The quiet revolution – how electric transport is changing the motoring landscape

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Scotland in just a few months’ time it seemed an appropriate time to have a look at the quiet revolution that has been steadily making an impact on our city streets and gradually changing the face of transport around the world.

Electric cars may seem like a very modern concept but their history goes back a couple of centuries.

The invention of the first electric motor is probably claimed by the Hungarian engineer Anyos Jedlik in 1828, but it was the French physicist Gaston Plane who was the first to invent a rechargeable lead-acid battery that was used commercially in 1859. It was an Englishman, Thomas Parker who cleverly combined the two inventions into a carriage and made the first production electric car in London in 1884.

The surge in popularity of e-scooters and e-bikes in the last couple of years (especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic) reflects the desire for a simpler and greener mode of transport but you may be surprised that a US patent for the first battery-powered bicycle was granted way back in 1895 by Ogden Bolton Jr. The idea of micromobility is nothing new! Click here to see the original US patent document.

Where the invention of the first electric vehicles (EVs) at the beginning of the 20th Century rose out of a desire to get from A to B quicker than horseback, the recent boom in EV sales are a reflection on our need (and desire) for a greener, more sustainable environment and a reduction in our carbon footprint. The UK Government has said it is committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and has set a target of 2030 for all new vehicles rolled off the production lines to be electric.

As some car companies have driven headfirst into the switch to electric car production, like Jaguar Land Rover whose Jaguar brand is said to become all electric by 2025, there are other car makers who have expressed a more cautious approach. Management at Ford UK believe that consumers have their reservations about making the transition from petrol and diesel to electric, with doubts over cost, the choice of vehicles and the charging infrastructure.

According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2020 saw a big expansion in battery electric vehicles with over 10 million electric cars on the roads across the globe, with Europe being the biggest market, having overtaken China. As the demand for EVs has risen so too has the demand for electric batteries with China and Europe continuing to lead.

In the UK there are plans to build a huge electric car battery plant, a Gigafactory, in the Midlands, to keep up with the growing demand for greener fuel. The increase in battery consumption has also impacted on related industries with Cornwall, in S W England seeing a recent proposal for a lithium extraction plant which would take away the reliance on imported supplies of the mineral from South America and China.  

The first hybrid car was built in 1899 by engineer Ferdinand Porsche. It was called the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte and used a gasoline engine that supplied power to an electric motor that drove the car’s front wheels.

Of course it is not just car production that has taken advantage of new electronic technologies. Public transport in London, for example, has seen a dramatic shift away from fully diesel-powered vehicles and now 30% of the London fleet is made up of diesel-electric hybrid buses. London’s iconic fleet of black cabs is also making the move to a greener line of vehicles with Transport for London introducing a licensing requirement to all drivers to reduce emissions from its taxi fleet and transform them into zero emission capable taxis.

With an increasing number of car manufacturers switching to hybrid and electric vehicle production, both now and in the near future, the idea of owing an electric car may cease to be the realm of the wealthy few but will become the practical solution to everyday greener living and our own small contribution to a greener planet for all.