Before the car existed, humans moved mainly by horse and cart. Step by step this cart was transformed in a self-propelled car. The invention of the steam engine marked the beginning of this evolution. The first electric car that could move by its own force was built at the end of the 18th century by the Frenchman Cugnot. His vehicle was used to pull heavy canons. It could move 4 tons at a speed of 4km/h. The machine’s boiler needed to be refilled every 15 minutes. Because this type of car was only suitable to drive on firm and flat terrain, engineers built special roads fort hem consisting out of two parallel steel rails. The steam train was born.
Although the steam car was not really a success, the idea of a self-propelled cart kept playing in the minds of the engineers of that time. Decades later, two new types of propulsion became available: the combustion engine and electric motor. Both proved very suitable as a power source to propel cars, and it did not take long before the first electric car hit the market. The electric vehicles had a battery, which had to be charged at home. They worked quietly and asked for low maintenance. They were very stylish as only rich people had electricity at home in that time. Because they were also easy to use, electric cars were soon the most popular means of transport. The magical record of driving 100km/h was also broken with an electric car. The Belgian Camille Jenatzy did this with his self-built car “Jamais Contente”.
As both engines were developed, the combustion engine eventually drew the longest straw. The biggest issue with electric cars was their battery. The energy that could be stored per kilogram was 100 to 300 times lower than that of petrol or diesel. This meant that early electric cars had to be equipped with heavy internal batteries, reducing the speed and range enormously.
Nevertheless, electric cars were still being developed. In 1896, the then-unknown Ferdinand Porsche patented the electric wheel hub motor. This motor was a breakthrough by its simplicity and the absence of an unreliable transmission system. Porsche continued to believe in the potential of the electric car and developed the Lohner-Porsche ElectroMobil. This car achieved a top speed of 50km/h, and with his battery pack of 410kg, it had a range of 50km. With its front wheel hub motors, this was also the first front wheel drive car in the world. Porche built also a four-wheel-drive Lohner (also the first in the world), but it consumed so much power that it needed 1800kg of batteries to reach an acceptable operating range. Meanwhile, the combustion engine was getting more reliable and less maintenance heavy, putting more research on electric cars on halt.
During the Second World War however, the electric car revived shortly because of the huge fuel shortage. Peugeot developed the VLV at that time: the Voiture Legere de Ville (light city vehicle). It was powered by four 12V batteries under the hood, giving the car a top speed of 30km/h and a range of 80km.
When the energy crisis hit the world in the seventies, the electrical car became interesting again. This research led to the Peugeot 106 electric. This small car had a top speed of 90km/h and a range of 100km. 6400 electrics were produced, but most of them were bought by the French government because the car wasn’t very popular to the public.
Meanwhile the Americans were not idle. Major brands such as Ford and GM experimented with the Ford EV-Ranger and the GM EV1. Under pressure of the oil lobby and as a result of dropping fuel prices however, these experimental electric vehicles were destroyed. This resulted in a wave of protest from people who believed in the electrical car. In retrospect, the CEO of GM declared it was his worst decision ever. If GM had put trough, the electric car for daily use could have been realized 10 years earlier.
A good example of the outcome of these projects of the 90′s is the Tesla Roadster. This electric sports car accelerates from 0-100km/h in 3.8 seconds and reaches a top speed of 200km/h. With its price tag of € 100,000 won’t get high sales volumes, but it does show the potential of the electric vehicle today.
Today, the electric car is here to stay. All major car manufacturers have plans for electric vehicles or have them already in production. As battery technology will be further developed, and fuel will become more rare and expensive, it’s only a matter of time before the electric car will end the combustion engine’s domination.