The preceding installment of this two part series ended with establishment of the gasoline automobile as a successful consumer durable good in the U.S. circa 1910, and its subsequent enthronement as the reigning mode of personal transport. The rest, as they say, is history, and the subsequent history of the automobile until the present decade has been all about petroleum. Reciprocating piston internal combustion engines have been absolutely dominant in automotive transport as well as in shipping, rail transport, and general aviation; and, with few exceptions, they have utilized petroleum fuel.
Now for the first time in almost a century the internal combustion engine is being challenged by the formerly discredited electric motor, and some officials of major auto manufacturers are predicting that the pure electric vehicle will displace the ICE (internal combustion engine) car.
Here I shall attempt to determine the odds of that happening, for it is of the greatest moment so far as the alternative fuels industry is concerned.
Reiterating the ICE's Success Factors
The ICE car, as we have seen, was associated with fundamental changes in the daily life of Americans, changes which I only partly enumerated in the preceding segment. Certainly cars changed housing and commuting patterns profoundly, as I indicated. But they also changed individual purchasing behavior as well as the development of the retail industry, the hospitality industry, education—indeed, there is scarcely an aspect of everyday life that was not crucially altered. As Tom Wolfe indicated in one of his books on American popular culture, sexual behavior was profoundly affected as well. An automobile may not be the most commodious of shelters for the consummation of sexual liaisons, but it is among the most convenient, and it can readily transport the lovers to distant areas where the prying eyes and wagging tongues of small town neighbors are absent.
In short, the automobile was as essential to the material life of America in the twentieth century as the horse was to the culture of the Plains Indians. The twentieth century American was veritably a cyborg centaur, and the automobile was his lower half.
Now a Look at Some Failures
As I indicated in the primer entitled "The Structure of Transportation Revolutions", most widely adopted and successful new forms of transport impact living patterns profoundly and change the very nature of the society into which they are introduced. Furthermore, they generally spark very rapid change.
On the other hand, new modes of transportation which lack the capability of exerting transformational effects upon a range of key societal functions and activities, are not apt to be highly successful.
A good example of a relatively unimportant twentieth century transportation mode, one that failed to live up its promise, is the privately owned airplane.
The first airplane was built only a little more than decade after the first American automobile, and the manufacturing of airplanes on a production basis lagged factory production of automobiles by little more than a decade as well. Planes followed hard on the heels of automobiles, and by the nineteen twenties small personal aircraft were being mass produced. Production rose sharply in the depression ridden thirties, and aircraft manufacturers seriously envisioned an age of mass ownership of aircraft, though by the late thirties many believed the newly perfected helicopter would be more likely to succeed than the fixed wing airplane. Here I would mention that Roland Marchand, a brilliant historian of American popular culture whom I mentioned in the first segment, wrote a companion volume to "Advertising the American Dream" entitled "Creating the Corporate Soul" which devotes a whole chapter to personal aircraft in Post World War II America and to the many predictions in the popular press that everyone would own a helicopter within a decade or so.
Obviously, very few individuals own helicopters sixty years later, and the percentage of Americans owning airplanes is considerably below its peak in the thirties. The visionaries were wrong, but why were they wrong?
Now one can argue that the challenges of operating an aircraft will always confound the majority of consumers, but the fact is that the personal airplane market grew very strongly through the twenties and thirties, and, moreover, manufacturers, in pursuit of a mass market, strove to produce aircraft that were easier to operate, relatively stall proof and foolproof, and that were inexpensive to manufacture. And they certainly made progress toward all of these goals. But still they failed, and biggest factor behind their failure was the failure of the airplane itself to stimulate change in the larger society.
If personal aircraft had exhibited any capacity at all to shape housing patterns, commerce, the nature of work, or sexual mores for that matter, the stimulus for redoubled efforts on the part of the manufacturers would have been there. Personal aircraft probably never would have been ubiquitous, but they could have become widespread. But they didn't.
And in this respect they stand in telling contrast to commercial aircraft. Real commercial airlines began in the U.S. in the late nineteen twenties, and were an immediate and well publicized success with business travelers even though airliners of the period were relatively uncomfortable.
Another example of a transportation innovation which failed to achieve revolutionary impact is the small powered watercraft, which first appeared around 1890, and which did win considerable acceptance as recreational vehicles, but never had much impact on the larger aspects of American life and thus never became truly mass market. Small gasoline powered boats didn't change institutions, at least not in the United States. They did in the South Sea islands where they quickly transformed traditional societies whose principal vehicle was the sailboat.
And remember the Segway? That's a failure so recent and egregious that we all can comprehend it.
I was reporting on the high tech sector in Silicon Valley when the Segway, initially code named "Ginger", began to garner a lot of pre-release publicity. Young dot.com billionaires, the kind of guys that routinely got quoted in "Wired" and "Red Herring" and "Upside" were all saying that Ginger would revolutionize personal transportation. And most of the press was buying it as well. I remember one reporter who actually suggested that the new vehicle would succeed because it was the first two-wheeled personal transportation mode to appear. I guess bicycles and motorcycles were absent from the streets of Sunnyvale and San Jose back then.
Obviously the techie prophets were all wet, even the billionaires among them, and why Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway who really is a brilliant mechanical engineer, devoted so much time and energy to the project I can scarcely fathom. But then he evidently didn't read "The Structure of Transportation Revolutions" before commencing work on the Segway.
Apart from the fact that the riding experience is underwhelming and the thing actually feels a lot more dangerous than a motorcycle, though it really isn't, Segway wasn't going to impact where you worked or where you shopped or where you lived. Furthermore, the device puts you squarely in the pedestrian stream where you're unlikely to be able to take advantage of its paltry twelve mile per hour top end, and so you might as well walk to wherever you were going. And you could do that without coming up with several thousand dollars. And since the Good Lord designed homo sap to do a lot of walking, you were going to fulfill your biological destiny in the process and ward off some of those diseases of affluence and a sedentary lifestyle that afflict so many of us today.
I don't think it's an accident that Dean Kamen made most of his money on improvements in powered wheelchairs. The Segway is something only an invalid could love.
But nobody really bothered to put Segway into a social context before bringing it to market. They just assumed that because it was way cool and so Silicon Valley, it would be a smash hit.
A Jaundiced View of Electrics
So what does this mean in terms of revival of the electric car?
What it means is that historical patterns of adoption don't bode well for its future. Pure electric cars of conventional design don't seem likely to change the way we live very profoundly. Indeed, the whole thrust behind their promotion is that they will allow us to continue very much as before since grid electricity will presumably remain relatively cheap and thus we can still rely on the automobile to meet most of our transportation needs.
An illustrative story: three years ago I produced a book length study on the hydrogen economy in which I interviewed many proponents of it, most of whom struck me as both highly intelligent and well intentioned, but who seemed motivated more by environmental concerns than an appreciation of market realities and manner in which technological innovations diffuse through markets.
One whom I remember in particular was Dan Sperling, a professor at U.C. Davis who had studied the logistics and economics of a hydrogen transition and had published a considerable body of literature on the subject.
A common theme in Sperling's work and in that of most like minded individuals was that the world of mid-century (by which time the hydrogen economy would presumably be in place) would be very like the world of today with the usual planes, trains, and automobiles, only they would all be utilizing hydrogen fuel—as perfect an example of a straight replacement technology as you could possibly imagine, and never mind the fact that in entire history of transportation there is not a single instance of a straight replacement technology succeeding in the marketplace. New types of motive power have always resulted in sea changes within any given form of transport. Steam ships formed transportation networks that were notably different from those of sailing ships, and oil burning internal combustion ships followed a different course than steam ships. The least disruptive replacement technology was probably the diesel locomotive engine which almost completely obsolesced steam in the forties and fifties, but today's diesel railroads are markedly different than their steam predecessors, and indeed diesel became ascendant when the railroads in the U.S. were in a state of precipitate decline, and diesel appeared as a palliative for reducing operating expenses.
I recall in particular Sperling telling me that the coming age of hydrogen-electric transportation would remain the domain of traditional personal automobiles. "It's not like there's going to be any revival of mass transit or anything like that," he asserted.
The corollary of this kind of thinking is that incumbent auto makers will smoothly transition over to electrical automobiles, never the mind the fact that American incumbents have been unable to transition over to the manufacture of fuel efficient conventional ICEs, a far easier accommodation to execute, and are in danger of going bankrupt today. And never mind the fact that incumbents practically never adapt. The manufacturers of steam engines did not succeed in the diesel market, and sail makers certainly did not start making steam engines back in the nineteenth century.
Of course one can also attack the all electric vehicle on technical as well as public policy grounds. Sandy Thomas of H2Gen Innovations, a manufacturer of small steam reformer hydrogen generators, points out correctly that pure electric cars are likely to be charged at night, and that if they become widespread they will invoke an increased output of electricity from peak shaving plants which invariably run on fossil fuel. So even if the number of renewable energy generating plants increases dramatically, the electric car will probably be drawing lots of power from major emitters. True, this objection could be quashed if the electrical utility industry replaced coal, oil, and natural gas peak shaving plants with those using biomass based fuels, but I do not see a high degree of likelihood of that happening.
There's also the issue of basic performance attributes. MIT's new study, "On the Road in 2035" alluded to in our August 3 news roundup, predicts that the basic limitations of today's electrics are likely to persist, foremost among the limited operating range. The same document predicts that coal fired generation plants operating without carbon sequestration are likely to remain the mainstay of the American electrical utility industry over the course of the next quarter century, and that, if this is the case, pure electrical cars will not curb total emissions very much.
Finally, there are those intangibles associated with product positioning and image. The Tesla aside, practically all electric cars I've seen evoke austerity. They all seem to take the Smart Car as their role model, and fairly cry out "basic transportation". Most of us would like to save the planet, but we'd like to turn some heads while doing it. You're not going to do that in a Zap, even the one with the zebra stripe paint job.
A Different Vision
I have at various times in the past alluded to PRTs (personal rapid transit) systems and to dual mode vehicles—that is, those capable of operating under human guidance on ordinary roadways and in a fully automated mode within PRTs. Clearly both are a stretch at this point.
A couple of PRTs are under construction now, one in Dubai and the other in China, and we may see yet a third in Stockholm. No dual mode systems are currently even in the planning stage, but General Motors management has issued statements to the effect that company has resumed work in this area.
So where is this leading?
Recently I read a document from the Acceleration Studies Foundation entitled "Underground Automated Highways for High-Density Cities, 2005" based upon work done at the University of Houston. The author is one John Smart.
The piece presents a fresh and intriguing conception of the dual mode system, one so audacious that I can't help but entertain it. After all, automobiles were audacious in 1885 and railroads were audacious in 1800. And airplanes were so audacious in the first decade of the twentieth century that many reporters sent investigate the Wright brothers' flights simply refused to accept the evidence of their own eyes and wrote that the whole thing was hoax. Audacious is good. It's one of the earmarks of success in transportation innovations.
Said underground automated highways would consist of a system of tunnels running under municipalities and would be restricted to dual mode vehicles able to accept commands from an automated traffic controller. The system would not be an overlay onto an existing street plan. Users would pay a toll to enter the system and would be transported to their destination much faster than drivers on surface streets. Relieved of the responsibility of piloting the vehicle, they could take advantage of online information and entertainment systems while en route.
The Texans who performed the research for this study point out that a new generation of automated excavation equipment has vastly reduced the cost of tunneling, and that tunnel thoroughfares can be dug, lined with concrete, and paved with no direct human intervention at a cost of a little over a dollar per cubic foot of earth removed. Their claim is that transportation systems can be constructed in this manner for much less than elevated light rail systems or tramways, and while avoiding right of way issues.
The researchers assume that the vehicles will continue to use internal combustion engines, but they could just as easily draw current from an insulated cable through magnetic induction with no direct contact. Thus one could have a pure electric vehicle which could draw current from an automated roadway where present and from a battery when operating on surface roadways. If such tunnel networks became sufficiently extensive, problems of limited range could be ameliorated if not eliminated.
If the tunnels were evacuated, one would have the basis for extremely high speed travel over distance, especially if the vehicles within were provided with magnetic levitation capabilities. One would have in effect a car that was also a personal jet and capable of traveling hundreds or even thousands of mile per hour.
We already have a phenomenon underway whereby municipalities in various parts of the country are selling off public highway to private corporations who will henceforth operate them as toll roads. These have already proven highly profitable. The provision of subterranean transportation to an affluent elite willing to pay significant fees and to purchase the requisite dual mode vehicles could conceivably be the basis of a business decades hence, particularly if liquid fuel supplies grow extremely constrained.
Of course, in order for such a system to reduce carbon emissions, it would have to be powered by either renewable or nuclear energy, and the odds of either or both predominating in even twenty-five years hence seem poor.
My point is that an electric vehicle endowed with such advanced dual mode capabilities and operating at least in part over dedicated pathways could spur the development of new patterns of housing and urban settlement. It could emulate transformations wrought by the railroads, the interurbans, and, lastly the automobile.
I can already hear the objections. Change can't possibly happen on that scale. But the point is it did in the past. Between 1908 and 1958 we saw the mass adoption of personal automobiles and the construction of the whole vast Interstate Highway System and the arrival of the jet age. Those were revolutionary changes and definitely not business as usual. Business as usual was choo-choo trains, but by 1958 those handled mostly freight in the U.S. Their best days were behind them.
Of course it may be that the national will for epic feats of construction and innovation is gone. That the exuberance that created the stupendous material culture of the twentieth century was born of youth and naivete, and can never return.
One thing you can count on. If it happens, it will happen suddenly. That kind of change always does.