Long before Daimler

The history of the electric car goes back 200 years

Our individual mobility should become cleaner and more  sustainable. The greatest source of salvation is above all e-mobility, which is the focus of progress-oriented augurs. It seems as if electrically driven cars are new, exotic, innovative - but looking at the history shows: Actually, the e-car is cold coffee, which is now warmed up to bring the ecological change. (Picture: One of the once great manufacturers of the early electric car boom was Detroit Electric. Between 1906 and 1939, the company probably produced tens of thousands of vehicles.) A review.


Whether in the history of the automobile in general or that of the e-car in particular: Exact times for their invention cannot be clearly defined, because as usual in technical developments, each precursor has a preliminary stage. Historians refer to the development of the electric car on roots that date back to the 1830s. After Michael Faraday in 1821 had demonstrated how electromagnetism can generate continuous rotation, a few years later, the first electric motors and batteries for the movement of objects were developed. The Scot Robert Anderson is said to have built a first electric cart in 1832 and a first electric vehicle seven years later. This was followed by several approaches by rail vehicles, which achieved quite considerable speeds with power from batteries for the time and also were able to move loads.

Is a car a car only with a combustion engine?

1886 is regarded as the year of birth of the automobile when Carl Benz applied for a patent for his petrol-powered tricycle number 1 motor vehicle. But the coaches were still very similar, three-wheeled road vehicles with lead-acid batteries and electric motors had been used already in the early 1880s, among others, by Gustave Trouvé in Paris or by Ayrton & Perry in Glasgow. A very similar in style tricycle of the Englishman William Edward Ayrton and John Perry drove 14 km / h fast and up to 40 kilometers. During this time, Werner Siemens also experimented with the trolleybus Elektromote. The first e-car manufactured in Germany is the flake electric car built by Andreas Flocken in 1888, which reached 15 km / h. (Picture: Hybrid drive was already available in 1900. The Porsche Mixte had 2 wheel hub motors. The battery was charged by a Daimler 4-cylinder.)


It did not take long for some entrepreneurs to discover the commercial potential of technology and to establish themselves as manufacturers of four-wheel e-cars and space for passengers. In the late 1880s, early 1890s, it was the Americans William Morrison and the partners Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom, the first e-cars built in smaller numbers. In Europe, for example, Thomas Parker in England and Lour Antoine Kriéger in France began to commercialize the e-car.

E-car brands sprang up like mushrooms


The breakthrough came at the end of the 19th century, when the EVs spread as veritable alternative to steam and the comparatively rare gasoline-powered cars in impressive quantities. In 1900, 34,000 electric vehicles were already on the road in the US. Hundreds of E-car brands shot like mushrooms from the rarely asphalted ground. More than one in three automobiles was electric at the turn of the century in the United States, just under one in five gasoline-fueled. Also, electric cars could impress in this time with record runs. For the first time ever faster than 100 km / h drove a vehicle called La Jamais Contente. It was less responsible for the curious rocket body than a 50 kW strong e-machine duo for this impressive record. Like today, e-mobiles impressed with their powerful and at the same time quiet and emission-free drives. It was also comparatively well placed to supply energy, because around 1900 there was no comparable spread of gas stations with the present day. On the other hand, electricity was diverted in many places.

Shortly before World War I, 1912, nearly 34,000 electric vehicles were built in the US - more than ever before and not for the next 100 years. Although some advantages of the drive principle were obvious, the end of the e-car also showed up in the flowering phase. The gasoline car made the breakthrough in the form of the unbeatable cheap Model T from Henry Ford's mass production, which degraded the e-car manufacturers to extras. In addition, oil was mined in the US in large quantities and gasoline sold cheaply. The higher ranges or even the invention of the starter manifested a supposed technical superiority over the e-mobile, which had no chance shortly after the First World War and almost completely adopted from the streets until the mid-1930s. And for many decades.

E-cars restricted to niches

Only in some niches survived the e-car. Whether as a special delivery van, as a tug in German fishing ports, as a postbus in climatic resorts or neighborhood cars in the US - the e-mobility was never quite dead, but it ended a miserable existence. Even the car industry, which was actually completely on the burner, coquetted again and again with the alternative drive. So VW built in the 70s electric versions of Bulli and Golf as a possible answer to the oil crisis. But there were only unique pieces. In the 80s, the Wolfsburg with the CitySTROMer (see picture) on the basis of the Golf II dared even the construction of a small experimental fleet, which, however, also ended in a dead end.

The e-car did not get a boost until the 1990s, mainly thanks to the Clean Air Act and the Zero Emission Mandate in the state of California, the auto industry was forced to offer models for quota fixed e-car share. Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Mercedes and BMW quickly developed series-production electric series that, with advanced battery technology, should have paved the way for the e-mobile into the 21st century. But shortly before its entry into force, the legislative plan was called off, the new EV was stopped, pulped and the vehicle concepts, as in the case of the Mercedes A-Class, converted to combustion models.

Small e-car wave

Although there were still different approaches to series production of electric cars, but the numbers remained low. So, PSA built between 1996 and 2005 about 10,000 EVs based on the Citroen models Saxo / Berlingo and the Peugeot models 106 / Partner. In addition, there were small companies that wanted to move ecotourism with lightweight vehicles such as the Hotzenblitz or CityEL environmental movements in ecstasy and movement. The biggest problem of these modern, but ultimately simple e-cars remained the conflict of objectives of battery size and range suitable for everyday use. The latter had to be limited, as the energy storage would otherwise take absurdly much space and weight. Questions about the missing infrastructure were still subordinate at that time.


Battery technology powers e-mobility


The real turning point rang the lithium technology in accumulators, which supplied from the early 1990s, the first small electrical appliances with comparatively sovereign power supply. However, it took several years until the idea matured to bundle many of these cells used in notebooks and cell phones into a super battery, which can even drive an e-car. Pioneers are companies like AC Propulsion, Venturi or Tesla, who experimented with their first conversions in the mid-1990s. It quickly became clear that lithium technology also has great potential for driving automobiles.

Suddenly new start-ups appeared, presenting e-cars with insane driving performance and lush ranges. Most of these newcomers fell by the wayside. However, Tesla achieved a respectable success with the Roadster, launched in 2008 on the market, which quite impressively knew how to convert the potential of lithium battery technology into driving pleasure. Even with some established automakers the spark jumped over quickly. Forerunners were Mitsubishi with the i-Miev (from 2009) or a year later Nissan with the Leaf from 2010.


And then came the Tesla Model S


Meanwhile, Tesla's biggest litter to date was achieved in 2012 with the introduction of the upper-class sedan model S. The EV, which was designed from the ground up as an e-car, impressed with its stylish appearance, remarkable performance and huge batteries that even allowed a range of several hundred kilometers. Still, the e-car was in terms of quantities an absolute marginal phenomenon, but increasingly more and more attractive models came on the market. The electric car began to mushroom to the mass product. In 2017, for example, the Tesla Model S was the top-selling luxury-class vehicle in the US and Europe. In total, 1.2 million electric cars were newly registered worldwide this year. The main driver was China, where around 600,000 new EVs found their way onto the road.