The modern electric car is ten years old, although thatís a matter of opinion and open to interpretation of course. Electric was a contender in the earliest days of motoring, before it lost out to gasoline-powered cars, and there have always been some niche electric vehicles such as milk floats. There have been a few false dawns as well, most notably General Motorsí remarkable EV1, which was leased to American customers in the nineties and is still mourned by enthusiasts today.
I first drove an electric vehicle in 2005. That was the Piaggio Porter Electric ñ an Italian licence-built conversion of the tiny Daihatsu HiJet micro-van. It had a 10.5kW electric motor ñ thatís equivalent to about 14bhp ñ and a top speed of about 35mph. The Piaggio gave an early hint of some of the now widely recognised advantages of electric, in particular, smooth, quiet power delivery and a pleasing subjective liveliness, even in a vehicle with only limited outright performance. But frankly it felt like a bit of a toy, and it certainly didnít get me thinking that the future of motoring was inevitably electric.
The first of the current wave of electric cars arrived a few years later. They were the Tesla Roadster, which squeezed the companyís electric technology into a car based on the Lotus Elise, and a tiny Japanese market kei car called the Mitsubishi i-MiEV ñ an electric version of the cleverly packaged Mitsubishi i. The Tesla Roadster appeared in 2008 and the i-MiEV was launched in 2009, and thatís why I think the modern electric car is now ten years old.
Perhaps one of the interesting things about those first ten years is how few of the electric cars that made it into the hands of the customers wore a Tesla, Mitsubishi (or Piaggio) badge. Thatís because Nissan and Renault subsequently made most of the running in building electric cars in large numbers with the Leaf and the Zoe respectively. They were joined by other companies such as Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen, which came up with convincing new electric models as well.
Mainstream electric cars have improved a lot since those first Leafs and Zoes appeared, particularly in the area of range. The latest versions of both can go almost twice as far as the originals, and even they are struggling to keep up with rivals such as the Hyundai Kona and Kia e-Niro which can go further still. Almost every car manufacturer has an extensive electrification programme.
But what of those electric pioneers, the Piaggio Porter Electric, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the Tesla Roadster? How have they stood the test of time? Surely they must be irrelevent and over-shadowed by the latest, more capable models?
The answers are surprising. A quick online search suggests you can still buy a new Piaggio Porter Electric or a Mitsubishi i-MiEV (albeit in badge-engineered form as a CitroÎn C-Zero or a Peugeot iOn) and both still make a certain amount of sense. I suspect the Piaggio probably has its niche in a campus environment, shuttling stuff around a hospital complex, a university or an airfield, while the i-MiEV still works as a compact, but roomy vehicle for short journeys. Itís interesting to reflect where Mitsubishi might now be if it had built on its early lead in pure electric vehicles, rather than taking an admittedly successful detour into the world of plug-in hybrids with the Outlander.
The Roadster was superseded in Tesla’s line-up by the larger Model S
and Model X, but also remains relevant today. What stands out from todayís perspective is Teslaís emphasis from the beginning on range. Ten years ago, the Roadster was already a 200-plus mile car, and even now much of the rest of the industry is only just starting to catch up. In 2016, Tesla even started offering a battery upgrade from 53 to 80kWh for owners who want to keep their Roadsters fresh. A new Roadster model is set to be launched in 2020.
But the more important change at Tesla is the recent arrival of the entry-level Model 3. Previous Teslas captured lots of headlines despite being made in fairly small numbers, but the Model 3 is being built in the hundreds of thousands. Tesla is now doing big volumes as well, and thatís what the second decade of the modern electric car is going to be all about.