pokey vehicles that can’t go very far.

MotorTrend magazine recently released test results of the Tesla Model S Plaid which went from 0-60 miles per hour in 1.98 seconds. It was the fastest result of any production car they have ever tested. 

One perk that people are now realizing is that you can drive an electric car out of a flood. Because they don’t need oxygen to burn anything, if your vehicle should be caught in a flash flood, you can probably drive right out. There have been videos coming out of China recently of people doing just that in their electric cars. 

The point I’m trying to make is that there are real engineering reasons why electrical cars are better than internal combustion engine cars. Most of this was known 120 years ago, but we just didn’t have battery technology back then to make electric cars competitive.

So, I’m sounding like a huge cheerleader for electric cars. What is the downside? 

The downside is I think much less than the upside, but they do exist. 

For starters, as of right now, you can’t charge an electric vehicle as fast as you can fill up a tank full of gasoline. For the vast majority of people, this wouldn’t matter because most people just drive around their town, which is well below the distance modern electric cars can drive. You just charge your car overnight at home.

The newest model cars can supposedly go from 20% to 80% charge in 15 minutes. 

Another concern right now is price. Currently, electric vehicles are very expensive. However, as with all technology, this is falling quickly and we are probably very close to the first sub $30,000 electric vehicle. Much of the reason for the high price of electric cars was because it was a conscious decision to focus on higher-end cars because that was where the money was. 

Also, the cost of lithium batteries keeps falling. They have fallen in price by 98% over the last 30 years. 

Also, as of right now, you can’t tow an electric car. This is because of how the motors are hooked up to the wheels, they can’t just spin freely in neutral. However, there are ways around this if you just use a flatbed instead of a tow truck. 

Another thing is the infrastructure. We have a well-developed infrastructure for gasoline. Right now, if you want to charge your car away from home, finding a place to charge it might be difficult. It’s getting better, but it will take time to develop a charging system. 

As of right now, a cross-country road trip in an electric car would be much more difficult, but depending on your route, it is possible. 

An electric car is also more difficult to tinker around with. There is less for a mechanic to do because the whole system is much simpler, so if something does go wrong, it probably can’t be fixed in a garage. 

Finally, lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous if they are punctured. However, this is also true of a gas tank. 

Much of the future of electric cars, and much of our modern world really, will be dependent on advances in battery technology. 

Almost every week there is news about advances in battery technology. One of the biggest advances which I’ll probably talk about more in-depth in a future episode is solid-state batteries. 

Solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte, whereas lithium-ion batteries use a liquid electrolyte. Solid-state batteries might be as revolutionary as lithium-ion batteries were. They will store more power, as much as two and a half times as much, charge much faster, will have a longer life cycle, and will be safer. 

They really do check all the boxes. 

So electric cars are a technology that has been with us for a very long time, and their benefits have been known for well over a hundred years. The only reason why they didn’t become the predominant form of personal transportation is that battery technology didn’t keep up with the advances in internal combustion engines. 

Now, however, that batteries have caught up, and are looking to improve even more, after almost a century, the time for electric cars may finally be here.