Look to the future and imagine cities belong to electric vehicles: there are thousands of them on the road, and you rarely see a petrol automobile. What we are envisioning was in fact already a reality more than 100 years ago.
In 1881, five years before Carl Benz patented the first car with an internal combustion engine, the French inventor and engineer Gustave Trouvé unveiled the first electric vehicle. It had a speed of 12 kilometres per hour, but models quickly became faster. In 1889, a battery-powered race car was the first vehicle in the world to travel faster than 100 kilometres per hour. E-mobility boomed after that.
Virtually the norm
At the start of the 20th century, there were more than 60,000 battery-powered cars in the United States alone, and all industrialised countries produced electric vehicles. The popularity of e-cars increased at an incredible rate, and by 1912 they were virtually the norm. Fire brigades, street cleaners, police forces, postal services, utility companies, breweries, department stores, retail merchants, public officials and private individuals all drove electric vehicles.
The then German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had several of them in his car pool. He preferred them to what he called “stinky petrol carriages”. The electric cars had a range of 80 km on a single charge, were quiet, drove smoothly, produced no exhaust, did not need petrol, a clutch or gears and the engine was ready to go right away. Many models had electric interior lighting, headlamps and even floor heating. It is no wonder that even Henry Ford, who launched the petrol-powered Model T in the United States in 1908, chose an electric vehicle for his wife Clara.
The demise of electric vehicles
Ironically enough, an electrical invention helped put an end to the triumph of electric vehicles. In 1911, the American inventor Charles Kettering, who also developed the forerunners of the cruise missile and the electric cash register, devised an electric ignition system for vehicles. This allowed petrol engines to be started without a crank, which could now hit the road just as easily and quickly as their electrical competitors. Together with the greater operating range, higher speed, low oil prices and a clever marketing campaign for petrol vehicles, this led to a drastic decline in the development of electric passenger vehicles after 1920. The only sector where the vehicles could still survive was as delivery cars for milk or mail, golf-carts and forklifts.
It took the oil crisis in the 1970s and a growing environmental awareness to restore electric vehicles as an attractive option for passenger cars. Since that period, they have been continually developed further. And perhaps a few engineers are even asking themselves where we would be now if electric vehicles had won out over petrol vehicles all that time ago.