The history of the electric car
In the world of business, it is rare for a company to bring an entirely new idea to market. Normally, an existing concept is taken and a process of alteration and refinement occurs. When this new offering arrives it can be easy to forget that essentially what you’re getting is an old idea, however one that has been revamped and improved.
This brings me to the electric motor car - something many of us consider ‘new age’, the leading edge of technological innovation. Interestingly though, the electric car has been around for well over one hundred years.
Whilst it is hard to pinpoint one inventor or country for its creation, origins can be traced back to the late 19th century. Responsible for innovations like the electrification of the London underground, English electrical engineer and inventor, Thomas Parker, built the first known electric car in London back in 1884.
Handcrafted from wood and resembling a carriage, London’s first self-propelled vehicle for hire - the Bersey (later nicknamed the ‘Hummingbird’ because of its electric humming sound), was the first electric taxi introduced to the streets of London in 1897. Designed by Mr Walter Bersey, these elegant electric cabs ran in the capital for three years, capable of around thirty miles and utilising a battery exchange service. Unfortunately for the Bersey, problems with reliability and high running costs constituted its demise, and by 1900 the fleet of seventy-five vehicles were decommissioned from London’s taxi market.
Electric taxis were not limited to the ‘Big Smoke’. The ‘Big Apple’ had them too. In 1899 ninety per cent of New York City taxis were electric, and by 1900 electric vehicles outsold all other types of cars. Whilst they were essentially horseless carriages, powered by batteries, early electric cars had key advantages. Compared to their petrol counterparts, they were quieter, didn’t emit putrid exhaust fumes and crucially a hand crank wasn’t required to start the engine. Whereas, steam powered motor vehicles necessitated a long start up time - often up to forty-five minutes on a cold morning.
America was the country where the electric car had gained the most acceptance and in 1902 the world land speed record was even set in a battery powered car. Automotive engineer Walter Baker piloted his “Road Torpedo” at 104mph along Ormond Beach, Florida.
In the States sales began to peak around 1910 - road conditions outside the cities began to improve, and people wanted to travel further than the distance electric cars were capable of. Perhaps the most significant blow was dealt by the Ford Model T, which considerably brought down the cost of the petrol car thanks to Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line. Combining this with newfound oil reserves in Texas and poor charging infrastructure, sales slowly tapered off.
After their initial popularity from the late 1800s to early 1900s, the world entered a period where little advancement was made. The continual development of the internal combustion engine and cheap oil hampered the efforts of alternative fuelled automobiles. However, events momentarily changed opinion on fossil fuel burning vehicles. The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which caused the cost of fuel for America and its allies to quadruple. A few manufacturers tried to capitalise by unveiling new electric models - like the humble Enfield 8000. Nevertheless, electric cars were still compromised and motorists simply didn’t care enough to make the transition.
The true revival did not happen until the 21st century. Two significant product launches ignited the interest we see today in electric motor vehicles.
The Toyota Prius launched to the global market in 2000. The world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle became an instant success with celebrities.
Then the announcement from a small Californian start up that they were producing an all-electric sports car, with supermodel looks, nought to sixty in less than four seconds and crucially able to travel over 200 miles on a single charge. The launch of Tesla’s Roadster in 2008 proved that electric vehicles no longer had to be compromised and dull. This innovative automaker changed the world’s perceptions of the electric car.
Tesla Motors continue to defy and challenge. Renowned business author and consultant Simon Sinek famously stated "People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it". And the facts are, Tesla’s why: ‘Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport’ is more notable than the competitions. CEO Elon Musk genuinely wants to leave the world a better place, and removing the world’s dependency on fossil fuel burning vehicles is paramount. Musk’s desire being so fervent that in 2014 he opened all Tesla’s valuable patents on their battery technology. Of course he wants people to buy electric cars from Tesla. Yet, if they purchase electric through a rival manufacturer, to Musk this is still better than opting for an internal combustion vehicle. It’s Musk’s authenticity that will help him conquer the automotive giants - he’s doing it for the right reasons, combining his past successes with his ambition and adventure - Tesla has already won.