Here’s how the electric vehicle has evolved over the last 20 years
In the mid-90s, electric cars were used to get around a golf course and little else. Today, they are the alternative for the future of our roads, and the levels of power and range they offer is something we didn’t even dream about until recently.
You’ll no doubt be unsurprised that an electric car is capable of travelling 129 kilometres between charges. But if we add that the one we are talking about was invented in 1911, that would get your attention. The Anderson Electric was fitted with a nickel-iron battery developed by Edison – a true revolution at the time. That said, it couldn’t travel at any faster than 35 km/h.
Nevertheless, that was exceptional. At the time, electric cars couldn’t travel more than 20 kilometres on one charge. Today, their ranges have increased 12-fold and they are up to eight times faster. Huge progress has been made, but what is most striking is the leap forward the industry has taken between the nineties and now.
That’s despite electric cars not having an easy ride back then: oil prices were at an all-time low and there wasn’t the same level of environmental awareness as there is today. Some governments with a keen eye and worried about the high pollution levels in major cities did, however, begin to legislate in favour of these zero-emission vehicles.
For example, the State of California imposed a requirement on car manufactures in 1998 to produce a minimum quota of electric vehicles. This was a big boost because major carmakers such as General Motors began to invest in developing their own models. The Impact prototype was a two-seater coupé launched in 1996. It was possibly the first proof that an electric vehicle could be attractive and raise passions.
It was a real technological feat at the time, boasting a range of 225 kilometres and a 26.4 kWh battery. It was so costly that GM never sold any, instead opting to lease them long term.
Today’s electric vehicles can have triple that battery capacity and twice the range. While they get better and better in this regard, prices are falling and they are becoming increasingly affordable.
The greatest advances over the last two decades have been in batteries, the corner stone of electric cars because they determine their range. Throughout the nineties they were made of lead or nickel, with limited capacity and unable to generate enough power to compete with petrol or diesel models.
That was until 10 years ago when lithium batteries arrived on the scene. Carmakers brought in this tried-and-tested technology from the consumer electronics sector (being used in mobile phones for example), attracted by its advantages. These batteries are more stable and therefore reliable, they are lighter and don’t suffer from the so-called “memory effect”: they needn’t be fully discharged before being recharged. This is not only convenient but also extends the battery’s useful life. Lastly and most importantly, their capacities are far higher, meaning ranges of between 200 and 300 kilometres are now fairly commonplace. There are even brands that beat that: Tesla has batteries with a capacity of 90 kWh and a range of over 600 kilometres between charges.
The challenge faced by manufacturers to extend the range of electric cars is not, however, just about the batteries. Other technologies that reduce consumption have also evolved over the last few years. For example regenerative braking that uses the kinetic energy generated when slowing down. Thanks to their unique motors (they don’t have gears like a combustion-engine vehicle), many electric cars can now be driven without having to press the brake hardly at all – the motor acts as a brake just by lifting your foot off the accelerator. This results in far smoother driving and leads to savings, since these vehicles’ brake discs and pads need changing less frequently than normal.
Many of today’s models also offer a choice of driving modes to reduce the amount of power consumed. Most have an “Eco” mode button which, when pushed, adjusts various vehicle parameters (such as power delivery or acceleration) for more sedate driving; boosting range considerably. There have also been huge strides forward in other areas such as tyres (which have far lower rolling resistance than before, thereby cutting consumption) or vehicle aerodynamics to decrease air resistance.
The most spectacular advance though has been in autonomous driving. This technology is also being applied in combustion-engine cars, but is more closely associated with electric cars because their motors are far better suited to automation. This concept didn’t even exist in the nineties but today, we are already at Level 3 autonomy out of a total of five levels. The highest level, experts believe, will be reached over the next decade.
Current vehicles with this system can “see” 360 degrees using several cameras and sensors, which they use to monitor what’s around them and react to the unexpected. While drivers cannot let their minds wander, the vehicle turns, brakes and changes lane on its own when traffic conditions permit. Autonomous driving has even reached the race track – a real hotbed for testing.
All in all, it’s clear that the development of electric vehicles has been spectacular over the last 20 years. Furthermore, progress is exponential, so where will we be in the next two decades? Experts talk about an emission-free future with no accidents because drivers will play a very minor role. A truly promising future lies ahead.