Despite all the recent media hullaballoo concerning electric cars, there’s really nothing new about an electrically powered vehicle (EV). Indeed, at the dawn of the motoring age there was little to choose between electric, petrol or even steam-powered vehicles. In fact, electric power was dominant when considered purely from the point of view of the world land-speed record.

Back in the early days of motoring, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the very first land-speed record at 63.15kph in his electrically powered Jeantaud Duc at Acheres, France in December 1898. Over the following months, a two-way battle developed between the Jeantaud, and Camille Jenatzy’s ‘La Jamais Contente’, a torpedo-shaped vehicle powered by twin direct-drive 25kW motors. Jenatzy finally came out on top and effectively ended the duel when he set the mark at 105.882kph. His record would stand until 1902 when Léon Serpollet’s steam-powered Gardner-Serpollet recorded a new top speed of 120.80kph.

Evie at the New Lynn Lions Galaxy of Cars show

The internal combustion engine entered the picture later in that same year with William K Vanderbilt setting a new land-speed record at 122.438kph in his Mors. Steam made a brief showing in 1906 when Fred Marriot took his Stanley Rocket to 205.44kph at Daytona Beach, but other than that, internal combustion-powered vehicles would lead the way until the advent of the rocket cars that emerged in the early 1960s.

With those early beginnings in mind, a series of factors eventually allowed the internal combustion engine to supplant steam and electric vehicles. The first of these was the invention and eventual widespread use of the self-starter, which did away with the thumb-breaking hand-crank or the tedious chore of pre-heating water in order to ‘start-up’ a steam-powered car. Ever-decreasing petrol prices played to the internal combustion engine’s driving range while development of mass-production techniques, as pioneered by Ford, reduced vehicle costs, allowing more people to own a car.

Changing Times

Today, international concern that increased levels of air pollution may be triggering calamitous climate change – not to mention the escalating costs of petrol and the possibility that the world will eventually run out of fossil fuels – has all led to the re-emergence of the electric vehicle and an increased focus on the development of full-electric as well as hybrid-powered cars, as some countries (such as New Zealand) strive to shake off their dependence on fossil fuels.

This activity has resulted in virtually all major automakers pouring ever more resources into EV-based projects. While most of these companies already offer full-electric, or plug-in hybrid vehicles, Volvo have taken everything one step further by announcing that all their new models will have an electric motor – including mild hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full-electric – as early as 2019.

Evie attracted lots of attention at this year's Beach Hop (Photo Gordon Campbell)

These factors, along with other considerations, led the NZ government to introduce the Electric Vehicles Programme in May 2016. This included a series of measures designed to increase the number of electric vehicles on our roads. Currently there are just over 7000 full-electric cars on our roads (at present, Tesla’s Model S leads the new EV market, while the Nissan Leaf is the most popular secondhand buy), but the government anticipates that their incentives will lift this figure to approximately 64,000 by 2021. It is hoped these numbers will be achieved via an ongoing expansion of New Zealand’s charging station infrastructure, as well as incentives such as Road User Charge exemptions, and reductions in ACC levies for owners of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Recently announced excise hikes on petrol are also expected to provide further incentives for those wanting to dip their toe into the EV segment. And that would go double for Aucklanders, with the government targeting them with a series of regional tax hikes of between nine and 12 cents a litre over the next three years.

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