Thomas Parker made his electric car in 1874. So why aren’t they more widely used today?
All cars need electricity to start. Even if they run on petrol or diesel, they need an initial push to get them going.
Sometimes, the push comes from humans actually pushing the car. Electricity travels through the neurons in their brain, saying, “Hey, let’s push the car to get it started!”, and then more electricity comes out to get their muscles to move.
Of course, that’s not the kind of electricity I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the electricity from the batteries that most cars have. Those batteries get charged via the engine while the car is moving, and they use that energy to help get the car going the next time it has to start.
Nowadays, the battery is used for a lot of other things as well: to run the windshield wipers and the CD drive, to power the AC system, and even to roll up the windows when you want them closed.
But why stop there? Why not use the battery to power the engine itself?
One of the first electric vehicles (EVs) was made by Sir David Salomons in 1874. That was in the early days of cars, when not many people used them. After all, they were bumpier and noisier than horses, and more expensive, too.
At that time, most cars were steam-powered ones. They used the same technology as steam-powered trains, which means they were heavy and cumbersome and complicated to use. Cars, at that time, were luxury items which only the richest people could afford.
They weren’t just more expensive than horses, they were also several times more expensive than houses.
Of course, the first electric cars weren’t very cheap, either. The early ones were custom-made, by people who had the time and money to try out new designs, and who were interested enough to actually do it. Even when they became commercial, EVs were usually reserved for the very rich, with ornate designs, luxurious interiors, and very expensive materials.
By the early 1900s, cars — both electric and otherwise — had become more popular. Technology had progressed. Vehicles were now cheaper and more affordable. Though not as common as horses, their usage was slowly increasing.
At that time, almost a quarter of all cars were electric. And they were seen as the way of the future. The world had just seen a series of new electric inventions —the telegraph, lightbulb, telephone, and radio — and electric cars were one more item in that series. Car companies were putting a lot of effort into developing electric cars, as were top inventors like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.
And then they stopped.
Twenty years later, there were hardly any electric cars on the market. What happened?
What happened was Henry Ford.
Henry Ford was an American inventor, who founded the world’s most successful car company, a company that completely changed the car industry. That’s because Henry Ford’s main invention wasn’t a new car. It was a new way to make cars.
Until that time, all cars were hand-made. Each car would have a small team working on it. Adjusting the parts, joining them together. Taking it through from start to finish, until it was finally ready to sell. Every worker knew exactly how the car worked, which part went where and why, and what errors and mistakes to look out for.
In Henry Ford’s factory, the workers needed to know hardly anything at all.
In the new company, Ford Motors, the cars were built through mass production. The idea is that each person focuses on only one specific task: attaching one part to another, or tightening a specific bolt. Once the task is done, the car-to-be gets passed on to the next person, to do the next task. And so on, until you finally end up with a complete car.
This way of dividing the work turned out to be very efficient. Now, instead of several days, you could get a car ready in just ninety minutes. What’s more, many cars were being worked on simultaneously. So one new car would come off the assembly line every few seconds.
Because they could be made so fast, the Ford cars were also much cheaper to make. Many more could be produced in the same amount of time. As a result, the new car, Ford Model T, became the most popular car. In fact, in the 1920s, half the cars in the world were Model T.
And the Model T was not an electric car.
Petrol-powered cars had been in the works for a while. They were still slow and unreliable compared to electric ones, and EVs had the advantage that they could be easily charged at home. But all that changed when Ford happened to choose a petrol car for mass production.
Around that time, people had also started discovering oil reserves all over the place, so there was plenty of petrol to go around. The cheap and affordable Model T was very popular, and every car manufacturer was trying to duplicate its success. They began working on designs to make their petrol cars even better.
In 1912, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter motor. Until then, people needed to start their petrol cars by hand-cranking them, like how you need to hand-crank a diesel engine to start pumping water from a well. Now, they could just let the battery give it a push.
The change made petrol-powered cars as user-friendly as EVs, and soon, their advantages started to show through.
Petrol cars could be refuelled much faster: you just had to pour in petrol, instead of waiting for the battery to charge. They could also travel further without running out of power. That wasn’t very important in the early days, when people mainly went around the city. But as cars became more popular and road networks grew, long-distance driving became much more common.
Finally, work on electric cars stopped altogether. Companies were more focused on petrol cars, competing with each other to make theirs better. As a result, petrol cars were improving in leaps and bounds, while electric car technology stayed at the same old level for a long, long time.
Now, as oil is running low and the pollution is running high, people are again getting interested in electric cars. But until recently, EV technology was so ancient that not many thought it was going to work.
Then, a new company started, with a purpose. To change the industry back to electric cars, just as it had been switched to petrol so many decades ago…
But that’s another story.
Ready for more? This week at Snipette, we’re running a whole series on electric cars. We’re covering the situation in India and some other countries, diving into the making of Tesla Motors, and more besides. So, be sure to check back again tomorrow!
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