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The Dawn of the Electric Car

Written by Melvin Brown

Apr 25, 2022

April 25, 2022

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The Dawn of the Electric Car

Electric cars — defined as vehicles powered by electric motors using battery energy — continue to make large inroads in the automotive sector.

The market has, until very recently, regarded them as bland and expensive yuppie-toys — almost like golf buggies on steroids.

However, electric cars are now part of the mainstream market, and they are here to stay.

What is the history of the electric car?

Few people realise that electric vehicles have been around since 1839 — and that these vehicles were, at one stage, more prominent — than their internal-combustion engine (ICE) counterparts.

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Sibrandus Stratingh, Ányos Jedlik and Robert Anderson invented the first electric car between 1828 and 1839. Still, it was only in 1881 that Gustave Trouvé presented the world with a usable vehicle. 

Later, in 1884 — twenty years before the advent of the Model-T Ford — Thomas Parker from Wolverhampton came up with a vehicle with rechargeable, high-capacity batteries.

Today, historians regard Andreas Flocken’s 1888 ‘Flocken Elektrowagen’ as the first proper electric car.

Due to electric cars’ quiet comfort and usability (no problematic gearboxes), there were 30,000 electric vehicles around in the late 1800s. Remember, the ICE was still in its infancy — and not very practical.

By 1897, the US and Britain started using electric taxis when cabs were still horse-drawn. Companies such as Walter Bersey (London), the Electric Storage Battery Company (Philadelphia), Anthony Electric, Baker, Columbia, Edison and Detroit Electric were prominent.

Noteworthy is that electric cars held all the land-speed records in the 1800s. Camille Jenatzy reached 105.88 km/h in 1899.

 

The improvement of the ICE, with quick refuelling, lower production costs and electric starter motors (ironic), eventually brought about a new era in mass transport (and substantial damage to the environment).

Three developments that brought electric vehicles back into the fold are:

  • the metal–oxide–semiconductor in the 1950s
  • the single-chip microprocessor, and
  • John Goodenough, Rachid Yazami and Akira Yoshino’s lithium-ion battery of the 1980s.

Due to emission concerns, the California Air Resources Board pushed for zero-emissions vehicles in the 1990s, but the drive was not successful.

Tesla Motors delivered their ‘Roadster’ in 2008 — the first highway-legal all-electric car powered by lithium-ion batteries and capable of 320 km on a single charge. Nissan and Mitsubishi products followed quickly. By then, government pressure and incentives in Europe and China led to a complete renaissance in electrical motoring.

In 2019, ‘Motor Trend’ magazine rated the Tesla Model S the ‘ultimate car’. By June 2021, the Model 3 became the worldwide best-selling electric car with one million units sold.

Why is the world moving towards electric cars?

The substantial reduction of air pollution (hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, lead and nitrogen oxides) together with the decreased sourcing and production of fossil fuels make electric cars ideal in today’s world.

Emission from large scale electricity generation is usually less damaging than ICE use. With lithium-ion battery and green-energy development accelerating, the ratio should improve further.

Researchers suggest that the total bill for the required electric vehicle charging infrastructure could equal health cost savings in less than three years.

Various countries are introducing incentives for electric vehicles and legislating the phasing out of IEC cars.

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What are the advantages of an electric vehicle?

In a nutshell, electric vehicles are quiet and have no exhaust emissions, but let us consider the fine print.

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Cost

In 2020, the cost of owning an electric car in the US and the EU was less than an ICE vehicle due to lower fuel and maintenance costs.

Factors to consider are:

  • Yearly driving distance
  • Taxes, subsidies
  • Electricity rates
  • Electric vehicle (EV) incentives

Currently, an EV’s battery cost is a quarter of the car’s total selling price, but this continues to decrease.

Electricity tends to be cheaper than fuel per kilometre of driving, but electricity costs vary between locations like with petrol.

Performance

Electric cars have good power-to-weight ratios and impressive flat torque curves, making them exciting to drive (ask any Tesla owner).

EVs accelerate briskly due to low drivetrain losses, simple gearboxes (usually one or two fixed gear ratios) and the absence of clutches.

Tesla’s Roadster does 0-97km/h in 1.9 seconds.

Efficiency

A petrol engine has thermodynamic limits and is thus inefficient — it uses only 15 per cent of its fuel energy content to propel the car and its systems.

On the other hand, an EV’s efficiency range is between 60 and 70 per cent.

An EV’s regenerative braking system is another energy saver — it recovers up to one-fifth of total energy lost while braking, and it lessens brake wear (lowering maintenance costs).

Heating

Most EVs use electric resistance heaters. Still, heat pumps are more efficient and becoming common (Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster).

To save battery life, some EVs have a plug-in, pre-heat function.

Toyota’s Prius allows solar power external batteries to cool the cabin when the vehicle is stationary.

Safety

Due to an EV’s batteries, it is usually heavier than its ICE counterpart. Passengers in a heavier car will typically be safer in case of a collision.

Electric cars usually have their batteries beneath the floor, giving them a low centre of gravity and safe handling.

The media has reported plug-in electric vehicle fires. The fact is the frequency of EV fires are less than ICE vehicles over the same distance.  

Vehicle-to-grid buffering

A novel way of assisting (buffering) power grids is with electric vehicles powering the grid during peak demand periods (at day time when electricity is expensive). Vehicle battery charging can occur during off-peak periods (at night when power is cheaper), absorbing excess generation.

Lifespan

On average, manufacturers guarantee lithium-ion batteries in their vehicles for eight years or 150,000 km. The careful management (charging) of batteries should ensure maximum lifespan.

The recycling of used lithium-ion batteries will no doubt receive much attention in future.

What are the disadvantages of electric cars?

Initial cost

Compared to an equivalent petrol car, the electric vehicle’s initial price is high due to the battery cost. This price is decreasing (the latest batteries are a fraction compared to ten years ago), and government subsidies aid with affordability.

Newer batteries are cheaper thanks to them not being reliant on nickel and cobalt.

Charging stations

These are not as common as regular petrol stations. Still, their numbers are increasing daily due to incentives from the state. Private households and employee companies are also installing the required infrastructure.

Range

EV range used to be limited, but progress towards higher mileage is ongoing. Certain models can do 500 km per charge, and estimates show a 1,000 km capability towards the middle of the century.

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Which are the leading electric car companies?

Although current worldwide EV numbers are only one per cent of the total cars on the road, new sales will change this ratio considerably. In Germany, for instance, EV sales recently passed 30 per cent for all new vehicles sold.

Below is a summary of the principal electric car manufacturers.

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Tesla

The Tesla Model 3 is the top-selling EV and has passed one million global sales.

Volkswagen

This company is investing $86 billion over the next five years with 27 new models planned.

General Motors

GM is spending $27 billion on 30 new EV models by 2025 (40 per cent of their total model offering).

Mercedes-Benz

MB wants 10 EV models by 2022 with a $23 million investment.

Ford

Ford plans to use VW’s modular platform for their cars from 2023 and release an electric F150 this year.

BMW

BMW will be releasing 12 fifth-generation EVs by 2025 with an investment of €10 billion in batteries by 2030.

Hyundai

The company aims for 23 EV models by 2025.

Toyota

Toyota has developed a universal EV platform to accommodate an SUV, small crossover, sedan and compact vehicle.

Fiat

From this year, the new Fiat 500 is an EV.

Nissan

From 2025, all Nissan’s China offerings (nine models) will be EVs. By 2035, Nissan’s entire line-up will consist of half hybrid and half EVs.

All new Infinity models will be electric or hybrid.

Audi

Audi will have 25 new EV models by 2025 and plans to sell only EVs by 2030-35.

Electric car operating tipsElectric car operating tips

  • Plan your trip according to available charging facilities (especially if it’s a long-distance trip over an unknown route) and confirm you have the correct adaptors and cables. Read up on the expected electricity tariffs.
  • Anticipated lousy weather will increase the use of wipers, heating, etc. In contrast, warm weather will increase your dependence on the aircon and fan (plan to cool or heat the vehicle while it charges).
  • The car’s load will increase the load on the batteries.
  • Heavy use of onboard entertainment will affect the range.
  • Correct tyre pressures will allow maximum range.
  • Drive in the economy mode and at moderate speed — anticipate braking and acceleration. Be aware of driving etiquette and at the charging station (it takes longer than topping up a petrol tank).
  • Cruise control does not predict inclines and downhill sections, wasting energy.
  • Speed limiters are generally good energy savers and keep you legal.
  • Use the onboard range calculator often.
  • The power gauge will show how you use the accelerator and regenerative braking capability — try to improve your driving style.
  • Study your owner’s manual on charging technique, cable care, safety and battery care.

A last word

Electric cars are changing our lives and the planet as I type this. We live in exciting and hopefully, soon, greener times.

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