Cars replaced horses, but what will replace cars?
It was hard to imagine life without horse-drawn vehicles in the 1890s – they had been the transport of choice for thousands of years. The increases over the 19th century led to the downsides of using horses becoming ever apparent in the larger cities with large populations. The sheer amount of horse manure generated by some 300,000 horses working on the streets of London and the smell that came with it, became impossible to manage.
Prudish Victorians adopted the term “mud” to describe the cesspools that were created whenever it rained on the Strand. Passing vehicles would fling the muck across the pavement to ruin the houses and shops that lined the streets. Huge piles of manure were dumped at various points in major cities and next to stables which were all very bad for public health.
Horseless carriages – otherwise known as cars
The steam locomotive and railway links that were constructed from the 1830s actually increased the issues that cities faced when it came to horses. The faster and more efficient routes between cities increased demand for transport of people and goods which in turn increased the number of horse-drawn vehicles on the roads. Very soon horses had become both indispensable and unsustainable. The solution was clear to those seeking the new technologies of self-propelling motor vehicles (or horseless carriages) and getting rid of the horses seemed the only way forward. This move from horsepower to cars was not the simple solution that it appeared at the time. Motor vehicles changed the world in ways that their inventors could never possibly have imagined.
Cars were billed as the solution to the problems that were associated with using horse-drawn vehicles – such as noise, traffic congestion and accidents. The fact that cars failed to solve these issues was overlooked in part because they offered so many other benefits. Eliminating the pollution – most notably, the horse manure that had plagued the cities for hundreds of years. But as we now know, removing one set of environmental problems actually introduced a whole set of new problems.
The pollutants from cars are not as obvious to the eye as horse manure but are just as much of an issue. Cars, trucks and buses collectively produce 17% of global carbon dioxide emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel had huge ramifications during the 20th century when much of the world became dependent on oil from the Middle East. Could any of this have been predicted? There were concerns about the sustainability of non-renewable fossil fuels and the access needed to these fuels for cars to survive. Now we sit on the cusp of another huge shift in the way we transport people, goods and services around the world. Electric cars which are charged using renewable energy are now set to take the place of the ‘horseless carriage’ as the world shifts once more.
Electric vehicles have had success in the past
The pros and cons of electric cars have long been debated and in fact, the bestselling car in the US in 1897 was actually an electric vehicle – the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia Motor Carriage. At this point in history, it was electric models that were outselling steam and petrol ones. It was only in 1903 that petrol-powered vehicles took the lead for the first time following the launch of the Olds Motor Works’ Curved Dash Oldsmobile. Many electric vehicles have been developed over the years, including the Electrobat – an electric taxi cab – that was created in Philadelphia in 1894. After an initial flourish, the taxi service struggled with the limited range and slow charging batteries. It was when the creators (Pedro Salom and Henry Morris) merged with the Electric Battery Company that this business attracted the investment of a New York politician and financier called William Whitney. Teaming up with both the founders of the Electrobat and the makers of the Columbia Motor Carriage he formed the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) and in 1899 it was the largest automobile manufacturer in the US.
Industry journal the Horseless Age (the petrol-heads of the day) attacked EVC and said electric vehicles were doomed to failure. Following accusations of fraud the share price fell and the collapse of the Electric Vehicle Company was savoured by the publication who cheered the failure to ‘force’ electric vehicles on a ‘credulous world’.
Electric vehicles started to take on a new connotation at this time. They were seen as ‘women’s cars’ due to their reliability and suitability for short local trips with no requirements for hand-cranking to start or gear shifting to operate. An advert for Babcock Electric vehicles claimed in 1910 that “She who drives a Babcock Electric has nothing to fear”. The assumption was that men were assumed to be more capable mechanics, who could cope with greater complexity and lower reliability for the powerful petrol vehicles. It’s funny to think now that models launched in 1912 were completely redesigned to cater to women. Detroit Electric and Waverley Electric created electric cars that were operated from the back seat with a rear-facing front seat that allowed the driver to face her passengers – but not exactly see the road ahead! Instead of a steering wheel, these models had a tiller which was deemed more suitable for a woman and less strenuous but actually was more dangerous and less precise.
It is said that Henry Ford bought his wife, Clara, a Detroit Electric rather than one of his own Model Ts and went on to confirm rumours that he was developing a low-cost electric car alongside Thomas Edison. The issues they faced then are the same as those facing today’s carmakers with the difficulty of building a light-weight battery that would travel long distances without recharging. Thomas Edison couldn’t find an alternative to the heavy, bulky lead-acid batteries used to power electric cars and the project was eventually abandoned.
The internal combustion engine changes everything
In the early 20th century the internal combustion engine became the most popular form of propulsion and the failure of electric vehicles had a lot to do with the fact that liquid fuel providing far more energy per unit mass than an acid-lead battery is able to. There was not only the technical constraints but the fears of limited range and the uncertainty of charging the battery which also fueled the growth of the petrol-powered car. Relying on oil had other costs and by the 1960s American cars were heavier than those made in Europe and Japan and the V8 engines had more than twice the engine capacity of the four-cylinder engines most popular elsewhere. That led to more consumption of fuel and that came from imports – mostly from the Middle East.
It was soon after this time that the members of Opec cut off oil exports to the US in protest at support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Oil prices rose and the reduction in supply led to much higher petrol prices, rationing and long queues to visit gas stations. It was the first time that American car owners realised they couldn’t take the petrol supplies for granted and it led to national speed limits and the introduction of fuel-economy standards. Carmakers didn’t change their products and in the late 70s around 80% of American-made cars still had V8s. It was in 1979 – around the time of the Iran-Iraq war – when there was a second disruption to oil supply, that the demand for smaller cars became apparent.
You might think that electric cars would have risen in popularity during these times but there had been little progress in the technology since the 1920s with the major issue still being the batteries inability to store energy without being too heavy and bulky. Until the recent emergence of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery the attempts to revive the electric car had failed to get off the ground. Tesla was founded to commercialise technology that had started as an electric roadster called the tzero – powered by 6800 camcorder batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have made electric cars not only possible but a viable solution to the increasing concerns of climate change.
The switch globally to electric cars would contribute to a reduction in emissions worldwide but doesn’t solve other issues associated with cars like traffic congestion, road deaths or the laziness of humans who use a one-tonne vehicle when they could walk or cycle on short journeys. If we look at the concerns raised about the supply of lithium and cobalt and the ‘rare earth’ elements required to make electric motors it feels very similar to the concerns raised when the horseless carriage was first talked about all those years ago. History teaches us that it would be naive of us to think that switching from one form of power would not be without its own set of problems. Just as when horse-drawn vehicles were replaced by cars. Some people say it’s the whole idea of car ownership that is in question.
As combustion engines are phased out the emissions across the globe are targeted to reduce, the rise of ride-hailing signals a new age in trackable driving with shared vehicles – even bikes and escooters – knowing who went where and when. The data collected by these types of companies is useful to predict demand and advertise but privacy groups and service providers are concerned that all of the personal-mobility data is likely to cause issues in the future. It might seem like a small and vague concern now but look at the few people concerned about carbon dioxide emissions at the dawn of the petrol engine. Are electric cars, shared vehicles and the solutions to the global emissions crisis really as viable as they seem to be?
This is an edited extract from The lost history of the electric car – and what it tells us about the future of transport, published by The Guardian on 3 August. Read in full here.