SET Time Capsule: The surprising history of electric vehicles

The global electric vehicle market has expanded drastically over the past decades. Whereas in years gone by they were a rarity, when talking about electric vehicles nowadays, the market offers a wide range of choices from commuter cars and trucks to sports cars and even single seater motorsport cars that race in Formula E competitions. Electric vehicles today are affordable, safe, suited for long-range trips, emission-free, and viewed by many as a great alternative to combustion engine-powered vehicles. Yet, electric vehicles have a long and turbulent history that spans more than 150 years.

This is the surprising story of the electric vehicle, as we know it:

The first electric vehicle was not a single invention but a series of breakthroughs in the 1800s that enabled the development of the first types of EVs. Several inventors in the Netherlands, Hungary and the US began experimenting with electrical motors, which eventually resulted innovative invention such as the first American DC electric motor in 1843 by Thomas Davenport. Thanks to the achievement of improved battery technology in France in 1881, Charles Jeantaud founded the first electric automotive company in 1893. One of Jeantaud’s specially designed cars was able to reach an unprecedented record speed of 92km/h in 1899.

During the same period, gasoline-powered cars enabled by improvements in internal combustion entered the market. Compared to EVs, these cars had various disadvantages in the early stages. For one, they required considerable effort to drive. They needed to be started with a hand crank and changing gears required substantial strength. Moreover, they were noisy, had unpleasant exhausts, and were not entirely stable making for an uncomfortable riding experience. The electric car had none of these problems. Cars at this time were mostly used as urban vehicles due to bad road infrastructure outside of big cities. This resulted in the rise of the electric car in the early 1900s, which was supported by ongoing electrification.

The end of the first “golden age” of electric cars would become evident, as in 1912 around 35,000 vehicles were registered. Henry Ford’s mass-produced model T dealt the first blow to the electric car. Ford’s model T cost only USD 650 as compared to an electric car which costed USD 1,750. Additionally, the electric starter was invented, which eliminated the need for the hand crank and thereby boosted gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

In the 1920s, electric trucks were promoted successfully in some countries such as Germany and the US. Despite these successes, electric cars entered a dark age with little to no technological advances while gasoline became cheaper and the internal combustion engine was improved. Petrol-powered cars were now able to travel further and faster than equivalent electric cars. The only bright spot was that when gasoline was rationed during World War II, electric cars received greater attention for a brief period. Nonetheless, electric cars remained insignificant during the next three decades.

This began to fundamentally change in the late 1960s and early 1970s for two main reasons. Firstly, the western world began to search for petroleum alternatives during the oil crises. Secondly, the environmental movement began to demand alternatives to a fossil fuel-based economy. Acknowledging these developments, companies including General Motors, Ford, and Sony began experimenting with fuel cells and different battery types in 1967. Only seven years later, the first electric car for the mass market was produced by Sebring-Vanguard.

In the 1970s the performance of EV was still marginal in comparison to their combustion engine counterparts, with an average range of only 65 km. In the 1990s, many automotive companies developed cheaper and better electric cars that combined with favourable policies which led to greater market share in many western countries.

In 1997, Toyota introduced the Prius as a newly popular type of electric car: the hybrid. In 2006, Tesla was founded and spurred many big automakers to accelerate work on their electric vehicles in the subsequent years. For example, Nissan released the LEAF, an all-electric vehicle. Most automotive companies today have followed suit and developed their own electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles have come a long way since their inception more than 150 years ago. Today, there are over 7.2 million EVs in service, charging infrastructure is continuously expanding and there are new advancements in technology. Ongoing urbanisation, decarbonisation efforts, and digitalisation will surely add to the rapidly increasing momentum. Autonomous driving and digitally connected cars will certainly strengthen the appeal of electric cars.

SET has always promoted innovation in smart mobility, namely by creating the innovative mobility category towards the annual SET Award and SET100 list. The SET100 is an annual compilation of the 100 best start-ups of the SET Award. It contains the most innovative and promising start-ups that make the energy transition a fundamental component of their innovation.

The 2020 SET smart mobility category finalists are EcoG,Transition-One, and Ponera Group, each lending to the development of innovative mobility by different means.

From the EV charging side, EcoG provides the IoT Operating System for chargers and common IoT protocols on the charger in the field. With its open API architecture, EcoG changes the business model of EV charging by bringing the app economy onto charging infrastructure and make developing service as easy as developing an app.

Transition-One converts thermal cars into modern cars and support clients in their transition to electric mobility. They have developed a 4-hour conversion process guaranteeing quality and performance at an affordable price, while contributing to a creating a greener future.

Finally, Ponera Group has developed a modular pallet system which by their assembly, can provide different sizes of pallets in terms of surface area. The use of bio-polymers ensures the possibility of reusing the pallets several times (the estimated lifetime is 15 years), and its recyclability offers higher sustainability.

To see more innovative mobility and electric vehicle related start-ups from the SET network, be sure to visit our SET Database.

Related articles

iNex Team jumping

SET Award 2022: Presenting this Year’s Finalists

Meet the 15 finalists of the SET Award 2022. The winners of the 6th SET Award will be announced at the SET Tech Festival in the fall of 2022.

SET100 List - The Top 100 Energy Start-ups of 2022

Unveiling the SET100 List of 2022

Start Up Energy Transition (SET) is proud to unveil its 6th SET100 List, the annual compilation of the most promising […]

Elia Group's sixth iInovation Challenge

Elia Group Open Innovation Challenge 2022: A Focus on Sustainability

dena and the SET team are proud to serve as a supporting partner for the Elia Group Open Innovation Challenge […]