Energy Secretary Steven Chu wants you to know:
“The rise of automobiles was driven by environmental pollution,” Chu said, explaining that horse manure had become a major problem in urban streets like New York City. “Carbon dioxide now is like horse manure then” — except, Chu noted, that carbon dioxide doesn’t have the same kind of odor problem that manure does.This caught my attention because it seemed to speak to a frustration that electric cars have not gained the traction that seemed likely by this time. But there may be more at work here.
The change from horse to car was a key paradigm shift of the 20th century and had nothing whatever to do with clean air. Less smell and cleaner streets, yes, plus of course the technological advances that made the horseless carriage possible. Industrialization. The assembly line. Ford, etc.
With such a large change comes large concerns. Here’s what Eugene Morgan, the fictional automobile pioneer in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), said about it:
With all their speed forward they [autos] may be a step backward in civilization. May be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of the men's souls, I'm not sure. But automobiles have come and almost all outward things will be different because of what they bring. They're going to alter war and they're going to alter peace. And I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George - that automobiles had no business to be invented.And that’s a pretty good explication of a paradigm shift. (George is the protagonist, who considers cars a nuisance.) Tarkington was prescient for 1918, still very early in the history of cars. He gets it exactly right: “Men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles.”
But strikingly, the rise of electric cars, if it happens, will not change minds very much. In fact, the wholesale adoption of them may feel like a lost opportunity to move people not just forward, but as far forward as the combustion engine did.
From jet packs at the 1939 Worlds Fair to teleportation as popularized on Star Trek, folks have dreamed of something other than the car almost since the invention of the car – maybe because autos really haven’t “added to the beauty of the world or the life of the men's souls,” maybe because people always dream of the next big thing. The electric car seems in this context rather small, just a continuation of the combustion engine in electric form. It may be that electric cars are simply hard to dream about.
So we won’t see electric cars as our ancestors saw combustion engines, as streets became cleaner and less stinky and as people used their new-found mobility to seek a different life outside cities. They’re not a life changer.
I’m not sure people can work up much feeling for the idea that carbon dioxide is the horse manure of the new century, though they can accept it intellectually. It’s a change that will be, at best, abstract – a harder sell – one worth continuing to make, surely, but not one that will change or disturb us.
Booth Tarkington – maybe it was the nature of photography then, but I’ve never seen a photograph of Tarkington that made him seem warm or friendly.
Of course, we know that Tarkington’s references to men’s souls and changing men’s minds are terribly old-fashioned. But that’s how things got put in 1918 – you just go with the flow.