In 1780, Luigi Galvani was dissecting a frog affixed to a brass hook. When he touched its leg with his iron scalpel, the leg twitched. Galvani believed the energy that drove this contraction came from the leg itself, and called it “animal electricity”.
However, Alessandro Volta (the name behind the SEA Volta 15t model), a friend and fellow scientist of Galvani, disagreed, believing this phenomenon was caused by two different metals joined together by a moist intermediary. He verified this hypothesis through experiment, and published the results in 1791. In 1800, Volta invented the first true battery, which came to be known as the voltaic pile. The voltaic pile consisted of pairs of copper and zinc discs piled on top of each other, separated by a layer of cloth or cardboard soaked in brine (i.e. the electrolyte). The voltaic pile produced a continuous and stable current, and lost little charge over time when not in use, though his early models could not produce a voltage strong enough to produce sparks. He experimented with various metals and found that zinc and silver gave the best results.
Volta’s original pile models had some technical flaws, one of them involving the electrolyte leaking and causing short-circuits due to the weight of the discs compressing the brine-soaked cloth. A Scotsman named William Cruickshank solved this problem by laying the elements in a box instead of piling them in a stack. This was known as the trough battery.
Another problem with Volta’s batteries was short battery life (an hour’s worth at best), which was caused by two phenomena. The first was that the current produced electrolysed the electrolyte solution, resulting in a film of hydrogen bubbles forming on the copper, which steadily increased the internal resistance of the battery (this effect, called polarization, is counteracted in modern cells by additional measures). The other was a phenomenon called local action, wherein minute short-circuits would form around impurities in the zinc, causing the zinc to degrade. The latter problem was solved in 1835 by William Sturgeon (also honoured by the SEA 9t Sturgeon model), who found that amalgamated zinc, whose surface had been treated with some mercury, didn’t suffer from local action.
The First EV’s
Electric vehicles first appeared in the mid-19th century. An electric vehicle held the vehicular land speed record until around 1900. The high cost, low top speed, and short range of battery electric vehicles, compared to later internal combustion engine vehicles, led to a worldwide decline in their use; although electric vehicles have continued to be used in the form of electric trains and other niche uses.
The invention of the first model electric vehicle is attributed to various people. In 1828, Ányos Jedlik, a Hungarian who invented an early type of electric motor, created a small model car powered by his new motor. In 1834, Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport built a similar contraption which operated on a short, circular, electrified track. In 1835, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands and his assistant Christopher Becker created a small-scale electrical car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.
Rechargeable batteries (that provided a viable means for storing electricity on board a vehicle) did not come into being until 1859, with the invention of the lead–acid battery by French physicist Gaston Planté. Camille Alphonse Faure, another French scientist, significantly improved the design of the battery in 1881; his improvements greatly increased the capacity of such batteries and led directly to their manufacture on an industrial scale.
English inventor Thomas Parker, who was responsible for innovations such as electrifying the London Underground, overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham, and the smokeless fuel coalite, built the first production electric car in London in 1884, using his own specially designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries. Parker’s long-held interest in the construction of more fuel-efficient vehicles led him to experiment with electric vehicles. He also may have been concerned about the malign effects smoke and pollution were having in London.
The Rise of the EV
Interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Electric battery-powered taxis became available at the end of the 19th century. In London, Walter C. Bersey designed a fleet of such cabs and introduced them to the streets of London in 1897. They were soon nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’ due to the idiosyncratic humming noise they made. In the same year in New York City, the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company began running 12 electric hansom cabs. The company ran until 1898 with up to 62 cabs operating until it was reformed by its financiers to form the Electric Vehicle Company.
In 1911, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was released by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. The hybrid was a commercial failure, proving to be too slow for its price, and too difficult to service.
Due to technological limitations and the lack of transistor-based electric technology, the top speed of these early electric vehicles was limited to about 32 km/h (20 mph). Despite this slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. They also did not require gear changes. (While steam-powered cars also had no gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings). The cars were also preferred because they did not require a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine.
Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to their ease of operation; in fact, early electric cars were stigmatised by the perception that they were “women’s cars”, leading some companies to affix radiators to the front to disguise the car’s propulsion system.
Acceptance of electric cars was initially hampered by a lack of power infrastructure, but by 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars. At the turn of the century, 40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and America became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance. Most early electric vehicles were massive, ornate carriages designed for the upper-class customers that made them popular. They featured luxurious interiors and were replete with expensive materials. Sales of electric cars peaked in the early 1910s.
In order to overcome the limited operating range of electric vehicles, and the lack of recharging infrastructure, an exchangeable battery service was first proposed as early as 1896. The concept was first put into practice by Hartford Electric Light Company through the GeVeCo battery service and initially available for electric trucks. The vehicle owner purchased the vehicle from General Vehicle Company (GVC, a subsidiary of the General Electric Company) without a battery and the electricity was purchased from Hartford Electric through an exchangeable battery. The owner paid a variable per-mile charge and a monthly service fee to cover maintenance and storage of the truck. Both vehicles and batteries were modified to facilitate a fast battery exchange. The service was provided between 1910 to 1924 and during that period covered more than 6 million miles.
The Fall of the EV
After enjoying success at the beginning of the 20th century, the electric car began to lose its position in the automobile market. A number of developments contributed to this situation. By the 1920’s an improved road infrastructure required vehicles with a greater range than that offered by electric cars.
Worldwide discoveries of large petroleum reserves led to the wide availability of affordable fuel, making Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered cars cheaper to operate over long distances. Electric cars were limited to urban use by their slow speed (no more than 24–32 km/h or 15–20 mph) and low range (30–40 miles or 50–65 km), and ICE cars were now able to travel farther and faster than equivalent electrics.
ICE cars became ever easier to operate thanks to the invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912, which eliminated the need of a hand crank for starting a gasoline engine, and the noise emitted by ICE cars became more bearable thanks to the use of the muffler, which Hiram Percy Maxim had invented in 1897. Finally, the initiation of mass production of ICE powered vehicles by Henry Ford brought their price down. By contrast, the price of similar electric vehicles continued to rise; by 1912, an electric car sold for almost double the price of an ICE car.
Most electric car makers stopped production at some point in the 1910’s. Electric vehicles became popular for certain applications where their limited range did not pose major problems. Forklift trucks were electrically powered when they were introduced by Yale in 1923.
In Europe, especially the United Kingdom, milk floats were powered by electricity, and for most of the 20th century the majority of the world’s battery electric road vehicles were British milk floats. Electric golf carts were produced by Lektro as early as 1954. By the 1920s, the early heyday of electric cars had passed, and a decade later, the electric automobile industry had effectively disappeared.
The revival of the EV
After years outside the limelight, the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s brought about renewed interest in the perceived independence electric cars had from the fluctuations of the hydrocarbon energy market. At the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors President Roger Smith unveiled the GM Impact electric concept car, along with the announcement that GM would build electric cars for sale to the public.
The global economic recession in the late 2000s led to increased calls for automakers to abandon fuel-inefficient SUVs, which were seen as a symbol of the excess that caused the recession, in favour of small cars, hybrid cars, and electric cars. California electric car maker Tesla Motors began development in 2004 on the Tesla Roadster, which was first delivered to customers in 2008. The Roadster was the first highway-capable all-electric vehicle in serial production available in the United States. The Roadster was also the first production vehicle to use lithium-ion battery cells and the first production all-electric car to travel more than 200 miles (320 km) per charge.
In the 6 years from 2010, more than 1 million plug-in electric cars were sold globally. On the 31st March 2016, the Tesla Model 3 was unveiled. With pricing starting at US$35,000 and an all-electric range of 215 mi (346 km), the Model 3 is Tesla Motors first vehicle aimed for the mass market. Before the unveiling event, over 115,000 people had reserved the Model 3. As of 7th April 2016, just one week after the event, Tesla Motors reported more than 325,000 reservations, representing 1.3 of the total plug-in electric vehicles sold globally in the previous 6 years. These reservations represent potential sales of more than US$14 billion.
As with the end of the 19th Century, the electric vehicle is re-entering a period of superiority. This is for a range of reasons as explained in “SEA The Future”, and are not limited to economic, application, commercial, technological, social, environmental and noise benefits over ICE and hybrid technology.