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How does an electric car work and who invented it?

Even though you may well think that the electric car is a modern invention, inventors have been thinking about powering a vehicle with electricity for centuries. We will tell you what has been done so far to perfect the electric car.

How does an electric car work?

Electric cars have an engine powered by electricity. This can be supplied by electric batteries (which can be recharged by connecting to the mains) or with hydrogen fuel cells.

All cars have systems that run on electricity (radio, headlights, windscreen wipers). But electric cars can also do without elements such as a multi-speed transmission, a fuel-feeding system and an exhaust system, all of which are necessary in combustion engines.

Broadly speaking, electric cars have the following elements:

  • Electric motor: they can have up to two motors.
  • Transmission: usually single-speed.
  • Inverter: It converts direct current from batteries into alternating current.
  • Drivers: these are responsible for monitoring that everything is working properly.
  • Cabling: this corresponds to the two electricity networks.
  • Battery: the oldest are lead, but newer models include lithium batteries and derivatives, such as lithium polymer.
  • Battery thermal management system: to avoid overheating.
  • Recharging system and plug.

 

Who invented the electric car?

The first electric car was invented in 1827 by Ányos Jedlik

This Hungarian-Slovak scientist was responsible for numerous advances in mechanics, and the use and storage of electricity. The dynamo was one of his inventions, although he did not patent it.

Jedlik connected one of those dynamos to a small vehicle, creating a prototype for the first electric car.

 

1834 saw prototypes by Thomas Davenport and Sibrandus Stratingh

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the United States, a blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, was working on the development of battery-powered electric motors. He managed to propel a vehicle along the railway, setting a precedent for what later became trams.

In that same year, a vehicle driven by an electric motor was driven through the streets of Groningen (Netherlands). The inventor, Sibrandus Stratingh, was a Dutch physics professor, who with the help of collaborator Christopher Becker, had managed to design a prototype electric motor with non-rechargeable primary cells.

 

1832-1839, a carriage adapted by Robert Anderson

The Scottish entrepreneur Robert Anderson developed electric locomotives powered by galvanic cells. He managed to adapt carriages to these machines.

 

1867, Franz Kravogl and his prototype at the Paris International Exposition

At the International Exposition in Paris, the Austrian inventor Kravogl presented the Flocken Elektrowagen electric car, which had two wheels.

 

1890, Exhibition of William Morrison's electric carriage.

William Morrison was a Scottish-born chemist who had immigrated to the United States. He had a secret laboratory in Des Moines, where he experimented with storage batteries and electric motors. In 1887 he made his first tests with a cart powered by an electric motor. Once he had perfected it he made an exhibition in 1890 before thousands of people, which aroused the interest of the media and public opinion. He eventually manufactured and sold 11 of these electric carriages, which had a driving range of about 80 kilometres, with batteries that took about 12 hours to recharge.

 

1889, La Jamais Contente, the first electric racing car.

The Belgian racing driver and inventor Camille Jenatzy also developed vehicles powered by electricity, and eventually opened a factory. His love of racing led him to design the first racing car, La Jamais Contente, which broke the speed record becoming the first car in the world to reach 105.8 km/hr in 1889 in a competition to the north of Paris. It took the industry no less than 50 years to manufacture a car that surpassed this record.

 

1898, the first Porsche was an electric car

When he was only 22 years old, Ferdinand Porsche designed his first vehicle, the electrically powered Egger-Lohner C.2 Phaeton. It could reach 35 km/hr with a driving range of 80 kilometres with a 3-horsepower electric motor. 4 cars of this model were manufactured, which was premiered in Vienna in 1988 and presented a year later at the Berlin International Exhibition. You can still admire one of these early electric cars at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart.

1903, The Fritchle Automobile & Battery Company was founded

Oliver Parker Fritchle was an American chemist who founded a battery and electric car company in Denver. One of his most popular products was the Fritchle Victoria Phaeton, accompanied by very innovative marketing strategies to publicise its advantages. It had 10 horse-power, a top speed of 40 km/hr and a driving range of 90 kilometres.

In 1912 he opened a shop in New York and created a fever for the electric car which filled the streets with these vehicles.

 

1911, Detroit Electric was consolidated as a manufacturer of electric vehicles

The company had been founded a decade earlier, but with involvement of Henry Ford y Thomas Edison, Detroit Electric ended up selling a thousand electric cars a year during the decade from 1911-1921. Great personalities such as John D. Rockefeller boasted of having one of their models in their garages.

The cars were powered by Edison's nickel-iron batteries and reached 130 km/hr with a single recharge.

The outbreak of the First World War tilted the automotive industry towards combustion engines, and the electric car was destined to oblivion.

 

1959, the Henney Kilowatt was first marketed

Although the industry was focussed on fossil fuels, the development of electric prototypes was never abandoned. In the 1950s, Renault received an unusual request: Russell Feldman, Chairman of the National Union Electric Corporation in the United States, owner of the Henney coachworks and the Exide battery factory, asked for a prototype electric vehicle to promote this energy.

With the collaboration of Victor Wouk, Lee DuBridge and Linus Pauling they managed to assemble an electric motor in the boot at the front of the body of a Renault Dauphine, which was especially light and suitable for the power produced by an electric engine. It reached up to 65 km/hr, with a driving range of 75 kilometres. Only about 60 units of the Henney Kilowatt were manufactured, which was a milestone in resurrecting the idea of the electric vehicle providing important innovations that influenced the design of the electric cars that would appear later.

 

1966, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Electrovair

The Boston-based company had long been researching how to adapt an electric engine with sufficient power for a lightweight body with ample boot space. The model chosen was the Covair. It was tested in Monza in 1966 and exceeded 120 km/hr, with 115 horsepower. It had a driving range of up to 80 kilometres. It was never marketed, but its technology was undoubtedly used to develop other models such as the Impact Concept Car of 1990, even the vehicles that were driven on the surface of the Moon accompanying Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in 1969.

 

1996, the experience of the General Motors EV-1

Since the 1960s, General Motors had continued to innovate with regard to the electric car. In 1996 they launched the EV-1 model (Experimental Vehicle 1), in response to increasing awareness for the protection of the Environment and the fight against the emission of greenhouse gases that had started in the State of California.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) established an environmental regulation that obliged the 7 large car manufacturers to dedicate 2% of their annual production to 0-emission vehicles in 1998, 5% from 2001 and 10% from 2003 in order to be able to continue selling their products in California, in exchange for financial aid to manufacturers.

General Motors then launched the EV-1, which was a combination of its legacy in innovation, design and the manufacture of electric cars, and it came to market a thousand units, mainly for car hire.

In parallel to this, other brands launched electric cars such as the Toyota Rav4 EV (1997), the Ford Range EV (1993), the Ford Think City (2001) and the Nissan Passadena Hypermini (1998). In 1998 there were 300 public charging stations in Southern California, mostly in shopping areas, to charge these cars.

In 2003, a change of policies in the State of California led to the withdrawal of aid and the repeal of regulations, so manufacturers not only abandoned the projects, but removed and destroyed the vehicles since it was not profitable to support them in case of breakdown.

However, users had been very satisfied with their vehicles, which performed well and were in line with their beliefs with regard to sustainability, and a lot of people got together to request that they be allowed to buy and keep them, but without success.

In 2004, General Motors donated one of these vehicles to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and it can be seen in their museums.

 

2003, Tesla Motors (now Tesla Inc) was founded

Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning were two engineers who were committed to sustainability. They created Tesla Motors with the idea of designing affordable electric utility vehicles. It is a strange fact that Tesla emerged the same year that large automotive companies put aside their electric car projects, highlighting the need for new strategies for innovation in this field, responding to a growing demand by society for zero-emission vehicles.

Since its inception, Tesla has represented the vanguard for the consolidation of the electric vehicle to this day. It has launched a number of models that have become the best-selling electric vehiclesThe Tesla Model 3 sold nearly half a million copies worldwide in 2021.

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