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.
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.
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.