How well do you know the history of the EV?

02 Apr 2024

With surprising twists and a famous name, the dramatic timeline of the electric vehicle makes for a fascinating read

Just like true love, the course of innovation never really does run smooth. This can make for frustrating delays for inventors, but fascinating reading for us.

Take the evolution of the EV. Its timeline – dating back to 1828 at the very least and spanning many countries – isn't just a dive into engineering, but a snapshot of many things – the durability (and flexibility) of ideas, the ambitions and needs of people, and the changing landscape of transport. From prototypes to electric tricycles, carriages to cars, 90s comebacks and modern-day vehicles, the story of the EV is one of invention, need, and unbelievable persistence. Take a look.


A small model carriage starts it all off (Hungary)

While, as this article points out, it’s hard to pinpoint the invention of the EV to one person, many believe we should credit Hungarian Anyjos Jedlik for the earliest form of EV. He fitted a mini model carriage with an electric motor and arguably built the first EV in the world – even though no one could actually fit in it. Still, you have to start somewhere.


The idea takes off on both sides of the pond

Scottish inventor Robert Anderson strapped a battery and motor onto a bigger carriage, creating a horseless carriage. Over in Vermont in the US, Thomas Davenport’s carriage ran on an electrified track.


A tricycle gets electric (France)

French inventor Gustave Trouvé fitted a battery to a tricycle and on April 19th successfully took it for a test drive down the streets of Paris, but, unable to secure a patent for the tricycle, he decided to focus on marine propulsion instead.


Porsche gets involved (Vienna)

Here’s a name you might recognise. That's right – the Ferdinand Porsche, who would later found the car company of the same name, first experimented with electricity and in 1898 developed a wagon called the "Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, C.2 Phaeton model,” or P1 for short. It reached a top speed of 25 km per hour.


A flurry of experimentation

For the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century there was a period of endless innovation in the EV world, largely concentrated in the Europe and the US. Our own Thomas Parker, who was also responsible for the electrification of the London Underground system, designed and built an EV in Wolverhampton, and in America a chemist named William Morris built the US’s first electric car. It had six passenger seats and a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

Why was all this happening at the same time? Partly because the alternatives for cars – steam and petrol – each came with their own setbacks. Steam powered cars had been around since the 1700s but had long build up times of around 45 minutes, so weren't very practical for spontaneous travel. And compared to their gas or petrol counterparts, electric vehicles were seen to be quieter, less messy, and more reliable. A prominent scientific journal at the time proclaimed EV cars to be ‘clean, silent, free from vibrations, thoroughly reliable, easy of control.’


The first EV fleets appeared (London and New York)

New York City by the early 1900s had a fleet of 60 electric cabs. In London, Walter Bersey owned his own cheerfully yellow fleet with the London Electrical Cab Company, one of which is owned by the Science Museum.

Early 20th century

The spark starts to flicker

That bit we said about the path not running smooth? The developing EV industry took a knock in the early 20th century, thanks to a few things. First, Henry Ford’s extremely affordable, easily mass produced and iconic Ford which cost $650, compared to an electric roadster’s $1,750.

Next, advancements in combustion engine technology – Charles Kettering, an American engineer, invented the electric starter, which made starting a petrol car altogether tidier and less messy, and eliminated the need for a hand crank. And finally, the discovery of abundant oil reserves and an advancement in the technology to procure them, thanks to drilling and refining, meant that oil production could keep up with demand and the mass production of petrol cars. Were the days of the EV over?


The comeback begins

Companies like General Motors, Toyota, and Honda began to introduce modern electric vehicles like the GM EV1, Toyota RAV4 EV, and Honda EV Plus. In 1991, the arrival of the lithium-ion battery heralded a new dawn for EVs as it made longer distances more possible.


Global sales of electric cars pass the one million milestone.

Present day

196 years after that small Hungarian model carriage was made electric, EV curious drivers in the UK can now consider a wide range of EVs available to buy or rent in the UK EV market.

In 2023, sales of used EVS were up by 90% in the UK compared to 2022. With nearly 120,000 EVs changing hands, this indicates a strong demand for EVs in the used car market.

So, there you have it – some notable milestones that led to the birth of the EV. It wasn’t a straightforward journey, but that’s what makes it so thrilling. And whatever the future – or even the next weekend – holds for you, remember you can find our bp pulse public chargers up and down the country, ready to top you up.

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