Turn your key, or hit the Start button, the engine fires up, and go.
This same basic routine has started the vast majority of automotive journeys for over 60 years now. Prior to the ignition key’s invention in 1949, the starting process could be a little more complicated, often involving a dual press of the accelerator with one’s heel while at the same time dabbing a starter pedal with one’s toes. But really, the process that takes place under the hood for all internal combustion engine cars has remained mostly unchanged for roughly the past 100 years.
What many perhaps don’t realize is that the simplification of the formerly daunting manual starting process, aided by a small electric starter and basic lead-acid battery, would very quickly shape the course of automotive history – away from electric vehicles that relied on larger, rechargeable versions of the same lead-acid batteries.
From there, the car battery would go on to power accessories like headlights, windshield wipers, and radios. All the while, longer road networks and lower gas prices lead to a decline in fully electric vehicles. So ironically, one of the original killers of the electric car, way back in the 1910s, was electric ignition, which soon combined with much smaller rechargeable batteries and alternators to help put the final nails in the coffin of EV development for half a century.
With almost every major auto manufacturer now making hybrid or electric vehicles, perhaps it’s worth examining the intertwined history of both types of automotive battery, and the legacy of this path today.
It all started with the invention of rechargeable batteries
Sure, we can go way back to the discovery of what is typically accepted as the first primitive battery, which dates back all the way to 250 BC, found in a clay jar amongst ruins of what is now Iraq in the mid-1930s. But for automotive purposes, perhaps the key discovery was the invention of a rechargeable lead-acid battery in 1859 by French physician Gaston Planté, which led to quick advances and further development of larger and more powerful lead-acid batteries, the likes of which are still found in almost every car on the road today.
By the late 1800s, the batteries had become large enough to power some of the emerging horseless carriages, with France and England in particular leading the way on battery and EV development. The US started coming on strong in the mid-1890s and early 1900s, with William Morrison’s 1891 six-passenger wagon seen by many to be the first real practical electric car on this side of the pond, though already well later than pioneering efforts of electric vehicle innovators Thomas Parker (England) and Scotsman Robert Davidson.
Sales grew quickly from that point on in North America over the next two decades, to the point where EVs were outselling their gas- and steam-powered rivals by 1900. Vehicles such as the 1902 Phaeton, built by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago, had a rechargeable lump of a lead-acid battery that could power the Phaeton to a 14 mph top speed (22 km/h), with a stated range of 18 miles (29 km). (For comparison, the 1996 GM EV1, running on modern lead-acid batteries, had a computer-limited top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h) with a range of 60 miles (97 km).)
Early gas-electric hybrid vehicles were also tried around this time, perhaps most famously by a young Ferdinand Porsche while working at Lohner Coach Factory with a model called the Mixte, a four-wheel-drive gas-electric “Lohner-Porsche” electric carriage that appeared at the 1900 Paris World Fair. The huge luxury vehicle was produced until 1905, but like most hybrids at that time of auto experimentation, was quickly deemed too heavy, complicated and costly for mass consumption (just the batteries of the Mixte weighed 1.8 tonnes, the vehicle over four tonnes in total).
Ford Model T
In contrast, early EV sales saw their numbers increase right up to 1912. However, the introduction of Ford’s game-changing Model T in 1908 resulted in an explosion in sales of gas vehicles. It was a sign of things to come.
Yes, electric vehicles once outsold gas cars, until…
At the time, starting an internal combustion car was much like starting a gas lawn mower today: using muscle power to manually initiate internal combustion by physically “turning over” these small engines with some forceful yanks that, eventually, move the cylinders hard and fast enough to combust the fuel and create the vacuum and power strokes to keep the engine turning on its own.
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Except the manual crank starters on early gas automobiles were not only heavy, they also had a bad habit of breaking thumbs and wrists with common backfires, making the relatively simple – and pain-free – start of early electric cars look mighty appealing. Plus, they didn’t require manual gear changes, which back then – as now – was one aspect of driving that was difficult to learn. Add to that the absence of gasoline fumes, exhaust noise, and engine vibration, and it’s easy to see why electric vehicles were so popular in the first place.
The year 1912 saw the peak of early EV sales in North America, but perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the year that Cadillac introduced the electric starter to its vehicles, after the idea was patented the year prior by Charles F. Kettering, one of the founders of battery and parts powerhouse Delco (Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company). The popular Model T switched to an electric starter by 1919, the year after Hudson became the first car company to use a standardized car battery to help it start and run its accessories.
1912 Baker Electric Extension Coupe
As gas cars became cheaper and easier to use, the limited research and technical advancements of the heavy lead-acid batteries powering electric vehicles meant those early EVs couldn’t keep up. They became relatively more expensive and less practical, even with growing access to electricity in cities, with lower top speeds compared to gas cars (roughly 32 km/h) and more limited range (topping out around 65 km).
Society, meanwhile, changed around the development of the internal combustion automobile: towns could expand farther outwards and an ever-growing road network connected cities coast-to-coast, further increasing driving distances and therefore the appeal of gasoline cars, which boasted long range and fast refuelling. The discovery and expansion of oil production in Texas and in massive amounts around the world meant gasoline was relatively cheap and plentiful, all of which led to the demise of early consumer electric cars by 1920.
Down go electric cars, up go electric accessories
With electric vehicles out of the picture, the gas-powered victors ironically became more and more electrified, with dynamos – the pre-cursor to modern alternators – helping power not only electric ignition systems but soon headlights, wipers and climate controls.
Oddly enough given its dominance, the lead-acid car battery has barely evolved, technology-wise, over the last half century. In the late 1950s, car electrical systems transitioned from six volts to 12 volts, and have remained so ever since. In the 1970s, the introduction of maintenance-free batteries reduced or eliminated the need to add water to them. But beyond some density and cost improvements over the years, the stalwart lead-acid battery has remained much the same, despite a massive increase in electronic accessories and computing power in modern cars.
Even now, it’s largely the 12 volt battery that powers start-up and retained accessory power, such as when you turn off the engine but keep the radio on – think drive-in movie. Want another bit of irony? Some electric vehicles boast a range extender – a gas engine that recharges the battery pack on long drives to increase range. That same basic idea is the reason why many people start their car halfway through a drive-in movie: to use the car’s engine to charge up the battery to ensure it won’t be out of juice by the time the credits roll.
Hybrids re-introduce electric power to vehicle powertrains
Ed Begley Jr. in Bradley GT II Electric
The addition of larger batteries integrated into the actual drivetrains of vehicles had a few sporadic market appearances between 1920 and 2000, including an electric kit car called the Bradley GTE, a two-seat all-electric sports car produced in 1980 by Minnesota-based Bradley Automotive, and notably driven by celebrity Ed Begley Jr., which used lead-acid batteries.
Spurred by the California Air Resources Board’s mandate for major auto manufacturers to produce and sell zero-emissions vehicles, there was a splashy and slightly more mainstream effort by GM in 1997: the General Motors EV1, a two-seat sporty commuter which first used lead-acid batteries in its first generation, then transitioned to more modern nickel–metal hydride batteries – though it was only available in very limited numbers in California and Arizona.
1996 GM EV1 Cutaway
GM’s EV1 and Begley then became protagonists in the famous 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which chronicled how automakers in general produced and marketed electric vehicles in small quantities, but fought hard in court to repeal the zero-emissions CARB mandate that prompted them.
2000 Toyota Prius
A proper return of battery technology meant to actually drive the car – instead of just starting it – came at the turn of the millennium, at least here in North America, with the market launch of two gas-electric hybrid models in 2000: the Toyota Prius four-door, and the more efficient but less practical Honda Insight two-seater.
Their increased efficiency came (and still comes) primarily from three main hybrid features: an automatic start-stop system that eliminates fuel use while stopped at red lights or in traffic; a regenerative braking system that slows the car down with an electric motor, which acts as a generator, capturing the kinetic energy then storing it in the battery; and lastly by downsizing and optimizing the size and design of the internal combustion engine, usually to a smaller displacement that’s inherently more fuel-efficient. All technologies which have since been adapted to help reduce fuel consumption on regular gas cars sometimes labeled mild hybrids, which generally means their batteries aren’t large or strong enough to propel the car forward on their own.
2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid battery pack
Crucially, the use of nickel–metal hydride (NiMH) batteries allowed manufacturers to pack the same amount of energy into a smaller, lighter package, compared to traditional lead-acid batteries. It’s a development which translated into greater efficiency (lower vehicle weight), and more passenger space (smaller battery packs).
Along with the consumer launch of the Prius and Insight in 2000, the first hybrid taxi was put into service in Vancouver, a 2001 Prius that travelled 332,000 km before being retired. The reliability and fuel efficiency of the Prius has made it a mainstay of taxi fleets in Vancouver and other cities to this day, especially in the form of the more-spacious Prius V.
Fully electric vehicles arrive in 2008, at mainstream prices soon after
Electrified automotive history came full circle in 2008, when luxury upstart Tesla Motors introduced the Roadster to market in Canada, the first to use lithium-ion batteries, the same type found in laptops, smartphones and other electronic devices. First commercially available in 1991, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries offered a high energy density, low self-discharge, and a relatively tiny memory effect – you can recharge them often with little energy capacity loss, compared to other rechargeable battery types, and especially when specially climate-controlled, as on most modern EVs.
The Tesla Roadster essentially was a Lotus Evora two-seat convertible stuffed with 6,831 Panasonic laptop batteries, with motors ranging from 185 kW to 215 kW (248–288 hp). All that power and its instant-on torque allowed it to dash from rest to 96 km/h in under four seconds. All with zero tailpipe emissions, and a fantastic range of 393 km. Its screaming performance, however, was accompanied by an equally eye-watering starting price of $125,000.
The twin launch of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt in Canada in 2011 marked a new era of affordable, mainstream plug-in vehicles. Both have become the best-selling battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles ever in Canada, respectively.
The Leaf started out with a 24 kWh battery and is now up to 30 kWh, helping improve its range to an official 172 km on a charge. It’s one of the few BEVs on the market not to offer liquid cooling of its battery pack, so is more prone to major range fluctuations in extreme weather, but is also one of the most value-laden, offering a mid-size hatchback package that starts at roughly $34,000, before any government incentives.
The Volt, on the other hand, has taken a more market-cautious if technically complicated approach to drivetrain electrification. It’s now in its second generation, combining a relatively large 18.4 kWh battery with a 1.5L four-cylinder internal combustion engine, which allows it to travel long distances (rated up to 591 km) and avoid the dreaded EV range anxiety.
And finally, the combination of long, gas-like range and mainstream-friendly pricing in the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt BEV is the latest milestone for advanced automotive batteries, and battery-electric vehicles in general. Starting at $42,895 before government incentives, it offers a Tesla-worthy 383 km of all-electric range on a single charge.
Others will soon come along to challenge the Bolt’s dominance in range per dollar value, notably the Tesla Model 3, which has prompted over 350,000 reservations at $1,000 a pop, and lineups at Tesla stores all over North America. The long-awaited second generation of the Nissan Leaf will reportedly cross the 320 km range threshold as well, and is scheduled to arrive by the end of 2017.
That’s a lot of automotive battery progress in the past 20 years, compared to the 80 years which came before.