While the swoosh and whir of the electric vehicle, or EV, is usually associated with contemporary times, the first examples appeared almost two centuries ago, when the invention of the battery and electric motor in the first half of the 1800s prompted the creation of “electric carriages.” Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with pioneering this concept using non-rechargeable power cells around the year 1836. In 1890, William Morrison, a chemist living in Des Moines, Iowa, unveiled a six-passenger electrified wagon capable of 14 miles per hour. Then in 1898, Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the sports car company that bears his name, created the P1, an all-electric, three-horsepower carriage with a top speed of 21 mph.

By the turn of century, electricity powered a third of all cars on the road. The quiet, easy-to-use EV exemplified the perfect city commuter next to its noisy, polluting, gasoline-powered contemporary. But as the 20th century wore on, the internal combustion engine (ICE) improved dramatically. Electric starters, cheaper gas, the invention of the muffler, demand for higher range, and the introduction of the Model T all contributed to the decline of the EV, and by the mid-1930s, petrol power dominated.

Since then, the EV passenger car has made the occasional half-hearted comeback. However, in the last 15 years, its popularity has skyrocketed. The Nissan Leaf, for example, is the best-selling, highway-capable all-electric vehicle in history. EVs are also gaining ground in motorsport, invading starting grids traditionally ruled by the ICE, like Le Mans, as well as carving out their own niche series, like Formula E.

Why has it taken so long? How has this technology evolved? And is it finally here to stay?

Click past the jump to read about electric vehicles.

How It Works

2015 BMW i3 Interior Drivetrain
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To understand how an EV operates, you must first start with the electricity. One of the many benefits of the EV is its ability to charge it batteries from a huge range of sources. Most commonly, charge is provided through a direct connection to a power grid, such as a socket for a plug-in EV. Then there are Tesla’s “Supercharger” stations, or at-home power creation like solar panels. Not all grid connections require wires, as is the case with electromagnetic induction charging, a technology employed extensively for mobile devices but now also making its way into use with cars. Regenerative braking, or kinetic energy recovered from the brake system, can be a good supplement.

Some EVs have on-board electricity generators, such as an ICE on a hybrid or fuel cell on a hydrogen car, or a nuclear reactor. Even nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers could be classified as hybrid EVs.

Next, the energy must be stored so that it can be carried around. The lithium-ion battery, a device you’ll find powering your laptop, is far and away the most common choice for passenger vehicles, but some EVs have been known to use flywheels or supercapacitors. These are then hooked up to an electric motor, which provides motive power. Output is typically measured in kilowatts, with 100kW roughly equating to 134 horsepower. However, this comparison should not be considered a direct conversion in terms of performance expectations. While the ICE has a variable torque curve, an electric motor provides 100 percent of torque instantly, which makes for huge differences in terms of power delivery.

There are many different categories of EVs, each with its own method of powering an electric motor. All-electric cars run entirely off batteries, with a connection to an outside power source required for a charge. Hybrid EVs utilize an electric motor for propulsion, but come with an ICE to provide the necessary electricity. Plug-in hybrid EVs also use an ICE to power an electric motor, but complement this with the option to connect to an outside power source. Finally, there are alternative fuel EVs, which internally produce electricity from a source other than a gasoline ICE (such as a hydrogen fuel cell).

Pros

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Using an electric motor to move about has a number of upsides. Those with sporting intent might be most interested in the instant torque delivery. With an ICE, output is dependent on things like revs and boost pressure. However, one stab of the pedal on an EV is all you need to receive every ounce of available torque, which makes for dramatically different driving characteristics. All that low-end means predictable throttle application coming off a corner, and highway passing becomes easier.

EVs are typically mechanically simple, with no gearboxes and very few moving parts. Not only does that make repair more straightforward, it also makes the drivetrain highly efficient. When it comes to creating kinetic energy, an electric motor converts roughly 90 percent of the expended electricity into motion, compared to the upper limits of 25 percent for an ICE. Additionally, the lack of a tailpipe on an all-electric car means no emissions, with no noxious fumes or noise pollution making life less pleasant for everyone on the street.

Speaking of emissions, EVs are currently extending the life of the ICE. When paired with an electric motor, the ICE on a hybrid EV can offer much improved fuel mileage. Higher efficiency lowers demand for petroleum. As demand falls, reserves are strengthened, giving us additional time to evolve past this non-renewable resource.

Electric vehicles that are plugged into the overall power grid benefit from whatever advantages, or disadvantages, inherent to that system. For example, if a coal-fired power station is phased out in favor of a solar farm, all the EVs connected to that grid will instantly become more carbon-efficient. However, this attribute can be a detriment as well, as we’ll explore in the next section.

Cons

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While it’s true that all-electric cars have no tailpipe, their cumulative energy efficiency and environmental impact is not necessarily superior to that of an ICE car. All-electric cars are completely dependent on whatever power source is available. In countries that rely heavily on polluting fossil fuels for their power grid, that could equate to more carbon per mile compared to an efficient ICE.

Compounding this are the materials used in the EV manufacturing process. Lithium-ion batteries, for example, require mining techniques that give rise to all sorts of detrimental effects, from polluting ground water to the destruction of local ecology. Then there’s the energy required to ship those materials around the world, followed by the actual energy-intensive creation of each component.

Some cite safety concerns as well, saying lithium-ion batteries can sometimes overheat, leading to a fire or explosion, especially in the event of a crash.

Practicality is significantly hindered with all-electric cars. A combination of low range and long recharge times make them only viable for certain lifestyles, usually involving very predictable and short commutes and trips. Throw in the fact that any extra draw, such as the heater, headlights, or stereo, diminishes the range even further, and the problem becomes obvious.

Some have proposed addressing this issue with solutions like battery swapping, whereby depleted batteries are quickly exchanged for fully charged units. Another idea is vanadium-based electrolyte fluid swapping, where the actual battery “juice” is drained and replaced with charged fluid. Some have even outlined entire chassis swaps, where a modular body would be mounted to a charged chassis when additional range was needed. However, none of these ideas have been embraced on a large scale.

In general, the EV is more expensive than an ICE vehicle. While money is saved at the pump, the EV is still significantly pricier to buy. The electricity used to charge an all-electric car can even be even more costly per mile than gasoline, if plugged in during peak hours. And as additional all-electric cars are sold, the strain placed on the electricity grid will increase even further.

While an EV’s lack of noise pollution could be considered a good thing, there are some downsides. Never mind pedestrian safety – I’m talking about the emotive power of an exhaust note. One crack of the throttle on the right ICE can send shivers down your spine. It’s a jolt of adrenaline caused by all that inefficient internal combustion. Should the world go all-EV, all-the-time, that’s the one thing I’ll miss the most.

Conclusion

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So where are we now? In terms of cost, range, and recharge time, the all-electric car simply can’t compete with the ICE. Sure, it has its benefits, and certainly can be used trouble-free for certain lifestyles. But in terms of widespread adoption, it’s still plagued by many of the same problems it had in the early 20th century.

That’s isn’t to say the technology won’t improve. Energy storage and delivery will continue to be areas of major development. Better batteries and charging systems will hit the mainstream over time. But in the short run, it’s unlikely all-electric cars will enjoy the same popularity as the ICE. Unless there’s some major technological breakthrough and infrastructure investment, the all-electric car looks like it’ll be mostly relegated to short trips around urban centers.

Hybrids will almost certainly persist and thrive as we move towards the decline of petroleum, with the development of hydrogen cars in hot pursuit. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in just 15 years time, the vast majority of vehicles on the road sport some form of hybrid or electric drivetrain component. Simply put, the benefits are necessary to the realities of modern transportation. Gas prices may be low now, but that won’t be the case in perpetuity.

Personally, that’s all fine and dandy, but with one extremely important caveat – every so often, I’ll need to crank up my old-school ICE and rip some exploding dinosaurs up and down the byways, noise pollution be damned.

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