The Betamax effect part 3

Electric cars

Lightning Electric Car
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So what other early options were swept aside by petrol driven engines? The electric motor driven car is surely a latter-day invention, product of recent concerns about emissions and pollution. In fact, neither concerns about air quality nor electric powered vehicles are new.

The first electric cars were made in 1880 (although some experimental prototypes were created as early as the 1830s). London designer Thomas Parker (also responsible for the electrification of the London Underground) produced a production electric vehicle in 1884 and over the next few years electric vehicles became a popular choice. Parker's vehicle ran on his own design of high density rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries of the era were lead-acid batteries (invented in 1859) and this was not to change - apart from tweaking - for decades.

Electric vehicles were most popular in the US, where, by 1900, 38% of cars were electric vehicles, 40% were steam powered whilst only 22% were petrol fuelled. Electric vehicles were valued as cleaner, quieter and more economical than petrol driven cars even back in the early twentieth century.

However, within twenty years, their fortunes were to dwindle. The early electric vehicles were the victims of dual forces of oil discovery and the Ford Model T. Oil provided a plentiful (and cheap) fuel whilst Henry Ford's invention of the mass production process for cars reduced the manufacturing costs of vehicles enabling them to be marketed at a lower price and bought by many more people.

And as the Model T's star rose, the fortunes of the internal combustion engine rose with it. With these efficiently produced petrol vehicles retailing at less than half the price of electric vehicles, it's not surprising that they were in the ascendency. The infrastructure for refuelling developed in parallel with the growth in production and use, similarly outstripping that for electric motor driven cars. With refuelling concerns and shorter ranges, electric vehicles were limited to city use - although battery exchange programmes were launched that potentially extended the journeys electric vehicles could make, they were too late. The very popularity of petrol cars made them the dominant force, all but wiping out electric vehicles within twenty years.

Electric cars have seen sporadic revivals of interest throughout the twentieth century - but none that really took hold until the 1990s. If you want more about contemporary electric vehicle development, look no further than this blog - and our posts on electric vehicles and Tesla's amazing battery development.

By Beate Kubitz at 31 Mar 2015, 00:00 AM