Alternative Fuel Vehicles Further Considered

A couple of weeks ago we posted a brief critique of an MIT study on alternative fuels along with our own abbreviated analysis of modern transportation revolutions. I would like to continue that analysis.

Further Examples

Implicit in the MIT analysis of alternative fuel cars is the notion that major changes in transportation systems tend to be gradual and incremental and that we may expect a transition to alternative fuel or electric cars to take place over the span of decades. The past does not suggest that, however.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first three quarters of the twentieth century were characterized by the appearance of fundamentally new forms of transportation—vehicles and transportation systems which were novel not only in the sense of incorporating new technologies but also in terms of their market entries and subsequent adoption patterns. The last point requires emphasis.

Conventional wisdom has it that major innovations take time to establish themselves in the market and to achieve market maturity, and that once such maturity has been achieved such innovations will tend to maintain fairly steady sales as the number of replacement buyers grows while first time buyers decline. This is the standard theory for the adoption and diffusion of innovations, and is tacitly invoked in the MIT study as it is in most other considerations of new product acceptance, and not just those involving vehicles and transportation systems.

In the course of preparing market reports in a number of emerging technologies, I have found the model to be flawed and inappropriate in any number of instances, and nowhere more so than in the case of new forms of transformation. Successful innovations in transportation have almost always been abrupt and cataclysmic in recent times, and a study of history reveals that to have been generally the case in the past as well.

For instance, the transformation of the tubby, single masted, shore-hugging medieval ship into the modern three masted ocean going sailing vessel occurred in a period of about 50 years from roughly 1410 to 1460. Once the transformation was complete, the age of exploration and conquest could begin in earnest and it did.

The Viking ship appears to have emerged just as suddenly just prior to 700AD, and it was employed in large numbers in massive invasions and trading expeditions within decades. Likewise, the spread of the horse among the Plains Indians seems to have required only about a half a century.

The nineteenth century launch of the safety bicycle and the electric street railway were even more rapid, and each came to dominate its own transportation sector in about five years. That represents a much faster adoption pattern than was the case for the automobile, incidentally.

And there are other examples, none more interesting, perhaps, than the modern ocean liner.

The first real ocean liner was named The City of New York and was built in the U.S. in 1888. Measuring 560 feet, she was the biggest ship launched since the ill-fated Great Eastern, and also the fastest large steam powered vessel on the water. She had two huge piston engines and two propellers, the first ship so outfitted, as well as the second electric elevator ever installed anywhere and electric lighting throughout, another first. She was also one of the first large ships made entirely of steel rather than iron plate, and she even incorporated an internal telephone system complete with switchboard! In short, she combined several emerging technologies which worked synergistically to provide a level of speed and comfort to her passengers that would have been unimaginable even five years earlier. Maintaining a perfect safety record, the City of New York remained in service for forty years, finally being scrapped in the mid thirties.

The City of New York was immensely expensive to build, and, correspondingly, charged unbelievably exorbitant rates to first class customers--$600 a night for a deck suite which translates into over $10,000 a night at today's prices. Even so, she was a solid success and was immediately followed by whole flotillas of ocean liners, each more luxurious than the last until by the turn of the century hundreds of them plied the Atlantic, representing in aggregate the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars of investment.

Single engine, single screw steam powered passenger ships had preceded the City of New York, but, with only a single engine, they required auxiliary sails for safety reasons and the rigging slowed them down, prevented the erection of extensive deck structures, and also limited their size. The City of New York had only a vestigial sailing rig—which, incidentally was never used and soon removed altogether. No subsequent ocean liner had sails of any kind.

Prior to the maiden voyage of the City of New York, crossing the Atlantic was a fairly arduous and uncomfortable process even for first class passengers. Subsequently it was like staying at a good hotel.

To be sure, the passenger lines made a lot of their income from steerage passengers, many part of the great wave of immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe into the United States, but even for the lowliest traveler the comforts provided by the ocean liners were much beyond what was to be had aboard their predecessors and that in itself must have contributed at least to some extent to wave of immigration in the United States. An Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner took about a week and the ships themselves were much more stable than the older, smaller hybrids. A week at sea was endurable by almost anyone, but a month might not have been, particularly with the threat of disease in the crowded quarters of the steerage.

As was the case with the bicycle and the electric street railway, the modern ocean liner completely displaced its antecedents within a very few years, and no more single screw passenger ships were constructed after the early nineties, and certainly no hybrid vessels with engines and sails combined. Iron ships also disappeared within the space of years.

As we enter the twentieth century we encounter further very rapid displacements. The modern airliner, whose design found initial expression in the Douglas DC3 in 1936, almost completely replaced older aircraft by 1946 even with the interruption in production during World War II, and jets replaced the piston airliners even more rapidly during the late fifties. Similarly, the diesel locomotive obsolesced the steam engine within a decade.

Epicycles and Anomalies

One of the more interesting aspects of modern transportation revolutions is how quickly many of them ran their course and how rapidly the revolutionary products were themselves obsolesced.

The safety bicycle represents a prime example, particularly in the U.S. The bicycle craze, which began in 1890, was largely over by 1900. Sales of bicycles declined significantly in the late nineties, and, by 2005, the bicycle had also disappeared as a form of adult transportation in the U.S., assuming instead the status of a child's toy and recreational vehicle, a status it still holds today. Many assume that the decline may be explained by the ascent of the automobile, but automobile ownership was utterly negligible in 1900 with an estimated 10,000 cars having been purchased since the opening years of the decade of the nineties.

An almost exactly parallel decline occurred with respect to street railways. Most of the trolley systems were built in the nineties, and new construction greatly diminished in the first decade of the twentieth century. By 1920 the build-out of the trolley lines had virtually ceased, and, by 1940 most of them were gone.

In both cases the product life cycle took the form of a pulse, not the expected S-shaped logistical curve. Acceptance was nearly immediate and subsequent lack of acceptance almost as rapid.

Another anomalous finding concerns what might be termed the form factor of vehicles, and its effect upon adoption patterns. In no instance is this more puzzling than in the case of the American automobile.

American cars were at first derivative of European models, but the American manufacturers rapidly became the trendsetters rather than the followers. The manner in which they proceeded over the course of the first four decades of the twentieth century is remarkable.

The first form factor of the American automobile was the horseless carriage with a light, buggy body, tiller steering, and engine under the single seat. Such cars were made from the late nineties up until 1902. They were almost immediately superseded by topless, front engine vehicles with front and back seats, the basic form that would be used henceforth.

Up until 1920 the details of the form factor though not the basic configuration changed radically every two years or so, affecting such aspects as the placement of the axles, the position of the steering column and gear shift lever, the drive train, the doors, the windshield, and, perhaps most significantly, the design of the top. Through it all, open roadsters and convertibles offering minimal protection from the elements remained dominant until 1920 when they were abruptly displaced by closed body vehicles whose tops were completely integrated with the body. At that point the pace of evolution slowed a bit and the key change involved the rounding of the overall form to achieve streamlining, the attendant elimination of running boards, external radiators, and other excrescences, and the eventual blending of fenders into the hood and side panels. When the last had occurred, cars achieved their more or less permanent form factor which still obtains today.

Remarkably, the changes in form factor were usually so extreme as to change the driving experience fundamentally and to render the prior art effectively obsolete. By 1905 it was obvious to any thinking person purchasing an automobile that one's high priced investment would be thoroughly antiquated within three years of purchase and unlikely to attract buyers, and yet new car sales continued to surge. While records are still available, some historian of technology should really conduct a study of the used car market from 1900 until 1920. With the automobile literally being re-invented every two or three years, it is difficult to believe that used cars ever found much of market, especially with so many manufacturers going out of business and support for discontinued models nonexistent.

Now it is true that Ford, the leading manufacture up until 1920, diverged from this practice of rapid model replacement, and changed the best selling Model T scarcely at all during its nineteen year product life, but Ford is generally believed to have sacrificed industry dominance by doing so. People didn't want automotive technology to stand still, and many were perfectly willing to sell prior vehicles at a huge loss within few years of purchase.

One could frame an argument to the effect that what is generally taken to be a single product category or invention, namely the automobile, was actually several, each exhibiting a pulse adoption pattern—instantaneous acceptance and a high adoption level followed by abrupt disappearance. Interestingly, American manufacturers marched virtually in lockstep, each adopting each new design paradigm in its entirety, particularly in the first decade of the new century. The rigidity of the design consensus exceeded even that of the fashion industry, but the industry lacked any apparent arbiters of design, and, of course, such designs were applied to very expensive items positioned as durable goods, not to articles of apparel. Again, a rigorous historical investigation is in order. Why did the industry behave as it did, what was the mechanism for design diffusion, and why were customers so accepting of behaviors that benefited them so little?

One might add that while the changes in automotive form factor resemble in their arbitrariness changes in fashion, there was no periodicity such as we find in clothing fashions where hemlines go up and down and colors are completely recycled every couple of decade. Once an automotive form factor passed out of favor, it never returned, and in general we find this tendency persisting up until the present. No one, for instance, has ever sought to revive the fins and chrome of 1950s automobiles. Occasional retro tendencies are seen in certain models such as the PT Cruiser from Chrysler, but they are more a matter of accents than overall form.

Interestingly, the rapid alteration in form factor seen in the early automobile also occurred in the safety bicycle which was characterized by model years and constant cosmetic changes from the very beginning. The form factor of the bicycle did not completely stabilize until 1896, and a mere two years later the adult market began its inexorable descent.

Trolley cars showed almost no alteration in their form factors, which were based on the preceding horsecars of middle and late nineteenth century, but Ocean liners certainly did, and the change in the appearance of the ships was remarkably rapid. Ships built in the late nineties look nothing at all like the City of New York, while the Titanic, completed in 1912, bears little resemblance to the boats of 1900. In fact the rapid changes in design continued up until the late thirties when the ocean liner as it was originally conceived began its journey to extinction.

What's Next

It should be obvious by now that most so-called transportation revolutions scarcely fit the designation. In the last hundred and twenty years we've seen many seemingly revolutionary categories fail after tremendous initial successes, including bicycles, trolley cars, ocean liners, and, at least in the United States, diesel passenger trains. And to that list one might have added motorcycles as well if we confine ourselves to the U.S. Motorcycles were as common as cars prior to 1910 and continued to find a wide market up through the thirties. But the market collapsed in the late forties leaving a single manufacturer pursuing a single narrow market niche. Of course later the Japanese manufacturers would create a whole market segment and a vast explosion in ownership, but that is another story.

In our next installment we will attempt to determine the reasons that some revolutionary categories succeed while others fail. And the reasons, as it turns out, are far from obvious.

I couldn't imagine being on

I couldn't imagine being on an ocean liner back in the early 1900's and crossing the atlantic let alone any other major body of water. Last year I was on a european cruise which was quite nice but thinking about how they navigated before gps and other electronics amazes me.