The long road to credibility for new modes of transport

The UK government’s plan to provide a £5,000 for electric cars has attracted a lot of criticism in the press: their environmental benefits are fiction; charging them ‘will lead to blackouts’; and they’re unpopular.

The current generation of wholly electric vehicles are beset with shortcomings; battery life, speed, and charging times and locations mean that buying one is not a simple decision. But this is changing quickly: China is planning to become a big player in development and manufacturing – likely giving GM, which has been developing its Volt for years, a push; and new business models, such as removable batteries, are being developed to address the charging issue.

As many have pointed out, the Toyota Prius hybrid was unprofitable and less than popular for years before it turned the corner.

But, looking back, we find that motor cars themselves were the subject of ridicule for years before they became fast enough to escape mocking. Daniel Yergin’s book ‘The Prize’ notes that in 1895 a Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race helped the car gain credibility, but a race the following year in Rhode Island was so slow and boring, at 15mpg, “that there was heard the first cry, ‘Get a horse!;”.

By 1905 the gasoline-powered car had defeated its competitors for automotive locomotion – steam and electricity – and had established total suzerainty. Still, there were doubts about the ruggedness and reliability of the car.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 laid rest to these doubts, he writes, when 200 private cars were pressed into service and the acting chief of the San Francisco fire department gave the vehicles a “hearty endorsement”.

That same year a leading journalist wrote that the automobile “is no longer a theme for jokers, and rarely do we hear the derisive expression, ‘Get a horse!’” Even more than that the car had become a status symbol. “the automobile is the idol of the modern age,” said another writer. “The man who owns a motorcar gets for himself, besides the joys of touring, the adulation of the walking crowd, and… is a god to the women.”

Car registrations went from 8,000 in 1900 to 902,000 in 1912. There is a fair amount of bullishness around that, if electric vehicles improve as expected, we may see a similar revolution.

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