There is no doubt that in the eyes of most people, the electric-powered vehicle is a relatively modern invention. Yet long before the internal combustion engine was conceived, electric vehicles were in existence. In the 1830's a Scot called Robert Anderson constructed a carriage powered by a small electric motor that used rechargeable batteries. Although the batteries were heavy and impractical and needed to be constantly re-charged, in the decades that followed, great improvements were made both in electric cells and the storage capacity of batteries. Non-rechargeable electric cells were developed in the 1840's, and by the 1880's, battery capacities were sufficient to make electric vehicles more practical.
Europe initially took the lead in electric-vehicle development, especially France and Great Britain, and in 1899 a Belgian racing driver, Camille Jenatzy, set a new world land-speed record of 68.8 mph in a streamlined electric car. But it was in an increasingly prosperous and industrially powerful United States that the use of electric vehicles mushroomed. From the 1890's up to the outbreak of the First World War, great developments were made in the design of electric vehicles and interest in them increased significantly. Their first commercial use was in New York City, where a fleet of electric taxis was introduced in 1897.
By the turn of the 20th century electric automobiles were outselling all other types. They were easier and more pleasant to drive than gasoline vehicles, and as motoring was still the preserve of the wealthy, their high cost-price could be afforded. Yet the writing was on the wall for electric motoring. American vehicle production peaked
in 1912 but declined steeply in the years following. Roads were better, gasoline was cheaper and more widely available, people were driving longer distances and mass-production ensured that the cheaply priced gas-powered automobile became king. By the 1920's electric automobiles had all but disappeared.
It wasn't until the 1960's that interest in electric vehicles was renewed. Concerns were growing both about the environmental impact of gasoline emissions and an increasingly unreliable oil supply. Companies began to explore new forms of motive power, and electric motors were in the lead.
The first electric truck of that decade was delivered to The Potomac Edison Company in 1964 by The Battronic truck Company who, in the 1970's, produced electric vehicles for the utility industry as well as a small number of buses. Two companies, Sebring-Vanguard and Elcar Corporation, produced small 'citicars', but their limitations were obvious. They were slow and their range was limited. Despite some commercial uses and a moderate suitability for short urban journeys, electric vehicles were still impractical and unpopular. The general public had long become used to gas-powered automobiles.
But with the 1990's came increased pressure on the large motor manufacturers to clean up their act. Stricter legislation was being enacted in the United States and Europe to bring about reduced or even 'zero' carbon emissions and this led to most of the big manufacturers focusing on the development of alternative forms of motive power. Again, electric vehicles were top of the list.
The big manufacturers developed and produced a significant number of electric autos in the 1990's, both converted gasoline models and 'ground-up' prototypes. But the problems remain. They are expensive and of limited practicality. Although, with increasing government subsidies and the potential for increased production, the cost of electric vehicles will drop; Couple that with developments in battery technology, and we can see at least some sort of future for electric autos.
But the public will have to be weaned off 'gas' to make any kind of difference. Yet they do say 'necessity is the mother of invention', and when fossil fuels do inevitably run out, perhaps electric autos will, after 170 years of waiting, at last have their day.