The evolution of electric cars

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Electric cars offer an alternative to vehicles that run on petrol. We take a look at the bumpy ride through history of the electric car.

Today, with heightened concern about the environment and the cost of fuel, people are looking to viable alternatives to petrol cars. The electric car, first invented over a century ago, is one alternative that has returned to our roadsi.

The rise and fall of early electric vehicles

The seeds were sown for the rise of electric vehicles with the development of the DC electric motor and the lead acid battery in the early 1800s. The two technologies allowed inventors in Europe and America, like Scotland's Robert Anderson and America's Thomas Davenport, to create simple electric vehicles.

Early electric cars were so successful that in 1900 they were more popular than all other types of cars in Americaii. Early models included the Baker Electric Car and the Columbia Electric Runabout. These vehicles offered a range of 100 and 40 miles respectively.

A 1901 Baker Electric Car runs on 24V power

Electric vehicles featured in the cab fleets in London and New York. Electric vehicles didn't have the problems of petrol cars such as vibration, smell and noiseii. Electric cars were easier to use than petrol cars since they didn't have difficult gear changes or require a hand crank to start the engineii. However, due to their limited mileage and long recharging time, they were only suitable for moderate urban useiii.

Petrol-based cars became more affordable than electric cars when Ford introduced the mass-produced petrol engine Model T in 1908ii. The popularity of petrol engine cars rose further in the 1920s with Charles Kettering's 1912 invention of the first electric automobile starter, removing the need to start petrol engine cars with a hand crankii. Their popularity continued to grow as both cheap and better quality petrol increased in availability. By 1935 electric vehicles became all but extinct and would remain effectively so until the 1960sii.

Revival of electric vehicles

In 1947, the Henney Kilowatt car addressed some of the concerns of previous electric cars. It had a relatively high top speed of 96km/h and after charging could travel nearly 96kmiv. Despite these advances, consumers weren't willing to pay the high price for the car, leading to the end of its production by 1961iv.

A 1914 Detroit Electric taken for a run in New York in 2008

The United States oil crisis of 1973-4 prompted a renewed interest in electric carsv. The most successful of these was the CitiCar, with 2,600 built between 1974 and 1976iv. The CitiCar, however, suffered criticism from Consumer Reports, an independent consumer watchdog, which cited steering and braking difficultiesvi. People also lost their interest in electric vehicles once the oil crisis subsided.

General Motors released the EV1 electric car in 1996 in the United States. Initially the EV1 had lead-acid batteries: they were later upgraded in 1998 to nickel-metal hydride batteriesii,vii. Unfortunately, consumer demand for the vehicle was low because its range of 120km to 200km was considered too limited, prompting General Motors to discontinue the EV1viii,ii.

Mileage anxiety and price continued to plague cars running solely on electricity. These factors contributed to the release of one of the most recognised hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius, in 1997ix. A hybrid vehicle uses an electric motor and petrol engine that work together to power the vehiclex. This alleviates mileage anxiety as the petrol engine can be relied upon if the electric motor runs out of energyxi. Recently, worldwide sales of the Toyota Prius passed three million units, with more than 18,300 sold in Australiaxii.

Electric vehicles today

A wide variety of electric and electric-hybrid vehicles are available in Australia today.

The Mitsubishi MiEV was released on the Australian market in 2010xiii. The MiEV received a 4-star rating from Europe's New Car Assessment Programxiv.

From 2010 to May 2013, 65,000 Nissan LEAFs sold worldwide, making it the bestselling electric vehicle everxv. The Nissan LEAF uses an electric motor powered by Lithium Ion batteries. The LEAF's battery can be charged to 80% in just 30 minutes, with a full charge taking seven to eight hours. The car even has solar photovoltaic cells on the rear spoiler to contribute charge to the batteries. On a full charge, the LEAF can travel up to 170kmxvi.

The Australian-built Blade Electron was the first car to pass Victoria's tough crash regulations for electric vehiclesxvii. The Blade Electron was last manufactured in 2011 when it had a price tag about three times more than the car it was based on, the petrol Hyundai Getzxviii.

The Holden Volt - available in Australia from November 2013xix - has both hybrid and electric attributes. The Holden Volt is equipped with a petrol engine that generates electricity that the car runs on when the battery gets low, allowing uninterrupted travel of up to 600kmxx. However, it can also act as a 100% electric vehicle with an 'electric only' optionxx.

The Tesla Model S was named the 2013 car of the year in the US by both Automobile and Motor Trend magazinesxxi. Boasting a range of 257km and taking only six hours to recharge, the Model S is suited to urban and suburban usexxi,xxii. It is expected to be launched in Australia in late 2013 or early 2014xxii.

Despite car companies investing significant amounts of money in the development of fully electric cars, many buyers are still waryxxiii. In fact, only 167 fully electric vehicles were purchased in Australia from July 2012 to July 2013, according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industriesxxiv.

Photo gallery

i The Royal Academy of Engineering 2010, Electric Vehicles: charged with potential, viewed 11 October 2013,

ii United States Department of Energy 2005, History of Electric Vehicles, viewed 11 October 2013,

iii Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013, Early electric automobiles, viewed 11 October 2013,

iv EV Canada 2013, EV History, viewed 11 October 2013,

v Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013, CitiCar, viewed 11 October 2013,

vi Langer, E 2011, 'Bob Beaumont, who created early mass-produced electric cars in 1970s, dies at 79', The Washington Post, viewed 11 October 2013,

vii Edelstein, S 2013, 'How does GM's fabled EV1 stack up against the current crop of electrics?', Digital Trends, viewed 11 October 2013,

viii General Motors Corporation 2001, EV1 FAQ, viewed 9 October 2013,

ix International Energy Agency 2013, A Brief History of Electric Vehicles, viewed 11 October 2013,

x Toyota 2013, What is hybrid technology, viewed 11 October 2013,

xi Ewing, J 2013, 'With i3 Electric Car, BMW Tries to Ease Range Anxiety', New York Times, 15 July, viewed 11 October 2013,

xii Toyota 2013, Toyota sells three-millionth Prius, viewed 11 October 2013,

xiii Martin, S 2009, 'First drive Mitsubishi i MiEV', CarsGuide , 25 March 2009, viewed 11 October 2013,

xiv Stevens, M 2011, 'Mitsubishi i-MiEV Awarded 4-Star Euro NCAP Safety Rating In Landmark EV Test', The Motor Report, 25 February, viewed 11 October 2013,

xv Nissan 2013, Nissan Named a Top Global Green Brand for 2013, viewed 11 October 2013,

xvi Nissan 2013, LEAF: overview, viewed 11 October 2013,

xvii McDonald, N 2009, 'Hyundai Getz Electron', Cars Guide, 26 November, viewed 11 October 2013,

xviii 'Car Comparison' 2013, CarPoint, viewed 11 October 2013,,582331#ctl08_p_d_ctl04_cboMake=4294146192

xix Holden 2013, Holden Volt - Car of the Future, Here Today, viewed 17 October 2012,

xx Holden 2013, Volt, viewed 11 October 2013,

xxi Valdes-Dapena, P 2013, 'Tesla: Consumer Report's best car ever tested', CNN Money, 9 May, viewed 11 October 2013,

xxii Ireson, N 2013, 'Tesla cancels base Model S', Cars Guide, 2 April, viewed 11 October 2013,

xxiii Blackburn, R 2012, 'Unplugged: Electric cars losing their lustre', The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January, viewed 11 October 2013,

xxiv Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries 2013, New Vehicle Sales, viewed 9 October 2013,