Jonathan Wilkins takes a look at the history of the electric car and investigates why the take-up has not proven as successful as expected. Will improved technology result in resurgent sales of electric vehicles?

This may come as a surprise, but did you know the electric car is not a recent development? The idea has been around for over a century and has an interesting history of development. The early electric vehicles (EVs), such as Wood’s Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless carriages. The Phaeton itself had a range of 18 miles and a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

The sale of electric cars was set to skyrocket in 2008, with UK Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown suggesting that by 2020 all new cars sold in the UK would be electric or hybrid vehicles. With four years to go before the deadline, it is unlikely that Brown’s prediction will come true.

Closer to home, even though Ireland saw an astonishing 412 per cent increase in sales in 2014, the total figure still capped out at 256 cars in that year, with 221 of those pure-electric cars and 35 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). In contrast, some 13,929 petrol cars and 47,559 diesel cars were sold in 2014. In total, there are now over 1,400 pure EVs on the road in the Republic of Ireland and close to 200 PHEVs. We are still a long way from the target of 20 per cent of the entire Irish vehicle fleet being electric by 2020, however. So, what went wrong with the electric vehicles market?

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, electric vehicles were extremely popular – there was even a fleet of electric taxis. EVs were advantageous over steam and gasoline vehicles because they lacked the smell, vibration and noise gasoline cars produced at the time, despite the fact that EVs were limited in speed to around 20mph (32km/h). At the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity of the electric car began to decline. Infrastructure was better suited to gasoline cars and large discoveries of petroleum led to cheaply available fuel. This meant gasoline-based cars could travel both further and faster than their electric counterparts and for cheaper.

The subsequent invention of the electric starter and the muffler improved the ease of starting and the noise of gasoline engines. This lessened the limitations of the combustion engine car. The beginning of automobile mass production by Henry Ford in 1912 was the final nail in the coffin, significantly reducing the price of the fuel-powered engine. Most electric-car production was stopped soon after.

There has been a refreshed interest in the last 25 years into alternative-fuel vehicles. This has happened as a result of increased concern and awareness on the use of fuel in vehicles, particularly their emissions, which are damaging for the environment. Cars are a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

In 2016, the Tesla Model 3 was unveiled. This was Tesla’s first vehicle aimed at the mass market. It was reported that almost 400,000 reservations were made. Despite this reignited growing popularity, there are still limitations on the electric car that need to be addressed before the technology can reach its peak.

Environmental aspects

electric cars ireland

Elektrobay electric-car charge point

A recent scientific study found that in some circumstances, electric cars could have a greater impact on global warming than conventional vehicles. The study looked at the global warming impact of the production and operation of electric cars, driven for 150,000km, compared with the production and operation of conventional cars. One of the findings was that the energy intensive manufacturing of electric cars meant some vehicles had almost double the impact on global warming as conventional cars, because of the amount of raw materials and energy needed to build the lithium-ion batteries.

The size of the environmental footprint of electric cars also depends on which power sources are used to fuel the electric vehicle. In geographical locations that have higher levels of renewable energy powering the grid, charging an electric vehicle is less harmful.

However, if the electricity is made from burning fossil fuels, emissions are still being released, but at the point of electricity generation. So really, without significantly increasing the amount of renewable energy that goes into the grid, the prospect of a wider use of electric cars is not as eco-friendly as it may seem at first.

One of the assumptions made when purchasing a vehicle is that it can take us almost anywhere we want to go. With a conventional car, all you need is a petrol station every 300-400 miles (500-600 kilometres) and a few minutes to fill up the tank. With an electric vehicle, the battery needs to be charged after as little as 200 kilometres and the recharging process takes much longer.

Traditionally, battery charging takes hours, although Tesla is currently working on much faster charging solutions. Another possible alternative is battery exchanging. This would allow drivers to drop off an empty battery and replace it with a full one in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, programmes such as this could only exist through government funding; therefore it would take a long time to propagate. Until an alternative is put in place, motorists that regularly drive long distances will probably avoid buying an electric vehicle.

Another setback for electric vehicles is the weight of the battery. Because EV batteries need to be more powerful than conventional car batteries, they need to be linked together into arrays, or battery packs, to provide additional power. As an example, the lithium-ion battery pack in a Tesla Roadster weighs around 450 kilograms, which greatly reduces the car’s distance range.

Lightening the vehicle structure by using lightweight fabrics and plastics versus leather and metal trim can counteract the battery weight, but it may reduce the quality of the car and its structural rigidity.

Not only does the battery add significant weight to the vehicle, but it also adds cost. The battery pack can often account for one third of the cost of the car. This price has dropped dramatically over the last few years, however, and further improvements in battery chemistry are predicted to bring this down further.

Improving technology

electric cars ireland

It is hoped that with a few more years of research and development, electric-car sales will take off as expected

Despite these setbacks, the numbers of electric cars on the roads have been doubling or tripling for the past five years. As it stands, electric cars represent just 1 per cent of the automobile market in Europe, but the growth trend is similar to that of other disruptive technologies such as laptops, smartphones and digital cameras.

As technology evolves, long charging time, low range and battery weight are certainly becoming less of an issue for the electric-vehicles market. An increase in renewable energy would improve the eco-friendliness of the electric car in the future.

A recent market forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that worldwide, electric-car sales will hit 41 million by 2040 – making up 35 per cent of new car sales. This would be almost 90 times the equivalent figure for 2015, when EV global sales were estimated to have been 462,000, albeit 60 per cent up on 2014.

Though this is a way off early predictions, perhaps with a few more years of research and development, this technology will take off as expected.

Jonathan WilkinsJonathan Wilkins is the marketing director of obsolete components supplier, EU Automation. See Email: Twitter: O'RiordanElecelectric vehicles,ESB,fuel
This may come as a surprise, but did you know the electric car is not a recent development? The idea has been around for over a century and has an interesting history of development. The early electric vehicles (EVs), such as Wood's Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless...