A long line(age)

By Roland Löwisch
Electric mobility is not an invention of the new digital age. The early cars, as far back as 100 years ago, were running on electric power. Automakers have been experimenting with energy from batteries ever since – but only today, it has realistic chances again of mobilizing people.

When Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Vermont, plays with his model train nobody laughs. Although none of the observers realizes that his rail car humming away on a circular track with a diameter of about one meter is going to revolutionize the world, the Patent Office recognizes its importance. Davenport has built the first electric vehicle. Subsequently, in 1837, the blacksmith is awarded the world’s first patent for an electric motor. Ever since then, engineers have been pondering the question of how electricity can move people – long before the advent of the IC engine. But why has electricity as a source of propulsion for automobiles not been able to catch on to this day?

The battery: a continuing issue

The main reason is that the amount of energy that can be stored is still less than optimal, although the history of batteries dates as far back as around 1800. That’s when Alessandro Volta builds the first functional battery, the Voltaic Pile. The Italian physicist stacks zinc and copper discs on top of each other, separated by ­pieces of cardboard soaked in a saline solution. In 1859, the Frenchman Gaston Raymond Planté invents the rechargeable lead-­acid battery – which makes “modern” electric vehicles possible. However, a few more years would pass before the “primeval electric vehicle” learns how to roll on wheels. In 1881, the time has come. Its constructor, Gustave Trouvé, achieves 12 km/h (7.5 mph) with it, a leisurely pace from today’s perspective.

When in 1882 the Austrian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla invents the AC induction motor, electricity seems to be the breakthrough mobility solution. This belief is shared in America as well where, starting in 1890, William Morrison builds the first electric vehicle in appreciable numbers. Six years later, his competitor Andrew Lawrence Riker demonstrates the capabilities of early battery-powered race cars on winning the first U.S. circuit auto race against gasoline- and steam-powered rivals. In Europe, at the end of the 19th century, the contest about the fastest electric automobile begins as well. On January 17, 1899, the Belgian race driver Camille Jenatzy reaches a respectable speed of 66.66 km/h (41.42 mph) in the electric CGA Dogcart vehicle. The continual rivalry with Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat culminates in Jenatzy’s “Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) in which he covers a distance of one kilometer (0.62 miles) from a flying start at a racing speed of 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph). Thus, for the first time ever, a car and driver are faster than 100 km/h (62.14 mph) – a world record.

The disadvantages of batteries – low energy density, high weight, costly production, short life and vulnerability to mechanical shock – lead to the invention of the first hybrid vehicles as early as around the turn of the century. In the Pieper Voiturette from Liège, Belgium, the gasoline engine charges the battery for the electric drive motor. An absolute novelty is showcased at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900: the Lohner Porsche “Semper Vivus” constructed a year earlier. It was developed by Ferdinand Porsche as the chief engineer – with two wheel hub motors installed in the front wheels. On special request, Porsche subsequently equips a version with four wheel hub motors – the first passenger car with four-wheel drive. Two years later, under Porsche’s guidance, hybrid vehicles using Daimler gasoline engines are ­created and named “Mixte.”

Milestones of electric mobility – Part I
  • <strong>1834<br/></strong>The American Thomas Davenport presents the first electric vehicle in 1835, albeit only as a model. The Werner Siemens Company ups the ante in 1879 with the first electric locomotive deemed to be fit for field use. The picture shows a PRR DD1 built in 1911. Its two electric motors already deliver remarkable output of 2,000 hp.
    1834
    The American Thomas Davenport presents the first electric vehicle in 1835, albeit only as a model. The Werner Siemens Company ups the ante in 1879 with the first electric locomotive deemed to be fit for field use. The picture shows a PRR DD1 built in 1911. Its two electric motors already deliver remarkable output of 2,000 hp. © Werk
  • <strong>1881<br/></strong>This trike – two small wheels on the right and a large one on the left – is deemed the “primeval” electric automobile. Its constructor, Gustave Trouvé, achieves 12 km/h (7.5 mph) with it in 1881, a leisurely pace from today’s perspective.
    1881
    This trike – two small wheels on the right and a large one on the left – is deemed the “primeval” electric automobile. Its constructor, Gustave Trouvé, achieves 12 km/h (7.5 mph) with it in 1881, a leisurely pace from today’s perspective. © Werk
  • <strong>1899</strong><br/>Hybrid pioneer: The Pieper Voiturette from Liège, Belgium, is the first vehicle in which an IC engine charges the battery for the electric drive motor. The picture shows a model from 1900.
    1899
    Hybrid pioneer: The Pieper Voiturette from Liège, Belgium, is the first vehicle in which an IC engine charges the battery for the electric drive motor. The picture shows a model from 1900. © Werk
  • <strong>1899</strong><br/>E power advantage: The “Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) that reaches 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph) is the world’s first car to break the ­100-km/h (62 mph) mark.
    1899
    E power advantage: The “Jamais Contente” (“The Never Satisfied”) that reaches 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph) is the world’s first car to break the ­100-km/h (62 mph) mark. © Werk

Now all of this sounds like electricity experiencing inexorable success – and in fact, around the turn of the century, about 40 percent of the total of some 4,000 cars in the United States run on electric power (an equal number on steam and only 22 percent on gasoline). Between 1896 and 1939, 565 brands of electric vehicles are registered around the globe.

However, almost simultaneously, various factors ushered in the decline of electric cars, Ransom Eli Olds being the first case in point. In 1901, the American starts building the “Curved Dash” – giving the starting signal for the mass production of automobiles using IC engines, with the main argument of those advocating gasoline, back then and today, being their considerably larger range. In addition, the price of oil in the United States hitting rock bottom spawns filling stations around every corner.

Batteries on the other hand prove to be vulnerable. Cars with practically unsprung full-rubber tires cause the energy accumulators to crumble and inflated tires excessively suffer from the massive weight of the batteries. The electric starter for IC engines as an important gain in comfort, invented by Charles F. Kettering in 1911, is another nail in the coffin of electric vehicles.

80 years of stagnation

All electric vehicle experiments between those days and about 1990 reflect great efforts, but are nonetheless short-lived. The Peugeot VLV (“voiturette légère de ville“/”light small city car”) from 1941 – not least due to World War II – is chanceless, 377 of these vehicles being built until 1945. But even the oil crisis in the 1970s or constantly rising gasoline prices do not get the electric vehicle rolling with lasting effects. The 43.5-hp BMW 1602 Elektro for the 1972 Olympics or the subsequent evolution, the 325iX with an electric motor from 1985, are but mere attempts. In 1971, energy utility RWE, with its subsidiary, “Gesellschaft für elektrischen Straßenverkehr” (“Association for Electric Road Traffic – GES), attempts to provide electricity with new momentum. As a result, scheduled service of the world’s first battery-powered bus line commences in Mönchengladbach in 1974. In the United States, GM invests more than 20 million dollars in e-mobility research and in Germany VW builds a few electric vehicles based on the Golf I and II. However, all of these projects are a flash in the pan.

Milestones of electric mobility – Part II
  • <strong>1900</strong><br/>The Lohner Porsche “Semper Vivus” built a year earlier is a star at the Paris World Exhibition. Its technological highlights: wheel hub motors subsequently upgraded to create the world’s first four-wheel-drive vehicle (pictured). A hybrid variant (“Mixte”) is constructed as well.
    1900
    The Lohner Porsche “Semper Vivus” built a year earlier is a star at the Paris World Exhibition. Its technological highlights: wheel hub motors subsequently upgraded to create the world’s first four-wheel-drive vehicle (pictured). A hybrid variant (“Mixte”) is constructed as well. © Werk
  • <strong>1907</strong><br/>Detroit Electric launches its first electric vehicle. In the 1910s, the company sells up to 2,000 cars per year, making it the first volume manufacturer of electric vehicles. With a top speed of 32 km/h (19.9 mph) and a range of up to 340 km (211 miles) the vehicles are perfectly fit for everyday use.
    1907
    Detroit Electric launches its first electric vehicle. In the 1910s, the company sells up to 2,000 cars per year, making it the first volume manufacturer of electric vehicles. With a top speed of 32 km/h (19.9 mph) and a range of up to 340 km (211 miles) the vehicles are perfectly fit for everyday use. © Werk
  • <strong>1940</strong><br/>30 km/h (18.7 mph) top speed, 80 km (49.7 miles) range: the plug-in Peugeot VLV was intended to outwit the rationing of gasoline under German occupation.
    1940
    30 km/h (18.7 mph) top speed, 80 km (49.7 miles) range: the plug-in Peugeot VLV was intended to outwit the rationing of gasoline under German occupation. © Werk
  • <strong>1972</strong><br/>A child born out of the oil crisis that failed to grow up: the Mercedes LE 306. The batteries as large as a coffin have to be changed after just 50 km (31 miles).
    1972
    A child born out of the oil crisis that failed to grow up: the Mercedes LE 306. The batteries as large as a coffin have to be changed after just 50 km (31 miles). © Werk

Finally, the Clean Air Act passed in the United States in 1990 gives the idea of electricity a new boost. American environmental agencies require automakers to progressively offer zero-emission vehicles (albeit, the hard rules are subsequently softened again). In 1991, BMW showcases the prototype of the all-electric E1 at the Frankfurt International Motor Show and the “Zebra” prototype of the Mercedes A-Class is an electric vehicle as well. PSA Peugeot/Citroën builds some 10,000 units of the electric Saxo, Berlingo, 106 and Partner models. In Germany, on the island of Rügen, 60 electric vehicles from five different manufacturers using various battery systems are road-tested in 1992. In 1996, Audi builds the “duo III,” arguably Europe’s first production hybrid car, which sells for 60,000 deutschmarks. It’s an Audi A4 with a 90-hp liter TDI engine combined with a 29-hp electric motor – however, the car doesn’t become a resounding commercial success. In 1997, General Motors actually launches the Saturn EV1 (Electric Vehicle 1). It is regarded as the first modern-day production electric vehicle and with a range of 160 kilometers (99 miles) and a top speed of 130 km/h (80.8 mph) relatively fit for everyday driving needs. However, only 1,117 units are built and leased to selected customers for 500 dollars a month – and ultimately scrapped practically without exception.

Prius is best-in class

Only the Toyota Prius from 1997 achieves something like a breakthrough – albeit only as the first successful production hybrid rather than as an all-electric vehicle. More than 3.5 million units have been sold to date, the fourth generation having been launched in 2016.

In contrast, it’s a newcomer from Silicon Valley that revolutionizes the battery-electric automobile market: internet multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors. In 2006, the company unveils the first fully functional electric sports car named the Tesla Roadster. Its chassis has been designed by Tesla’s UK-based chassis engineering team using licensed Lotus Elise technology. The Roadster is powered by 6,831 small lithium-ion batteries of the kind used in laptops. Tesla subsequently continues this success story with the Model S, of which more 100,000 units have since been sold. Other models expand the portfolio. But Tesla has been pushing e-mobility on other levels as well, for instance with a network of charging stations and a battery factory to be established together with Panasonic.

Milestones of electric mobility – Part III
  • <strong>1990</strong><br/>Opel converts the top-selling Kadett into the “Impulse” electric vehicle as a pilot project. Powered by a 20-kW high-voltage motor, it reaches 100 km/h (62 mph) and a range of 80 km (49.7 miles). That Schaeffler today achieves output of 20 kW with a<br/>48-volt hybrid shows the progress that has been made in e-mobility in recent years.
    1990
    Opel converts the top-selling Kadett into the “Impulse” electric vehicle as a pilot project. Powered by a 20-kW high-voltage motor, it reaches 100 km/h (62 mph) and a range of 80 km (49.7 miles). That Schaeffler today achieves output of 20 kW with a
    48-volt hybrid shows the progress that has been made in e-mobility in recent years. © Werk
  • <strong>1992</strong><br/>A large-scale pilot project with electric vehicles is launched on the island of Rügen. 60 electric cars participate in the test being run until 1996 – from a Fiat Panda all the way to a bus. The major issues: lack of reliability (sometimes only one vehicle is operational) and range, plus a negative life-cycle assessment due to coal-generated electricity.
    1992
    A large-scale pilot project with electric vehicles is launched on the island of Rügen. 60 electric cars participate in the test being run until 1996 – from a Fiat Panda all the way to a bus. The major issues: lack of reliability (sometimes only one vehicle is operational) and range, plus a negative life-cycle assessment due to coal-generated electricity. © Werk
  • <strong>1997</strong><br/>The launch of the subsequent top-selling hybrid Toyota Prius coincides with the first modern-day production battery-electric vehicle. However, GM’s EV1 is not a commercial success – in spite of 160 km (99 miles) of range and 130 km/h (80.8 mph) of top speed making it fit for everyday use.
    1997
    The launch of the subsequent top-selling hybrid Toyota Prius coincides with the first modern-day production battery-electric vehicle. However, GM’s EV1 is not a commercial success – in spite of 160 km (99 miles) of range and 130 km/h (80.8 mph) of top speed making it fit for everyday use. © Werk
  • <strong>2006</strong><br/>A new passenger car manufacturer emerges: Tesla, a specialist in electric vehicles challenging established brands. Its first car: a roadster incorporating Lotus technology. Powered by 292 hp, it’s more than 200 km/h (124 mph) fast and goes on sale in 2008. Today, Tesla produces more than 50,000 cars per year.
    2006
    A new passenger car manufacturer emerges: Tesla, a specialist in electric vehicles challenging established brands. Its first car: a roadster incorporating Lotus technology. Powered by 292 hp, it’s more than 200 km/h (124 mph) fast and goes on sale in 2008. Today, Tesla produces more than 50,000 cars per year. © Werk

The classic carmakers by now are taking their challengers from Silicon Valley, which include Google and Apple with their well-filled war chests, very seriously. And they should, as Tony Seba, a mobility expert at Stanford University in California, says, referring to IT companies as mavericks with nothing to lose by pushing revolutionary products into the market. Therefore, the established carmakers would have to respond very fast, or die. They’d literally have to do everything differently than in the past 100 years. This applies to both electric mobility and automated driving.

The auto industry has gotten the message. Their model ranges now extend from A as in Ampera (by Opel) to Z as in Zoe (by Renault). There’s hardly a manufacturer without at least one battery electric or hybrid electric vehicle in its portfolio, some also using hydrogen as an energy source. Many governments support the purchase of such vehicles with subsidies or other incentives, though insufficient range continues to be a major issue.

However, at the 2016 Paris Motor Show, most of the manufacturers announced future ranges of about 500 kilometers (310 miles) in affordable electric vehicles. Still, until the energy storage issue has been resolved, the prediction published in the car magazine “Der Motorwagen” as far back as in 1898 still applies: “In the coming century, electricity will be the moving force for elegant cabs and luxury cars in cities,” whereas the gasoline vehicle was said to be predestined “for fast driving, long trips and extensive excursions to the countryside …”

Roland Löwisch
Author Roland Löwisch
Roland Löwisch, Baujahr 1959, schreibt seit mehr als 25 Jahren über alte und neue Autos – vorwiegend mit Verbrennungsmotoren. Allerdings weiß der Freelancer nur zu gut, dass man mit der Zeit gehen muss – was seit mehreren Jahren die Beschäftigung mit der Elektromobilität bedingt. Besonders gern in Verbindung mit seinem Steckenpferd, der Automobilhistorie.