I've been thinking about cars a lot lately as I reflect on sustainable technologies and wait for the Th!nk to be sold in America. Even though cars aren't the worst offender when it comes to global warming, their impact is significant and I itch for the kinds of innovation that will reinvent the way we live again. So I hope you enjoy coming along on this little thought journey.
Courtesy Norbert Schnitzler
I wasn't much interested in cars (beyond them getting me to work) until I had to research the history of automobiles for an exhibit. What got my attention was the process of innovation. In the late 1800s, there were three major technologies vying for supremacy: steam, electricity, and internal combustion.
Courtesy Detroit Electric
At first, steam did best because it provided a lot of power. But steam cars took a long time to start and had to be refilled often. Ladies tended to prefer electric cars like the Detroit Electric because they were clean and silent, though they didn't go very fast, very far, or have a lot of torque. Going uphill was a pain. Early internal combustion cars were dirty and smelly, and starting one could really mess up your arm if it kicked back.
Hundreds of upstart companies created models using these three technologies with a variety of designs. Innovation was rampant. Nobody knew what a car looked like because it didn't exist before. Early cars mimicked buggies until it became clear that lowering the body on the wheels was more stable. All different kinds of designs were tried out, and companies came and went in the blink of an eye.
At first, there wasn't even a standard steering mechanism--some early cars used a tiller rather than a wheel. People could even buy engines and build their own cars at home. Over time, strong designs supported stable companies that stayed in business as others failed. It was a time of fast-paced innovation in America and other nations, and that was so exciting to think about as I researched. It sparked my imagination about our future.
Courtesy Utah State Historical Society
I also felt a little nostalgic--steam and electric still have their advantages over internal combustion (IC). The reason IC engines became the dominant technology is that Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T on a motorized assembly line in 1913. Although it wasn't the first mass-produced car in the US as is commonly believed (the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile holds that title), the IC-driven Model T was affordable and you could buy most of the replacement parts at a hardware store.
Then in 1919, the Model T acquired one other asset--the electric starter. The starter took the danger out of starting IC engines, thereby removing one of the major setbacks of gasoline. These advantages helped cement internal combustion as the leading automotive technology, as well as establishing the success of the steering wheel.
But my nostalgia makes me wonder--what if the electric starter hadn't come around? What if Ford had made electric or steam vehicles? What if battery storage had made better progress? What would we be driving today? I think we could easily have built our transportation infrastructure to support any of those technologies.
When the electric Citicar was built in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, the company essentially started where electric cars left off in the 1920s. Part of what is taking electrics so long to catch on now is that we're having to re-invent the wheel so to speak. But I don't think that means we should lose heart. If we had spent the last 90 years working on electric vehicles, electric cars might well be running circles around internal combustion engines.
The same could be said for steam. In fact, a little known car called the Doble started nearly as quickly and easily as an IC car and could go farther before refilling, but in addition to bad management in the company, IC had already taken a strong lead by the time Dobles appeared on the market.
Far from being disappointing, my nostalgia makes me hopeful that we can return to that state of openness and innovation--that we can build on electric and other technologies to develop not just a replacement for internal combustion, but something better. When I sit with my grandchildren someday, I want to tell them the amazing story of how we avoided a crisis not by sacrifice but by being so gosh darn creative. I want to see something so cool that it makes gasoline a quaint throwback to an earlier era. And I want to see it happen for agriculture, power plants, and the economy, too.
What do you think? Is it too tall an order? Or can we invent our way to a better world? Got any ideas for how to do it?