• First electric car appeared in the 19th century
  • There are three main types: hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric
  • A fully charged battery will cost you around £2

Electric cars seem as though they are a fairly new invention, but they have been around since the 19th century. But it says something about their appeal as a form of transport because they remain the exception. Things are changing though…

The birth of the electric car

A brief tour of their history helps puts things into context. Although the exact date is hard to pin down, many consider the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson's crude electric vehicle as the first the electric car (around the 1830s).

The issue here was that it was powered by non-rechargeable primary cells. That problem would be solved many years later, when, in 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté's invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery.

It would be another 30 years before the electric vehicles became commercial, with the US leading the charge. So popular were they that they outsold noisy, dirty combustion-powered alternatives.

The turn of the 20th century remains the electric car's golden period. Soon enough things changed, technology improved and along came Henry Ford. Ever since, electric cars have been on the backburner.

The renaissance period

After a considerable lull, since the since the early 90s, there has been lot of interest in electric vehicles. Whether you're a policymaker, a chief executive of a car manufacturing firm, a campaigner or a consumer, going green and being more sustainable is high on everyone's agenda.

The technology today is sophisticated, the designs are becoming more and more appealing and for example BMW are now offering a high-end version.

Some analysts think that by 2016, electric cars will make up 20 per cent of all car sales in the UK.

The options available

There are three main options presently available – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery-powered vehicles. We take a closer look at each one.

Hybrid vehicles

Hybrid vehicles are 'assisted' by an electric motor. They are mainly powered by an internal combustion engine, which utilise the benefits of a battery in numerous ways.

This includes regenerative braking, which converts normally wasted energy into electricity; electric motor drive/assist, which delivers additional energy when climbing a hill or accelerating; and automatic start/shutoff, which cuts the gas-powered engine when stationary.

Models available: Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid

Plug-in hybrid vehicles

Same principle as above, but the defining characteristic is that they are powered by both an internal combustion engine and an electric counterpart. The battery is therefore bigger in the plug-in hybrids.

As a result of this orientation, the plug-in hybrids can be powered on electricity alone, meaning a greener, cheaper drive. Once the battery is used up, the car then switches to gas.

Models available: Ford C-MAX Energi and Chevrolet Volt

Battery electric vehicles

As pure as electric vehicles comes, battery-powered versions are petrol and diesel free, making them extremely environmentally friendly but still limited in how far they can reach.

On average, fully charged – the equivalent of a full tank – most electric vehicles of this ilk will travel anywhere between 80 to 100 miles before needing to be recharged. Now, as things go, for daily use, that isn't so bad, but for regular long-distance users, this can pose something of a problem.

Models available: Nissan LEAF and BMW i3

The pros and cons of electric cars

Pros

  • Although buying a brand new electric car currently is fairly pricey, they are coming down in price.
  • Overall savings you can achieve are significant. For example, electric car owners need not pay for road tax, a full charge can cost as little as £2 and maintenance is markedly cheaper.
  • They're great for the environment. Currently, car emissions in the UK account for 13 per cent of the total and while we are not there yet for zero emissions – some CO2 is produced from the electricity used to power up the cars – we're moving to a cleaner future.

Cons

  • The transport infrastructure globally, let alone in the UK, is still ill-equipped to offer enough support for electric vehicles - charging points are currently few and far between.
  • Most charging points need to be installed in the home, somewhat offsetting the savings made (they can soak up a lot of electricity).
  • Although batteries can last up to a decade, the cost of replacing them can run into the thousands.