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EVolution: The Evolution of the Electric Car, Part 1 — Electric Cars Came First

Most people are surprised to learn that electric vehicles were invented earlier than gasoline cars. Electric cars are thought of as vehicles of the future, but in fact they have a long history.

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2013/07/18

Electric Cars Came First
Most people are surprised to learn that electric vehicles (EVs) were invented earlier than gasoline cars. Electric cars are thought of as vehicles of the future, but in fact they have a long history. The first EV was completed by Englishman Robert Davidson, one hundred and forty years ago, in 1873. The first gasoline car was made in 1885, so EVs came a full twelve years earlier. And the first EVs went on sale in 1891, again five years earlier than gasoline cars. And the first EV to reach 100 km/h was in 1899, once again beating the gasoline engine.

The battery holds the key
So, as you can see, in the nineteenth century electric cars and gasoline cars were developing side by side, and if anything EVs were in the lead. And later in Japan, due to a lack of gasoline after World War II, once again electric taxis worked the towns. How was it, then, that the twentieth century became the century of the gasoline engine, and not the EV?

The reason is that the battery technology of the time wasn't capable of storing and transporting electricity like gasoline. The problem was not with the EV itself, but with the transmission of the electricity that made it run. And then, with the advent of the mass production Model T Ford in 1908, gasoline cars took the undisputed lead.
The evolution of the EV battery
EVolution_002.jpg
Nissan’s Tama electric car, released in 1947, used a lead-acid battery (left). Not only was the energy storage capacity of batteries at that time many times less than gasoline, they were expensive, too. After that, the move was towards lithium ion batteries in place of lead or nickel-metal hydride, as they are capable of storing much more energy in the same sized battery. In 1996, Nissan succeeded in developing the first EV run on lithium ion batteries. The Hypermini, released in 1999, used cylindrical lithium ion batteries (center). From there, the challenge was to produce a high spec, compact lithium ion battery. When Nissan LEAF appeared in 2010, instead of cylindrical batteries, it packed new, small-sized but highly powerful, thin laminated cells (right).
So, as you can see, in the nineteenth century electric cars and gasoline cars were developing side by side, and if anything EVs were in the lead. And later in Japan, due to a lack of gasoline after World War II, once again electric taxis worked the towns. How was it, then, that the twentieth century became the century of the gasoline engine, and not the EV?

The reason is that the battery technology of the time wasn't capable of storing and transporting electricity like gasoline. The problem was not with the EV itself, but with the transmission of the electricity that made it run. And then, with the advent of the mass production Model T Ford in 1908, gasoline cars took the undisputed lead.


Read the next article in this series:
"Evolution: The evolution of the EV, Part 2 Speed Evolution"