The First Road Electric Vehicles – The History of EV

The First Road Electric Vehicles – In 1873 it had been shown by R. Davidson in Edinburgh that it was possible to drive a road vehicle, in this case, a four-wheel truck, using an iron/zinc primary battery. However, it was not until 1881 in France that G. Trouve made the first electric vehicle to be powered by a secondary Plante battery. The vehicle was a tricycle and used two modified Siemens motors which drove one large propelling wheel through two chains, these motors developed about 1/10 hp and propelled the 160 kg (3501b) vehicle at about 12 kph (7 mph). Trouve also operated an electrically powered motorboat on the Seine in the same year, showing the versatility of this new form of power.

The First Road Electric Vehicles – The History of EV

In the following year of 1882 in England, Professors William Ayrton and John Perry demonstrated an electrically powered tricycle which used ten lead/acid (Plante type) cells in a battery of 1,5 kWh capacity giving 20 V to a 0,5-horsepower direct current motor mounted beneath the driver’s seat. The vehicle is shown in the above figure. The vehicle speed was controlled by switching the batteries one after the other in series. The range was reported as between 16 and 40 km (10 and 25 miles) depending on the terrain, and the maximum speed as 14km/h (9mph). This was still three years before Carl Benz was to demonstrate the first operating internal combustion-engined vehicle, also a tricycle. The vehicle had one further claim to fame: it was the first vehicle to have electric lighting. Two small filament lamps each of four candlepower and providing 50 lumens of light flux, were mounted to illuminate, respectively, an ammeter and a voltmeter and can be seen in the figure. near the top of the drawing. They were supplied from the traction batteries.

With its top speed of 14km/h (9mph), the Ayrton and Perry tricycle fell foul of the notorious ‘Red Flag Act’, otherwise known as The Locomotive (Roads) Act of 1865. This had been introduced in the United Kingdom to curb what was considered to be the excessive speed made possible by the use of steam propulsion on the roads, and the resulting disturbance caused to horses.

The terms of the Act are given below;

  • Home Office powers to control locomotives abolished.
  • At least three persons to be in charge of a locomotive, with an extra person if two or more wagons are drawn.
  • One person to precede the locomotive at a distance of at least 60 yards, on foot and showing a red flag as a warning. This person also to assist horse traffic.
  • Locomotive to stop if the man in front, or anyone in charge of a horse, so signals.
  • Locomotive drivers to give as much room as possible to other traffic.
  • Whistling and letting off steam within sight of horses prohibited.
  • Two lights to be carried in front, one at each side.
  • Penalty for breaches of any of the above provisions, £10. Speed limits 4mph in open country, 2mph in towns and villages. Penalty for breach: £10 for driver, whether owner or not.
  • All locomotives to bear the name and address of the owner.
  • Local authorities of the City of London, the metropolis, boroughs, and towns with more than 5000 population empowered to make special orders as to hours of operation and speeds, so long as the speed does not exceed 2 mph. Penalty for breach £10.
  • Existing Acts prohibiting the use of steam engines within 25 yards of a road not to extend to ploughing engines.
  • A man to be stationed in the road to warn of an engine in a field.
  • Notwithstanding all other provisions, all locomotives to be liable to prosecution if they make a nuisance. Nothing in the Act to affect the right of any person to recover damages for injury from the use of a locomotive.

This Act introduced very severe restrictions on all mechanically propelled vehicles on British roads and until its repeal in 1896 undoubtedly set back the development of electric vehicles in the United Kingdom compared to the progress beginning to be made in other countries. It did not, however. stop Gustave Phillipart having an electric tramcar built in Belgium in 1882 and shipping it to London for experimental trials. Whether this was the same ‘electric bus’ reported to be on the streets of London in 1886 is not clear, but evidently, the pace of development was increasing as in 1887 Radcliffe Ward assembled an electric cab which ran in Brighton. History does not tell us if anyone was brave enough to hire it! 

The USA now began to come into the picture again, when the first electric vehicle since that of Thomas Davenport in 1834-6 was built by Philip W. Pratt in 1888 in Boston. This was soon followed in 1890 by Andrew L. Riker of New York who demonstrated a 1501b tricycle using a 1/6-horsepower
motor and a 1001b battery to give a range of 48 km (30 miles) at 13km/h (8 mph). In 1895 Riker went on to build a four-wheel electric vehicle weighing 140 kg (3101b). This used two !/2-horsepower motors each driving a rear wheel. With a 60 kg (1351b) battery, this vehicle was capable of carrying one person at 19 km/h (12 mph) for 4 h.

There were other inventors and manufacturers such as Barrows and Holtzer-Cabot in the USA by this time, but perhaps the most significant was the partners Morris and Salom who in 1895 started to build their two-seater Electrobats. This led to the 1896 Electric Road Wagon shown in the figure below, and very rapidly on to a series of coupes and hansoms for use as taxis in New York with protection against the weather for the passengers, although not the driver.

The First Road Electric Vehicles
Morris and Salom electric road wagon of 1896 (‘Scientific American’)

This taxi service was to start on November 1st, 1896 with 12 hansoms and one coupe. The vehicles had front-wheel drive using two 0,5-horsepower motors and had the doubtful benefit of rear-wheel steering. Power was from 44 lead-acid cells giving 88 V and the range was claimed to be up to 48 km (30 miles). There appears to have been quite an enthusiastic reception given to this new form of transportation by the younger members of society, although concern was expressed about the exposure of passengers in a vehicle that did not have a horse in front to act as a partial shield from the common gaze. However, many people saw it as a fad that would soon pass and not to be compared to the thrill of traveling in a hansom with a frisky horse.

It was at this time that some of the descriptive terms used in the automotive field were coined, particularly ‘horseless carriage’ first used by E. P. Ingersoll in his USA publication The Horseless Age in November 1895, and ‘automobile’ first used in the Pall Mall Gazette of London in October 1895.

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