A short history of electrification

‘The electric vehicle revolution’ isn’t a new phrase to any of us.

We are constantly reminded of one of the key technology contenders in the race to lower vehicle emissions, be it through the media, UK government policies or from vehicle manufacturers themselves. Changes in policies and government targets, such as the 2040 petrol and diesel ban, have led to an increasing emphasis on providing zero emission solutions for customers. However, this ‘revolution’ is no easy feat – it is riddled with challenges and obstacles which together academia and industry are coming together to overcome.

The electric vehicle is no stranger to overcoming challenges faced by competing technologies. In 1884, using his own specially designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries, Thomas Parker developed the first recognised production electric car in London. This electric vehicle was produced to overcome the challenges users faced with steam-powered cars by providing the answers to issues such as long start-up times, refuelling issues and a limited range. The market uptake of these pioneering mainstream electric vehicles was short-lived however. In 1910, Henry Ford developed the first mass-produced model T gasoline-powered vehicle, which provided a significantly cheaper solution to the electric car and boasted a significantly improved range. The Model T went on to lead the way for gasoline-powered cars, which eventually saw the end of electric vehicles in around 1935.

From 1935 to around 2000, the electric vehicle revolution was seemingly just a dream. Numerous innovators and manufacturers had created concepts and trialled ideas which never came to fruition or made the desired impact on the market. At the same time, advancements in electric vehicle technology made history by providing the powertrain for the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon, the electric Lunar Rover. However, it never able to make its way into mainstream motoring

In 1996 the first real glimpse of an electric revival came as GM launched the first mass-produced full electric vehicle – the EV-1. This was only available through lease agreements with customers, but after a few years, GM concluded that electric cars are unprofitable and repossessed most of these models. Though unsuccessful, this shows signs of the start of the electrification of vehicles return. The Toyota Prius Hybrid vehicle could be argued to be the first significant mark made by modern electric vehicles, launched worldwide in 2001 with the backing of numerous celebrity figures the Prius was the flagship vehicle for lowering a driver’s carbon footprint. It charged on to reach a massive 1 million vehicle sales in 2009.

Early into the new millennium, the pace of developments and innovation in electric vehicles begin to pick up. In 2006, a small start-up company in Silicon Valley emerged announcing it would develop luxury electric vehicles which could reach up to 200 miles in a single charge. In 2008 it released its first vehicle – its name? The Tesla Roadster. Tesla brought full electric vehicles back into the media’s attention, securing a $459 million from the US Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office.

As 2010 approaches, the attitude towards electric vehicles truly turned. Battery prices began to fall, and major vehicle manufacturers started to realise the growing market available. In 2011 Nissan produced the first model of the Nissan LEAF, which became the first ever full electric vehicle to sell over 400,000 units. The latest model of the Nissan LEAF has a range of 150 miles, utilising its new 40 kWh battery which is developed as part of the HEBD project which received support from our core competition funding programmes. Others, such as BMW, Renault and more have all added electric vehicle models to their line ups, with the majority of major manufacturers committing to delivering a larger choice of electric vehicles in their line ups.

Hybridisation has also soared since 2010, not only in passenger cars but in commercial vehicles too. In 2017 Ford launched a trial of plug-in hybrid transit vans in London. Used by a variety of fleets, the hybrid transit showcased how electrification can be used to reduce emissions in inner-city areas and overcome the challenge of incoming Ultra Low Emission Zones.

A significant driver in the ever increasing uptake of electric vehicles is the price. Advances in battery technology, especially the use of lithium-ion, enabled a substantial reduction in battery cost. In 2008, Lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles cost an estimated $1,200 per kWH, compared to the Tesla Model 3’s $190 per kWH battery in 2016. The UK Government’s ‘Road to 2040’ strategy sets out the goal of $100 per kWH by 2040, helping electric vehicles to be cost competitive against traditional petrol or diesel powered cars.

The electrification of vehicles is proving to be an exciting time for the industry and we are here to help support organisations as they take advantage of the opportunities presented by the transition to a low carbon future.


It isn’t only the automotive industry that can benefit from the electrification of our vehicles. This change opens up an opportunity for the UK chemical sector to capture a £4.8bn per annum market share by 2030 meeting the needs of UK-built vehicles alone.