The History of the Electric Vehicle (...and what's to come!)

Image shows Zapman, Electric Universe mascot, reading books on the history of the electric vehicle

Did you know that electric vehicles have been around for over a century? In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, there were more electric-powered vehicles on the road than fuel-powered vehicles. So, what happened?

From the first EV in 1887 to the current 17 million EVs sold worldwide, how - and why - has EV technology changed and developed over the past 135 years? And what’s next?

Let’s get plugged in…

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1800 - 1912

Throughout the early 1800s, a series of technological developments - from the invention of the battery and electric motor - occurred, which laid the path for the creation of today's EV. 

The first electric motor, capable of turning machinery, was invented in 1832 by British scientist, William Sturgeon. This initial invention was later developed and patented by American inventors Thomas and Emily Davenport in 1837. Their electric motors could run at 600 revolutions per minute and could power large machines such as printing presses. 

The first true battery was invented by Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta, in 1800; it was formed of stacked discs of copper and zinc separated by cloth soaked in salty water. Wires connected to either end of the stack produced a continuous, stable current. However, it wasn’t until the 1860s that French physicist, Gaston Plante, invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery. 

Despite these advances, it wasn’t until 1890 that batteries and electric motors were combined in practical vehicle technology by Scottish chemist, William Morrison. 

William Morrison was living in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1880s and secretly worked on storage battery technology and a self-propelled electric carriage. In 1887, the prototype was delivered, but improvements to its electric motor, gear train, batteries and steering mechanism were required. In 1890, the modifications were made, and the second version was released. This vehicle was a transformed ‘Surrey’ horse-drawn carriage, fitted with a battery and electric motor, that could carry up to 12 people and travel at 20 miles per hour.

To publicly demonstrate his success, Morrison entered the vehicle into the 1890 Seni Om Sed (Des Moines spelt backwards!) parade and carried seven passengers on the battery-powered vehicle. The horseless carriage sparked momentum in the building interest in electric vehicles, and by 1912, over 30,000 carriages in the US ran by electric batteries.

1913 - 1996

Despite the initial success and building interest in electric vehicles, in 1913, Henry Ford installed the world’s first moving assembly line for the mass production of fuel-powered vehicles. What had previously taken over 12 hours to assemble now took 93 minutes, making the Ford Model T relatively inexpensive and efficient. 

In 1914, Ford further installed a motorised belt to the assembly line, increasing the assembly line pace to 6 feet a minute. By June 1924, the 10 millionth Model T left the assembly belt. This was just the beginning for mass-produced fuel-powered vehicles. 

Along with the boom in the oil industry (Spindletop Hill, Texas), the 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of iconic automotive brands such as General Motors, Peugeot, Renault, Citroën, and Volkswagen, creating cheap and accessible vehicles. By the mid-1930s, electric vehicles were almost non-existent. 

This fuel-dependent mindset carried on until the 1970s when the US could no longer sustain itself solely on American oil production. By 1972, 83% of American oil imports came from the Middle East (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), paving the path for the following year’s crisis…

In October 1973, the Yom Kippur war (the fourth Arab–Israeli war) broke out. The war lasted from the 6th of October - 25th of October 1973, when an Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire was secured by the United Nations. Due to the outcome of the war, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudia Arabia, announced an oil embargo that targeted nations that had supported Israel during the war. By the end of October 1973, the embargo hit the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa. The embargo lasted until March 1974, with the price of oil rising 300% at its peak. 

The ramifications of oil dependence had been exposed. Following the 1970s, renewed interest in developing alternative fuels became an invested interest for countries across the world. 

That being said, it wasn’t until over 20 years later that electric vehicles were being taken seriously…

1997 - 2002

In 1997, Toyota launched its first generation of Prius - the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car. Toyota was the first car manufacturer to overcome the complex engineering challenges of a hybrid battery-internal combustion engine. 

The Prius was developed using the Toyota Hybrid System, which held a theoretical range of 560 miles. The combined fuel economy was 57.6 mpg, and the powerplant produced just 114g/km of CO2. Compared with the top 10 best-selling saloons of that time, Prius was cleaner and more fuel-efficient in almost every important category.

In 2000, Prius launched worldwide. In 2003, after more than 123,000 units had been sold worldwide, production of the first-generation Prius ended.

2003 - 2020

In 2003, American engineers, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning made the historic decision to incorporate Tesla Motors. At its heart, Tesla Motors was designed to be a car manufacturer that is also a technology company - placing high importance on the development of battery technology, computer software, and electric motors.

Fast forward to 2006, Tesla announces their flagship product, the Tesla Roadster (first generation).  

The Tesla Roadster was one of the first vehicles to be solely powered by lithium-ion batteries and could drive around 200 miles on a single charge. However, with the vehicle priced at around £60,000, and its technology retroactively fitted into a Lotus Elise shell, Tesla created four more versions of the Roadster (Roadster 1.5, Roadster 2.0, Roadster 2.5 base, Roadster 2.5 Sport) before ultimately ceasing production in 2012. A total of 2,500 vehicles were sold.

The Roadster was never intended to be Tesla’s groundbreaking product, but instead, as means to learn and develop what was to launch in the years to come.

And while Tesla was busy breaking EV ground, other manufacturers were also hard at work…

In 2010, Nissan launched the Leaf, a full BEV hatchback, with usability designed at its core. The popularity of the Leaf was such that it remained the best-selling EV of all time until 2020 - at which point the Tesla Model 3 took its pride in place. 

From 2010 - 2020, a flurry of EV technology was produced. A few factors played a part in this (e.g. smarter battery technology, more advanced electric motors, demand from drivers, advancing public charging infrastructure), but most importantly, the drop in lithium prices. From 1991 - 2018, the cost of lithium-ion batteries decreased by 97%. To put that into perspective, the Nissan Leaf has a 40 kWh battery - in 2018, the battery would cost around £5,402, but in 1991, the battery alone would cost about £168,000. This price decrease made making - and buying - electric vehicles much more accessible.

Between 2010 to 2020, a total of 46 different BEVs entered the global market. During this decade, the global uptake of electric vehicles increased from nearly 0 to 10.2 million (6,859,000 of those being BEVs).

The EV revolution had well and truly begun.

2021 - Today

In 2021 alone, 6.6 million electric vehicles were sold (4.7 million of those sold being BEVs). The UK accounts for just over 4% of those sales, respectively. In 2022, global sales of electric vehicles have continued to rise strongly. In the first quarter of the year, 2 million electric vehicles have been sold, up 75% from the same period last year.

This growth trend is seen also in the increasing number of electric vehicle models available. In 2020, there were 29 electric vehicle models available globally. In 2022, this number jumps to 67.

With this in mind, it’s a fair assessment to say that 2021 was the EV tipping point. 

Along with global EV uptake, the UK public charging infrastructure saw huge investments. In March 2022, the UK Government announced the £1.6 billion Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy, to support the building of 300,000 public chargepoints by 2030 (almost 5 times the number of fuel pumps on UK roads today!). The strategy outlines plans to advance projects specific to innovative on-street charging, so those that don’t have access to driveways can still charge cheaply and with ease. The £950 million Rapid Charging Fund is also included under the strategy, with aims to roll out around 6,000 rapid chargepoints across England’s motorways by 2035.

The electric vehicle ecosystem (as a whole) is seeing great developments. With the rise of public charging also came the need for simple access to the network. Enter Octopus Electric Universe. To date, Electric Universe is the largest single network in the UK, offering EV drivers access to over 310,000 chargers. 

2 years ago, charging an EV meant a plethora of different cards and apps, with usage spread across different emails, texts and bills. Not anymore. Electric Universe was - and is - created to enable a super-slick, super-easy charging experience for EV drivers. One card and app, hundreds of thousands of chargers, all in one place. And all with zero added costs or ongoing fees.

But this is just the start…

With global EV adoption continuing to rise, there are countless opportunities for EV drivers to continue to charge at competitive rates and with ease.

Need examples? We’ve got two!

In July 2022, Electric Universe partnered with Osprey to offer a unique dynamic pricing trial, offering Electric Universe customers a daily 20% discount at Osprey locations between 19:00 - 23:00. A great step towards cheaper and more innovative energy usage when charging on the go.

Learn more about the Osprey dynamic pricing trial here.

In October 2022, Octopus Electric Universe announced our partnership with Vauxhall Motors Ltd. and Octopus Energy, to help drivers make the electric switch. An innovative initiative, it places new Vauxhall EV drivers in the epicentre of the charging world and equips them with the knowledge and tools to get charging on the road. 

Learn more about the Vauxhall partnership and its benefits here.

What's next?

Better battery technology and recycling.

As it currently stands (October 2022), the largest EV battery on the UK market belongs to the Mercedes-Benz EQS (107.8 kWh), which will get you 395 miles on a full charge. Imagine if that was doubled!

That’s what solid-state battery technology is attempting to accomplish. 

As can be found in our blog: How do EVs work?

“Solid-state batteries are predicted to be the next big thing in the EV evolution. Although in development, solid-state batteries are estimated to far outlast the current lithium-ion battery type, with battery performance remaining at peak optimisation for 30 years! This would also impact the range of an EV, with some reports estimating around a 50% increase.” 

To learn more about solid-state batteries and EV battery development, read our blog: How do EVs work?

Battery recycling is also looking at huge developments in the coming years. As can be found in our blog: The life of an EV battery

“In January 2022, resource management company, Veolia, announced its first EV battery recycling plant in the UK, capable of recycling 20% of the UK's EV batteries by 2024 using urban mining. This process protects the materials through chemical extraction, reducing water consumption and emissions by up to 50%

The Faraday Institution Battery Challenge, which looks to support world-class research into developing world-class, efficient and safe battery packs by 2035, has also been looking into ultrasonic extraction techniques and has met great success. The goal: create an EV that is at least 95% recyclable.

To learn more about EV battery recycling practices (both current and future), read our blog: The life of an EV battery.

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