Tracing the ancestry of today’s electric vehicles (part 4)
This article is part of a short series. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
How far we went
While electric cars were once dominant (circa 1900), they fell into disuse because the battery technology of the time simply did not meet the needs of most drivers. Once Cadillac started installing electric starters on their cars, the worst of what gasoline cars had to offer was toned down, and electric vehicles simply didn’t compete for over 100 years.
In 1955, photovoltaic cells were a joke. Serious work was being done to make sure this wasn’t a joke, and had been for decades. It wasn’t until the year before that they seemed to have the slightest suspicion of being viable.
When GM’s William Cobb built an experimental solar car in 1955 for an auto show, he didn’t know what would ultimately come out of it. Obviously, he hoped it would do something right, but he had no way of knowing that around 30 years later, people inspired by his little project would make a vehicle that could cross a continent. He had no idea that people would end up racing in solar powered cars and that a winning car would lead to a two-step revolution in the market.
The situations that gave birth to the great-grandparents of modern electric vehicles
There is another thing we need to discuss if we are to understand the roots of modern electric vehicles. The first step towards the return of electric vehicles was not battery technology at all. It was efficiency.
Prior to the 1970s, there was simply no perceived need for efficient vehicles. Gasoline was cheap and most people had no idea they were doing anything wrong. Especially in the United States, having a large, bulky, gas-guzzling vehicle just wasn’t a problem for most people. Even though things have changed, it really took some big beating to get people out of this rut.
However, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 changed minds. Of course, many people, even today, don’t want to change their ways, but these crises have shifted the market just enough to where there was a much larger market for efficient vehicles that used less fuel. American automakers struggled to change their ways, which led to the âera of unrestâ of automobiles as they got a foothold.
Once they finally started to progress (fuel injection helped greatly), that’s when experiments like the Fiero, Sunraycer, Impact and EV1 saw the day. American companies have struggled, but this struggle has led to better companies able to innovate again.
In many ways, the end of this first modern era of electric vehicles (marked by the death of the electric vehicle 1) was what I would call the second era of unrest. The cars weren’t rusty trash like many American cars of the late 1970s, but American manufacturers have become complacent. Front-wheel-drive crossovers took over a big chunk of the market while the bigger, more inefficient SUVs became the luxury cars Americans aspired to.
It took the financial crisis of 2008 for Americans and people in many other markets to come to their senses. Efficiency returned and electric vehicles began to emerge again without a strict mandate from the government.
Solar is about to hit its stride
The modern era of electric vehicles was launched on the backs of solar cars, with manufacturers turning to non-solar electric vehicles when they found that on-board solar power was simply not economical. But, that is changing.
The solar cells that we take for granted today are now around 20% efficient. This means that 20% of the solar energy hitting them becomes electricity, while the rest does not. In the 1980s, the best experimental and expensive solar cells were around 20%, but the best cells on the market today exceed 24%. What was once very experimental is now the norm in a much larger market.
Even now, every time I write an article about a company like Aptera or Sono Motors, a number of readers want to tell us how it will never work. Putting solar panels could never produce enough energy to make a significant contribution to the propulsion of the car. The idea that a vehicle can be an âelectric vehicle that never rechargesâ is just not something that many people think will ever happen.
But, like the solar cars of the 1980s, what is possible can quickly surprise those who don’t follow the technology. Aptera’s super efficient design can add 40 miles of range to the vehicle daily just by parking in the sun. Sono claims their solar panels can add 70 miles per week. These aren’t amazing numbers, but they are enough to cover most people’s day-to-day driving, and even give ârollover milesâ in the battery.
We are at the point where solar cars for the general market are about to become a reality. Just as battery technology has made the electric vehicle revolution really take hold over the past decade, so has solar technology.
Where are we going: expect a bumpy ride here and there
Seeing where we came from can also tell us a lot about where we are going.
It’s tempting to think that the EV revolution will be a nice and easy climb between now and 2021 to 2030 and 2040. Things are looking good for EVs right now, but they looked to be doing well. in 1999. We are very unlikely to do so. to see electric vehicles disappear again over the next few years, but it is foolish to think that there won’t be a setback along the way.
I don’t pretend to know what those setbacks will be, but I have some guesses.
A possible future problem will be the government’s fragile support for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are much more entrenched than they were in 1999, so it won’t kill them, but the adoption rate could suffer as governments falter in their commitment to them.
Battery supply could also become an issue. It is entirely possible to make enough cells for everyone, but manufacturers who are not forward-looking enough to secure their supplies today could find themselves without enough supply to sell enough EVs. . Again, this will only slow down the transition, not stop it. It could also lead to continued âelectrificationâ of fleets and not actual adoption of electric vehicles. While hybrids and plug-in hybrids are better than gasoline, they could hold back further adoption of full electric vehicles.
Whatever the pitfalls, we need to be smart and not let them scare us and push us to give up.
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