Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?
Indian auto stocks have taken a serious beating off late with concerns not just on the current cyclical decline in sales (perhaps the industry’s worst ever downturn) but also the threat of disruptions for the future – electric, autonomous, ride-sharing, etc. Well, the concerns are global in nature and perhaps the history of automobiles can provide some cues. In this thoroughly enjoyable read, Nathan Heller looks at two books on the automobile industry to help understand America’s association with the automobile over the years, its impact on society, culture, politics in general and perhaps extend this evolution into the future to get a sense which way we are headed. The two books Nathan discusses in this piece are Dan Albert’s “Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless,” and Samuel I. Schwartz’s “No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future”.
It is fascinating to know from Albert that indeed, electric cars were not just a reality as early as the beginning of the 20th century but were considered the mainstay. Not just that, the first adoption of mass market use of automobiles was in ride sharing mode. Now, over a century later, both ideas of electric cars and ride sharing are back in the reckoning. As Albert explains, how privately-owned gasoline powered cars took off eventually turns out to be an absolute random event.
“….in the late nineteenth century, electric cars and gasoline cars developed side by side. One assumes that electrics were only notionally in the running at this stage. Surprisingly, Albert reports, gas cars were the B-fleet for years.
Turn-of-the-century electric cars were more maneuverable than their gasoline-powered counterparts. They had faster acceleration, better braking, and powerful torque, which compensated for the heft of their batteries. They set land-speed records—in 1902, an electric car briefly attained an astonishing hundred and two miles per hour—and, unlike internal-combustion vehicles, didn’t sputter out in traffic and need to be cranked up in the middle of the road….
“The internal-combustion car that had to be coaxed and muscled to life, with its lubes and explosions and thrusting pistons, that would be the car for men,” Albert writes. Electrics—quiet, practical, and, in one engineer’s estimation, “tame”—took on female associations. Not for the last time, the makers of gas cars didn’t so much win the market as create a market they could win. The triumph of gas engines entailed a shift in the whole transportation model—from shared cars to privately owned cars, from an extension of the metropolitan network to a vehicle that required infrastructure of its own. “Had this period of random technological mutation selected for the electric, the social history of America would be unrecognizable,” Albert notes”
…A clearer way to think about the future can be found in Samuel I. Schwartz’s “No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future,” written with Karen Kelly. Schwartz is known to New Yorkers of a certain age as Gridlock Sam, owing to his role, in the nineteen-eighties, as New York City’s traffic commissioner and, later, as the Department of Transportation’s chief engineer. It was he who took credit for turning the West Side Highway from a groaning overpass to a riverside boulevard. He also implemented early bike lanes and, in 1971, designed the failed “red zone,” which would have banned cars in midtown from late morning to midafternoon. Schwartz approaches the future much as he approaches traffic—as a complex, dynamic system—and his book emerges as a clearheaded bible for the twenty-first-century road. Historically, he argues, planning favored car interests over “actual traffic habits.” With driverless cars zooming into view, he sees a chance to do the planning properly for the first time.
….Many drivers regard autonomous cars as a pervert technology, like sex robots or Nespresso machines, and plan to reject the things as soon as they show up. In reality, self-driving cars are likely to overtake the market through a gradual shift in norms and features, a process that, Albert and Schwartz agree, has already begun. Many drivers today cede way-finding to apps like Waze, which draws on the hive-mind intelligence of other vehicles to ease bottlenecks and dodge perils. Some cars now brake to avoid collision if the driver fails to, and many ping at you, like a better driver in the back seat, if you drift too close to danger.
This human-proofing, far from throwing off the rhythms of the road, has increased safety, by most evidence, which is no surprise. Commercial airplanes are what we’d call self-driving except at takeoff and landing, and the result is that it’s now nearly impossible for a cruising jet to fall out of the sky without malice or a series of compounding errors by the pilots. (Lethal computer glitches are so rare that if they appear even twice among tens of millions of flights, as in the case of Boeing’s 737 max 8, the industry goes into crisis.) People get the willies at the idea of putting their lives in the hands of computers, but there’s every reason to think that, as far as transportation goes, we’re safer in their care.”