The history and future of electric vehicles

Tesla Model 3

Danny Baggs

Posted November 30, 2022

EVs are sometimes called “the cars of the future” and sales continue to grow, but their origins are older than you might think. Learn about the history – and future – of electric vehicles.

The sophisticated and powerful electric vehicles on our roads today have been developed to this standard after more than two centuries of scientific discovery, innovation, and improvisation.

But like many world-changing technologies, the progression of the EV has not been linear, having been impeded and accelerated with technological limitations and breakthroughs, global conflicts, economic fluctuations, and government legislation.

While there are now EVs on our roads that have more than a 500-kilometre range with sophisticated safety features, and impressive performance, this is the story of how we got here.

The history of electric vehicles

1828-1884: Invention of EVs

The first electric vehicle model was invented in 1828 when the Hungarian physicist and engineer Ányos Jedlik developed a type of electric motor that he used to power a small model car. Several other inventors also created small-scale electric cars or carriages, but these early inventions weren’t rechargeable.

Luckily, French physicist Gaston Planté invented a rechargeable lead-acid battery in 1859. This technology meant that vehicles could safely store electricity on board and easily recharge, making them a practical means of transport.

A few decades later, French scientist Camille Alphonse Faure improved Planté’s rechargeable battery design in 1881 to increase its charge capacity, leading to their widespread industrial manufacture. French inventor Gustave Trouvé then fitted one of these batteries to his own improved electric motor and fixed it on an English James Starley tricycle. He drove his contraption – the first true human-carrying electric vehicle – along Paris’s Rue Valois on 19 April 1881.

But it was English inventor Thomas Parker, who had already electrified the London Underground, who built the first production electric car in 1884.


artwork displaying Gustave Trouve driving his electric tricycle

French inventor Gustave Trouvé drove his electric tricycle in Paris on 19 April 1881. Image: Alexis Clerc

Early 1900s: Power struggles

By the early 1900s, many large cities saw a mix of horse-drawn vehicles and motor cars on their streets. Motor vehicles were becoming more and more preferable to horse-powered vehicles as health authorities realised the negative impacts of built-up manure on city streets. At the time, there were three main types of motorised vehicles competing to be the next big vehicle: cars powered by steam, cars with electric motors, and cars with gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engines (ICE).

Steam automobiles weren’t too practical for their drivers as they required long start-up times with regular water refills to work, hampering their range. Meanwhile, the new ICE automobiles powered by gasoline were very noisy, regularly broke down, and had to be hand-cranked to start.

On the other hand, electric automobiles were quiet, reliable and easy to start. They won numerous speed and distance records, such as the first breaking of the 100km/hour speed barrier by the Belgian EV La Jamais Contente in 1899, with a top speed of 105.88km/hour. Even Thomas Edison and Clara Ford (Henry Ford’s wife) both owned and drove electric cars.

Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the German automobile manufacturer Porsche, also joined in the electric race by developing the P1 electric car and the world’s first hybrid electric/gas car.

But then Henry Ford changed the game with his American automobile manufacturing company, Ford Motor Company, which released the 1908 Ford Model T: a mass-produced ICE vehicle that made gasoline-powered cars widely available and affordable to a larger market. With the introduction of Charles Kettering’s electric starter in 1912, which eliminated the need for hand-cranking, ICE sales exploded and EVs were left in the dust.

Around 1914, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison collaborated to develop a low-cost electric car. The project was abandoned soon after when they failed to devise an alternative to the large, heavy lead-acid batteries that were holding EV performance back.


Thomas Edison standing next to an electric car

Thomas Edison attempted to develop a low-cost EV with Henry Ford, but the project was abandoned. Image: Smithsonian

1970s: The EV revival

During the 1970s, the world saw a brief EV revival. Oil supplies from the Middle East were disrupted in 1973 and 1979 due to political conflicts, resulting in petrol price surges that stimulated an uptick in alternative fuel interest.

Small-scale EV manufacture and development started up again in response. General Motors even developed a prototype urban EV that it displayed at the 1973 Environmental Protection Agency’s First Symposium on Low-Pollution Power Systems Development.

But as oil prices slowly decreased, EVs were relegated to the backseat again. Their lead-acid batteries simply couldn’t keep up with the range and power of petrol-powered cars.


man charging a 1970s EV at a public charging ppoint

Seattle, USA was one place that saw a brief EV revival in the 1970s. Image: Seattle Municipal Archives

1990s: Dawn of the hybrid

The low petrol prices of the early 1990s and booming economies in the West meant that many consumers weren’t interested in EVs yet – but behind the scenes, scientists and engineers were steadily improving EV technology.

General Motors (GM) created the EV1 in 1996 after Californian regulators began legislating increased sales of zero-emission vehicles. The EV1 was a quality car considering that it used 26 heavy lead-acid batteries, going from 0-60 miles per hour in around eight seconds, with a 50–100-mile range. But GM ended up losing money on each EV1 it made and decided to stop production in 1999. Despite protests from rapid EV1 fans, GM crushed most of its 1,117 EV1s, inspiring the well-known 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

Newly improved rechargeable lithium-ion batteries began to replace lead-acid batteries in electric cars in the 1990s. Auto manufacturers started modifying their existing vehicle models to create EV versions with similar speeds and performance. But the technology wasn’t quite there yet for mass production or mass adoption: early lithium-ion batteries struggled to perform in cold temperatures, tended to degrade quickly in hot temperatures, and posed a fire risk if charged improperly or punctured.

Instead, nickel-metal hydride batteries were used. Japanese manufacturer Toyota created the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle with the 1997 Toyota Prius. After its 2000 global release, the Prius was adopted by many celebrities and achieved commercial viability. This may have led more manufacturers to think about making cars that use full electric power, as opposed to a car combining both electric and petrol engines.


General Motors EV1 car

The General Motors EV1 was crushed in the late 1990s. Image: Public Domain

Early 2000s: The EV game-changer

Most major auto manufacturers were thinking about future mobility, but no real progress had yet been made on lithium-ion battery technology. 1990s EVs like the 1991 Kewet Model 1, the 1993 Chrysler TEVan, the Solectria Force, the Chevrolet S-10 EV, the 1997 Toyota RAV4 EV and the 1997 Honda EV Plus were stuck using nickel-metal hydride or nickel-cadmium batteries, or even heavy lead-acid batteries, none of which could compete with ICE cars.

That was until 2003, when electric car enthusiasts Tom Gage and Alan Cocconi built an electric roadster, powered by 6,800 camcorder batteries, that went from 0-60mph in less than four seconds. Elon Musk’s car company Tesla Motors adapted their technology to release the world’s first serial production of an all-electric car using safe lithium-ion battery cells. In 2008, the Tesla Roadster was born. With an attractive chassis and a 320km range per charge, the Roadster was a turning point for the electric vehicle auto market.

More EVs began to hit the market. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV launched in Japan just one year later and was available in Australia by July 2010. The Nissan Leaf also launched in 2010 across Japan and the USA, beginning to sell into Australia by 2013. These cars also used lithium-ion batteries.

Since then, Tesla has released the Model S and Model X and Model Y to mass acclaim, and is largely credited with driving the EV industry forward. The Tesla Model 3 – the sedan version of the Model Y SUV – has had massive success in Australia, and is almost the top-selling car in the world. In 2021, Tesla sold just under 1 million electric cars globally and the company’s market capitalisation surpassed 1 trillion dollars, more than the combined value of Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler AG, Ford and General Motors.

Lithium-ion batteries – which are now fire-resistant, longer-lived and rapidly charging – are continuing to be tweaked by scientists and engineers so that EVs provide longer range, more performance and quicker charging times.


2009 Mitsubishi i-MiEV

The 2009 Mitsubishi i-MiEV launched just one year after the revolutionary Tesla Roadster. Image: Public Domain

The future of EVs around the world

EV growth prospects

In total, there are currently around 16 million EVs on the road around the world according to the Internal Energy Agency (IEA). The management consulting firm McKinsey reports that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and vehicle supply issues, EV sales accelerated in major global markets in 2020. This was especially true for European countries, where stricter emissions targets and generous customer subsidies make EV purchases more viable for households.

Sales continue to grow quickly according to the IEA, with the 6.6 million EVs sold in 2021, representing almost 9 per cent of the global car market – triple that of 2019’s EV market share. Australian EV sales also tripled in 2021, with a market share of above 2 per cent. The IEA reports that the top five auto manufacturers by global EV sales in 2021 were Tesla, Volkswagen Group, BYD, GM, and Stellantis.

Since most EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, lithium will become an increasingly important resource. Australia is well placed in the EV manufacturing race, as 98 per cent of lithium mining currently occurs in Australia, China and Latin America.


Lexus UX300 EV

EVs like the Lexus UX300e are quickly gaining popularity around the world. Image: Shannon Morris

ICE vehicle bans grow EV interest

In 2016, countries and major cities around the world began to commit to banning the future sale of petrol- and diesel-powered ICE vehicles, which has increased demand for electric vehicles.

Norway, for example, will ban petrol- and diesel-powered vehicle sales by 2025. The UK, Germany, Sweden, India and Israel plan to do the same by 2030, followed by Japan and Denmark in 2035, and Canada, France, Spain, Taiwan and Sri Lanka by 2040.

In some cases, the decision to ban ICE vehicles is decided on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis. California, a global leader in the adoption of electric vehicles, has announced that it will ban the sale of new ICE vehicles from 2035, prompting other U.S. states to consider joining its initiative. In Europe, cities such as Rome and Milan have banned ICE vehicles from entering certain parts of the city. So far in Australia, the ACT has declared a cut-off date for selling new petrol and diesel-fuelled ICE vehicles by 2035.


hyundai ioniq electric vehicle displaying its plug port next to an racv chargefox ev charging station

New EVs like the Hyundai IONIQ 5 enable fast charging. Image: Shannon Morris

Car companies pivoting to EV models

As demand for EVs rise and governments legislate ends dates for petrol and diesel car sales, several car brands are pledging to go totally electric. In 2017, Volvo became the first major auto manufacturer to announce it will abandon ICE vehicles in favour of electric and hybrid vehicles by 2030. Ford Europe, Honda, Mini, General Motors, Jaguar, Fiat, Bentley, Alpine and Lotus have since followed suit with a variety of specific targets and phase-out dates across different markets.

Several other major car manufacturers now have a strong EV and hybrid range – including the Kia EV6, the Mazda MX-30 Electric, the Hyundai Ioniq, the Genesis GV60, or the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.

Locally, Volvo Australia has recently committed to an all-electric model range by 2026.

Emergence of new electric-only brands

New EV-only brands have also emerged in the last few years to rival traditional brands balancing both ICE and electric production, such as BYD, Rivian and Polestar. Collectively, these brands have been performing well enough, with growing sales and investor interest, that the global pecking order of automobile manufacturers may be in for a change in the next decade. And as EVs begin to resemble electric appliances, leading brands such as Google, Sony and Apple are also spotting a unique opportunity to get involved in the vehicle market. To much fanfare, Sony and Honda will produce electric cars in the US by 2026 through a special joint venture.


Learn how JET Charge makes EV charging at home easy and convenient.

EVs in Australia

Australia now sells many makes and models of electric vehicles, including a new generation of more affordable EVs. EV sales tripled in Australia from 2021 to 2022, according to the Electric Vehicle Council’s State of EVs 2022 report.

Although the cost of entry to an EV is typically more expensive than a comparable ICE variant, drivers may be able to make up for the price difference over time when it comes to recharging versus refuelling costs. Servicing costs are also generally cheaper, as EVs have far fewer mechanical parts that can break down compared to ICE vehicles.

RACV has recently invested in Chargefox, Australia’s largest EV charging network, to help customers transition to a cleaner energy future. Meanwhile, EV home charging has taken off in Australia, with solutions like dedicated home EV charging units like the ones installed by JET Charge becoming widely available as more households seek to maximise their solar systems.

As Australia invests more in EV infrastructure, it’s likely that we will see more and more EVs on our roads and in our garages.


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