A long line(age)
When Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Vermont, plays with his model train nobody laughs. Although none of the observers realizes that his rail car humming away on a circular track with a diameter of about one meter is going to revolutionize the world, the Patent Office recognizes its importance. Davenport has built the first electric vehicle. Subsequently, in 1837, the blacksmith is awarded the world’s first patent for an electric motor. Ever since then, engineers have been pondering the question of how electricity can move people – long before the advent of the IC engine. But why has electricity as a source of propulsion for automobiles not been able to catch on to this day?
The battery: a continuing issue
The main reason is that the amount of energy that can be stored is still less than optimal, although the history of batteries dates as far back as around 1800. That’s when Alessandro Volta builds the first functional battery, the Voltaic Pile. The Italian physicist stacks zinc and copper discs on top of each other, separated by pieces of cardboard soaked in a saline solution. In 1859, the Frenchman Gaston Raymond Planté invents the rechargeable lead-acid battery – which makes “modern” electric vehicles possible. However, a few more years would pass before the “primeval electric vehicle” learns how to roll on wheels. In 1881, the time has come. Its constructor, Gustave Trouvé, achieves 12 km/h (7.5 mph) with it, a leisurely pace from today’s perspective.
When in 1882 the Austrian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla invents the AC induction motor, electricity seems to be the breakthrough mobility solution. This belief is shared in America as well where, starting in 1890, William Morrison builds the first electric vehicle in appreciable numbers. Six years later, his competitor Andrew Lawrence Riker demonstrates the capabilities of early battery-powered race cars on winning the first U.S. circuit auto race against gasoline- and steam-powered rivals. In Europe, at the end of the 19th century, the contest about the fastest electric automobile begins as well. On January 17, 1899, the Belgian race driver Camille Jenatzy reaches a respectable speed of 66.66 km/h (41.42 mph) in the electric CGA Dogcart vehicle. The continual rivalry with Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat culminates in Jenatzy’s “Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) in which he covers a distance of one kilometer (0.62 miles) from a flying start at a racing speed of 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph). Thus, for the first time ever, a car and driver are faster than 100 km/h (62.14 mph) – a world record.
The disadvantages of batteries – low energy density, high weight, costly production, short life and vulnerability to mechanical shock – lead to the invention of the first hybrid vehicles as early as around the turn of the century. In the Pieper Voiturette from Liège, Belgium, the gasoline engine charges the battery for the electric drive motor. An absolute novelty is showcased at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900: the Lohner Porsche “Semper Vivus” constructed a year earlier. It was developed by Ferdinand Porsche as the chief engineer – with two wheel hub motors installed in the front wheels. On special request, Porsche subsequently equips a version with four wheel hub motors – the first passenger car with four-wheel drive. Two years later, under Porsche’s guidance, hybrid vehicles using Daimler gasoline engines are created and named “Mixte.”
Milestones of electric mobility – Part I
Now all of this sounds like electricity experiencing inexorable success – and in fact, around the turn of the century, about 40 percent of the total of some 4,000 cars in the United States run on electric power (an equal number on steam and only 22 percent on gasoline). Between 1896 and 1939, 565 brands of electric vehicles are registered around the globe.
However, almost simultaneously, various factors ushered in the decline of electric cars, Ransom Eli Olds being the first case in point. In 1901, the American starts building the “Curved Dash” – giving the starting signal for the mass production of automobiles using IC engines, with the main argument of those advocating gasoline, back then and today, being their considerably larger range. In addition, the price of oil in the United States hitting rock bottom spawns filling stations around every corner.
Batteries on the other hand prove to be vulnerable. Cars with practically unsprung full-rubber tires cause the energy accumulators to crumble and inflated tires excessively suffer from the massive weight of the batteries. The electric starter for IC engines as an important gain in comfort, invented by Charles F. Kettering in 1911, is another nail in the coffin of electric vehicles.
80 years of stagnation
All electric vehicle experiments between those days and about 1990 reflect great efforts, but are nonetheless short-lived. The Peugeot VLV (“voiturette légère de ville“/”light small city car”) from 1941 – not least due to World War II – is chanceless, 377 of these vehicles being built until 1945. But even the oil crisis in the 1970s or constantly rising gasoline prices do not get the electric vehicle rolling with lasting effects. The 43.5-hp BMW 1602 Elektro for the 1972 Olympics or the subsequent evolution, the 325iX with an electric motor from 1985, are but mere attempts. In 1971, energy utility RWE, with its subsidiary, “Gesellschaft für elektrischen Straßenverkehr” (“Association for Electric Road Traffic – GES), attempts to provide electricity with new momentum. As a result, scheduled service of the world’s first battery-powered bus line commences in Mönchengladbach in 1974. In the United States, GM invests more than 20 million dollars in e-mobility research and in Germany VW builds a few electric vehicles based on the Golf I and II. However, all of these projects are a flash in the pan.
Milestones of electric mobility – Part II
Finally, the Clean Air Act passed in the United States in 1990 gives the idea of electricity a new boost. American environmental agencies require automakers to progressively offer zero-emission vehicles (albeit, the hard rules are subsequently softened again). In 1991, BMW showcases the prototype of the all-electric E1 at the Frankfurt International Motor Show and the “Zebra” prototype of the Mercedes A-Class is an electric vehicle as well. PSA Peugeot/Citroën builds some 10,000 units of the electric Saxo, Berlingo, 106 and Partner models. In Germany, on the island of Rügen, 60 electric vehicles from five different manufacturers using various battery systems are road-tested in 1992. In 1996, Audi builds the “duo III,” arguably Europe’s first production hybrid car, which sells for 60,000 deutschmarks. It’s an Audi A4 with a 90-hp liter TDI engine combined with a 29-hp electric motor – however, the car doesn’t become a resounding commercial success. In 1997, General Motors actually launches the Saturn EV1 (Electric Vehicle 1). It is regarded as the first modern-day production electric vehicle and with a range of 160 kilometers (99 miles) and a top speed of 130 km/h (80.8 mph) relatively fit for everyday driving needs. However, only 1,117 units are built and leased to selected customers for 500 dollars a month – and ultimately scrapped practically without exception.
Prius is best-in class
Only the Toyota Prius from 1997 achieves something like a breakthrough – albeit only as the first successful production hybrid rather than as an all-electric vehicle. More than 3.5 million units have been sold to date, the fourth generation having been launched in 2016.
In contrast, it’s a newcomer from Silicon Valley that revolutionizes the battery-electric automobile market: internet multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors. In 2006, the company unveils the first fully functional electric sports car named the Tesla Roadster. Its chassis has been designed by Tesla’s UK-based chassis engineering team using licensed Lotus Elise technology. The Roadster is powered by 6,831 small lithium-ion batteries of the kind used in laptops. Tesla subsequently continues this success story with the Model S, of which more 100,000 units have since been sold. Other models expand the portfolio. But Tesla has been pushing e-mobility on other levels as well, for instance with a network of charging stations and a battery factory to be established together with Panasonic.
Milestones of electric mobility – Part III
The classic carmakers by now are taking their challengers from Silicon Valley, which include Google and Apple with their well-filled war chests, very seriously. And they should, as Tony Seba, a mobility expert at Stanford University in California, says, referring to IT companies as mavericks with nothing to lose by pushing revolutionary products into the market. Therefore, the established carmakers would have to respond very fast, or die. They’d literally have to do everything differently than in the past 100 years. This applies to both electric mobility and automated driving.
The auto industry has gotten the message. Their model ranges now extend from A as in Ampera (by Opel) to Z as in Zoe (by Renault). There’s hardly a manufacturer without at least one battery electric or hybrid electric vehicle in its portfolio, some also using hydrogen as an energy source. Many governments support the purchase of such vehicles with subsidies or other incentives, though insufficient range continues to be a major issue.
However, at the 2016 Paris Motor Show, most of the manufacturers announced future ranges of about 500 kilometers (310 miles) in affordable electric vehicles. Still, until the energy storage issue has been resolved, the prediction published in the car magazine “Der Motorwagen” as far back as in 1898 still applies: “In the coming century, electricity will be the moving force for elegant cabs and luxury cars in cities,” whereas the gasoline vehicle was said to be predestined “for fast driving, long trips and extensive excursions to the countryside …”