Electric Vehicles: Looking Back to the Future


Imagine a world with no petrol stations, no exhaust fumes burning in the heat from stagnant cars in a long trail of traffic and none of those ‘engine revvers’ making themselves known to all at the lights.

Instead we’re presented with a quieter network of roads, the air is fresh and we re-fuel our cars with some electrical charge as we go for a coffee or do some shopping. When we get home, our car’s full battery could power our house, then recharge when we sleep at night. Charging zones are now in place where the petrol station, its older sibling, once stood.

We may not be quite at that stage yet, but the era of the electric vehicle (EV) is dawning. And this is not the first time that EVs have been high on the radar within the energy and transport industries.

We have seen the rise and fall of EVs several times in the past, each time their success curbed by similar, recurring challenges. Now the growth of the EV market is more promising than ever: as battery production costs fall, technology enables more reliable and extensive vehicle capabilities, and the world is more dedicated to reducing carbon emission levels. This progress presents exciting opportunities ahead for consumers, the transportation sector, and the wider energy world. We will be investigating this in greater detail in other articles to come.

The Debut of the EV

For now, we’re reversing 126 years to the 1800s, looking back at the leading EV innovations of history. It's the Victorian era. A time of huge industrial expansion coupled with the growth of international trade. On a transport level, the trusty horse and cart remains popular, we see the boom of the bicycle and some dabbling’s with the cable street car. Behind these more renowned transportation choices, we find several inventors fascinated with electricity, who were already striving to build the world’s first EV. The ‘first’ electric car can’t be pinpointed back to a single person’s invention. There were numerous breakthroughs around the same time; from Thomas Parker in the UK to William Morrison in the US, and Andreas Flocken in Germany, they all emerged with their version of the electric car1. As you can see, the design is very different to the streamline car models we have today:

Thomas Parker 1884
First electric car, UK

William Morrison 1890
First electric car, US

Andreas Flocken 1888
First electric car, Germany

It was the wealthy Americans that drove the sales of EVs with a peak of 30,000 cars on the road in 1912, while over in Europe there was a slightly more modest number of 4,0002. For these early adopters, EVs were favoured over steam and gasoline cars because they were quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit smelly fumes. In addition, they were perfect for making short trips around the Edwardian city. There was little demand to head to areas further out as road quality wasn’t good so the short range was not a problem. It is worth mentioning here, one slightly later model, nicknamed The 100 mile Fritchle Electric3 which defied this shortcoming. Fritchle an inventor and entrepreneur, was so determined to prove the range of this car, that he challenged other manufacturers to a cross country excursion. Although no one took up him up on the offer, on 31st October 1908, off he set, travelling 2140 miles over 28 days. Quite an impressive feat.

This initial EV ‘hey-day’ period was fairly short-lived. Fields of petroleum were soon discovered meaning cheap oil became the preferable fuel for operating vehicles. As the road infrastructure improved, there was demand to travel further, faster and more efficiently. Sadly, the EVs of this time didn’t stand a chance against gas-powered vehicles. 

Not so swinging 60s

‚ÄčIt wouldn’t be until the late 1960s and 70s, when interest in EVs returned once again. Soaring oil and gasoline shortages drove heightened interest in the search for cheaper alternatives. There was also a movement to find more environmentally friendly modes of transport.  Again however, this was short-lived, as the industry came up against technology barriers such as short range and a limited performance. Sebring 36-48v Vanguard’s Citicar could reach speeds of up to 45 mph but with a limited drive range of 40 miles it couldn’t compete4.

And we have take off...

EVs were taking off: quite literally off the roads and up into space. In the early 70s NASA helped to raise the profile of the EV when its electric Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon in 1971. It was designed to travel at 8 mph and the maximum total distance of 22.03 miles.

Is this the century for EV domination

In the last 17 years, the global progress of EV technology has been dramatic. Some say this was sparked in 1997 by the introduction of the popular hybrid electric Toyota Prius, others regard Tesla Motors  as the force that has propelled the manufacturing of EVs, while the Nissan Leaf has brought them to the masses5. This in turn has caused automobile competitors to react.  Whatever the catalyst, we can be sure that a number of elements are converging to make an EV future viable; advancement in battery technology and vehicle design, government investment in subsidies and infrastructure to support EVs on the road, such as more charging infrastructure. Healthy competition between car manufacturers means ongoing improvements in cost, range and speed giving consumers choice and increased accessibility.

Examples of some current EV models: taken from New Zealand Electric Car Guide

Tesla Model S hatchback


Nissan Leaf hatchback

The future’s bright

Globally there are now about 1.3 million EVs on the road with the key players being China, US, Norway, Netherlands, and the UK. Sales of EVs are growing year on year; in 2015 sales grew by 60% from the previous year and this is only going to increase as technology continues to improve, EVs become more affordable and charging stations become more widely available. Here in New Zealand the number of EVs is expected to double year on year and Vector is preparing for this by installing a network of EV chargers across the Auckland region, with the support of Entrust its majority shareholder, as well as growing its own fleet of EVs.

All this activity signifies a hugely promising move towards a new energy future, where there is a reduced global reliance on fossil fuels6 and where innovation continues to drives possibility and opportunity.

  1. Electric Car Evolution, Clean Technica retrieved December 2016 from https://cleantechnica.com/2015/04/26/electric-car-history/
  2. The Status quo of electric cars: better batteries, same range, Low Tech Magazine retrieved December 2016 from http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2010/05/the-status-quo-of-electric-cars-better-batteries-same-range.html
  3. Plugging into the past, Colorado Country Life, retrieved January 2017 http://www.coloradocountrylife.coop/plugging-into-the-past/
  4. Electric Vehicles History Part V from the 1950s, Electric Vehicles News http://www.electricvehiclesnews.com/History/historyV.htm
  5. The History of the Electric Car, Department of Energy, retrieved January 2017 from https://energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car
  6. Future of Electric Vehicles is Bright, Natural Resources Defense Council retrieved January 2017 from https://www.nrdc.org/experts/roland-hwang/future-electric-vehicles-bright