With all the buzz going around the development of electric cars in today's world, it's no surprise if they are mistaken for a modern invention. But truth be told, the first crude electric car was invented way before the Karl Benz revealed the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1885. Considering that electricity had already been discovered, it must have been the first form of energy that the inventor thought of for propelling a carriage forward. While electric cars used as taxis are not very common in our world today, folks in New York were using electric car taxis in late 1800s.
During the same time, an electric race car from Belgium set a land speed record of 109 km/h and Porsche invented the first hybrid car that ran on electricity and petrol. These little trinkets of facts are really interesting, aren't they? So, let's dig deeper.
Even a kid in kindergarten can film a video to document something today, but it wasn't so easy back in 1830s which is why the matter of who did it first is debatable. Scotsman Robert Anderson is credited with inventing the first electric car some time between 1832 and 1839. And around 1834 or 1835, American Thomas Davenport is also credited with building the first electric car.
But then, three other names are also credited with the feat - Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, Holland, Christopher Becker, and Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik. You see, it is a highly contested for the title and there weren't many ways of documenting stories back then. But these electric cars were crude beasts and not practical ones that could be used day to day.
Practical Electric Cars
Both Thomas Davenport and Robert Anderson invented practical electric cars in 1842 but the two used electric batteries that were not rechargeable. This problem was fixed when Gatson Plante of France invented rechargeable lead-acid batteries in 1859 that defined the practicality of electric cars.
In 1881, Plante's countryman Camille Faure improves the storage battery's ability to supply current and invented the basic lead-acid battery used in automobiles.
It wasn't until 1890s when the electric car came to the United States. William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa built the first successful electric automobile in the US in 1891. By 1893, a handful of different makes and models of electric cars were exhibited in Chicago.
The first electric taxis hit the streets of New York City early in 1897. The Pope Manufacturing Company of Connecticut became the first large-scale American electric automobile manufacturer.
Two years later, Thomas Edison began development of a long-lasting and powerful battery for commercial automobiles hoping that the electric cars will be the future of the automobile industry. His research did improve the alkaline battery, but he abandoned his mission a decade later.
Electric vs ICE (internal combustion engine)
By 1900, 28% of cars produced in the US were powered by an electric battery and one-third of the cars plying the roads of New York, Boston and Chicago were electric. Meanwhile, while the electric car industry was heading towards a booming future, Karl Benz had invented the world's first modern car that used an ICE in 1885.
Developments in the field of ICE engines over the years led to more refined engines that didn't smell or had as many vibrations as the first ones. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced a mass-produced petrol-powered car Model T, which changed the fate of the automobile industry.
Downfall of the Electric Car
The reason why people preferred electric cars over fuel-powered ones was that they were easier to drive - there was no manual crank to start the engine and there was no need to change gears. In 1912 though, Charles Kettering invented the first electric starter that made fossil fuel-powered cars a lot more attractive to buyers.
By the time the automobile industry entered the 1920s, cars that used ICE overtook the electric car, the downfall of which was attributed to lack of horsepower, charging time of batteries and range delivered on one charge. And hence, electric cars ceased to be a viable commercial product.
Starting from the electric car's invention to its near demise in 1920, the need for it was to build a practical mobility solution for the masses, but the traditional car won this battle eventually as it offered more practicality.
While renowned automobile manufacturers from around the world did develop electric cars for a market that was dominated by traditional cars. For example, Toyota unveiled the Prius in 1997 - the world's first commercially mass-produced hybrid car - in Japan. Nearly 18,000 units are sold during the first production year. Other all-electric cars, such as Honda's EV Plus, G.M.'s EV1, Ford's Ranger pickup EV, Nissan's Altra EV, Chevy's S-10 EV, and Toyota's RAV4 EV existed, but never formed a part of the mainstream automobile industry.
Now though, the waves are changing - not because the applications of an electric car are better for regular use, but because we now have more stringent emissions laws. Technology has brought the electric car at par with petrol-powered cars in terms of power, with brands like Rimac developing electric hyper cars that give a serious competition to the likes of Bugatti Chiron.
Owing to a rise in pollution and an eventual depletion of fossil fuel resources, governments around the world are directing their respective carmakers to focus more on electric cars again. India too has an ambitious plan to go all-electric by 2032. There are car manufacturers like Volvo, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and others that are planning to launch hybrid versions of their existing cars.
Electric cars were instrumental at the beginning of the automobile scenario. They had to take a backseat for decades but were never lost, which is why the tech could be refined to today's requirements. And now, they're coming back. Some of us may not even like it since we love the roaring traditional engines too much, the human race is taking a leaf out of their history books to secure its future.