Why electric cars took so long to become mainstream
Europe saw a massive influx of electric cars almost 30 years ago, so why did everyone forget about them?
Whether you like it or not, EVs are here to stay. Just about every manufacturer has at least one electric model for sale right now. Electric cars and charging stations have been thoroughly embedded in the everyday commute. Teslas aren't the eye-catchers they used to be 5 years ago and, together with many others, they have turned into just another car on the road.
Many, if not all of the first cars ever made back in the 1800s were fully electric. But with the advent of gasoline powered cars, EVs faded back into obscurity only to be properly integrated again in the early 2010s with the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, BMW i3 and several more. That's over 100 years of EV drought. While the gasoline car was constantly improving, facing stiff opposition from diesels, EVs were left on the sideline.
Electric cars even showed up at land speed record attempts
Or so it seems. What was actually happening was a mad technological boom of electric vehicles right under the noses of the common people. With an absolute peak in the mid 90s on a small island located at the very top of Germany.
From 1992 to 1996 the German government conducted a large scale test/experiment in Rügen, Germany's biggest island located in the north just 940 square kilometers large. The goal was to find out if electric cars could properly function in everyday life. A total of 58 citizens were given an electric car to live with for an extended period of time, several years even in most cases.
If you're thinking the people that signed up for the test had the unfortunate task of driving around with crude small econoboxes then you're completely wrong. They were loaned fully functional full size sedans, wagons and hatchbacks from Germany's biggest manufacturers. Whatever car they had was now replaced by a high tech car of the future.
First up is BMW. The Bavarian brand arguably had a bit of a head start as, before the large scale test started in 1992, they had already created 4 different electric cars. The first one being the 1602e dating back to as early as 1972. For Rügen BMW decided to use the popular E36 generation 3 series as a base.
The e-mobils as they were called featured a variety of batteries. Early models used the quite old sodium-sulphur batteries used in electric cars from the 60s. One Drawback of those were the worryingly high operating temperatures off over 300°C. These were replaced in 1993 by Sodium-nickel chloride batteries which lowered the temperatures. Coincidentally these were the very same batteries used in the scrapped E1 concept car. One car was even powered by a nickel-cadmium battery. The type of battery usually found in RC cars.
Apart from the drivetrain, everything else was kept stock. Even the dashboard still showed a regular fuel pump icon. BMW later made an improved version, including proper dashboard, simply called the electric. These never made it to Rügen though as BMW decided to test them in-house instead.
A shame really as the electric had many improvements over the e-mobil. Performance now came from a more powerful 45 kilowatt (60 horsepower) motor good for a top speed of 131 km/h. Range stayed the same at roughly 150 kilometer. Still, the car was anything but sporty. 0-100 km/h took more than 15 seconds and the entire drivetrain weighed a hefty 350 kilogram.
VW also had some experience with electric cars but this was minor compared to BMW. Back in 1976 when the original Golf GTI was launched VW also showed off the Elektro-Golf. A direct answer to the Oil crisis. Its follow up, the Golf II CitySTROMer, followed the same design principles in 1989. The final version, and the one eventually being sent to Rügen in 1993, was the Golf III CitySTROMer.
Still, the new Golf essentially had a slightly updated drivetrain stemming from its predecessors. Instead of developing Sodium based batteries like BMW, VW simply hooked up multiple regular lead-acid car batteries up to each other. With help from Siemens VW made the hole drivetrain a bit more up to date and less crude than it was in the original electro-golf.
The majority of the batteries now sat where the petrol engine used to be under the bonnet. With the charging cord neatly tucked away behind the license plate, nobody could really tell it was an EV at first glance. When plugging in that charging cable to any 220v outlet, the driver would have to wait an hour and a half for the battery to be 80% filled. Which was significantly longer than the BMW who could recharge to 75% in only 45 minutes.
A full charge was good for 90 kilometer, but only if you'd drive at a constant speed of 50 km/h. Although range and capacity increased compared to the electric Golf II, Performance did not. 0-50 km/h already took 13 seconds so one can imagine how long it took to get to 100 km/h, which was coincidentally its top speed.
Unlike the like the others, Opel had no prior experience with electric regular cars. whereas others made road cars, Opel was interested in speed records and built the Elektro GT in 1971 which was capable of going 214 km/h. Nevertheless, Opel accepted the challenge and produced the Impuls 1 based on the Kadett.
Despite using Nickel-cadmium batteries like one of the BMWs did, the Impuls 1 was even slower than the Golf. The tiny 22 horsepower motor struggled with the now 1200 kg heavy car and barely got it up to its 100 km/h top speed. Range was only 80 kilometers. At least the interior and luggage space was kept relatively big for such a small car.
Opel quickly followed it up with the Impuls 2 in 1992 which was powered by the same drivetrain of the ill-fated GM EV1. It also had a power output of 115 horsepower dwarfing that of the BMW. Rügen then was one of the few places in the world where an Opel station wagon was faster than a BMW coupe.
The further improved Impuls 3 looked exactly the same but now featured an electric motor from Siemens and came with a plethora of different batteries. While the Impuls 2 was a one off, over 30 Impuls 3 models were built with some of them joining the test program in Rügen.
Finally there was Mercedes. While BMW was working on the 1602e, Mercedes was busy with an experimental electric LE306 van. Nothing ever came of it but its method of using quickly interchangeable batteries can still be seen today on modern cars. Most notably on the NIO EP9 hypercar.
In 1990 they revealed the 190 E-Elektro. The main version used Sodium-nickel chloride batteries just like the ones BMW would use 3 years later. What's most interesting about the 190 is that it had not one, but two motors. Each rear wheel was powered by a 22 horsepower permanent magnet exited rotor. It was also the only car to have a direct drive transmission. All the other still used manual gearboxes. Further models were made with different types of batteries including a rather simple one with Nickel-cadmium batteries and a range of just 40 kilometers.
Twice the amount of motors, and two battery packs in total, did have an effect on weight as the 190 clocked in at 1400 kilograms making it the heaviest of the bunch. In 1993 Mercedes made an improved version based on the brand new C class.
Range and performance stayed pretty much the same but the car now offered a lot more interior space compared to its predecessor. Gone was the complicated double motor setup and in came a regular 48 horsepower asynchronous/induction motor.
Rügen then was home to the largest amount of electric cars per square kilometer in the country, and maybe even the world. All the cars, and the few electric buses that were on the island as well, amassed a total of 1.3 million combined kilometers. Lots of prototypes were used in various other places in Germany but Rügen stayed a one of a kind test as it was the biggest one that focused on the normal day to day life of regular people. Their verdict then was arguably the most important.
Rügen is a small place with no autobahns so the lack of speed wasn't that big of a problem. The few hills on the island though did with some drivers crawling along in the slow lane. In everyday traffic on flat ground they worked relatively fine. The major problem however was the lack of range. Several people occasionally ran out of juice multiple times. Careful planning of almost every journey was a necessity.
The amount of dedicated charging stations was also a problem. There was only one which only had two outlets. Seeing a petrol powered car tow an electric car back home because the latter ran out of battery power wasn't an uncommon sight.
The massive state funded experiment was deemed a failure. Range was far from the only culprit. The technology just wasn't there yet. The experimentation with various battery types is a solid testament to that. Furthermore, none of the manufacturers involved never fully committed to any of the cars after the experiment. BMW for example ditched their cars and focused on relaunching the newly acquired Mini brand.
EV development was put on hold mainly due to the horrible reputation they gained from the Rügen test. Still, the monumental amount of knowledge was a goldmine and certainly influenced the EVs of today. But one can imagine the look of the EV landscape right now if they hadn't pulled the plug so early.