Beginning of a new e-ra?

In the late 19th century, an invention shook the world. A promising innovation, that even though praised by all, was adopted by few – it was found too impractical for daily use. But little did the world know that times were a-changin’. I’m talking about the invention of the ‘modern car’ with an internal combustion engine by Karl Benz in 1885.

When cars with an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) were first commercially made available, they were shunned as an unrealistic idea, and there were many legitimate reasons for that. They were unfashionably expensive, ridiculously slow, consistently unpredictable and brilliant yet unexciting: to sum it up, they were quixotic. The point that absolutely didn’t work out for the first cars was that they proposed to replace something that was deep seated in everybody’s hearts – horse drawn carriages.

Horses. The grand, regal, friendly beasts drawing luxurious carriages with young princesses sitting inside wearing ball-room gowns – it was a scene out of fairy-tales. To replace these majestic beasts by something so bland and slow such as a car was an unpalatable idea to many.

Every fairy-tale has a twist though and this one was no exception. The horse driven carriages had problems of their own. Not the carriages per se, but the horses drawing them. Around the time the first modern car was invented, major city centers were plagued with horse manure, i.e. horse shit. Eric Morris, an Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning at Clemson University, South Carolina, whose urban planning master’s thesis explored the reality of horse-based transportation in 19th-century cities, said that “the stench was omnipresent”.

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.

The point I’m trying to make is that when cars made their debut, they were not very like-able. But they were solving the prominent problems at the time that transportation by horse carts posed. And once development started, well you have more than a century of history to look back at. Cars became an indispensible part of the human society. For motor heads like you and me, they hold an emotional value. They are pieces of art for us. It’s like Picasso, Michelangelo, Mozart and Manzoni (for the uninitiated, he’s the guy who designed the La Ferrari).

So why am I telling all this? If you have been paying attention, I am trying to draw a pattern here-

Horse carts were awesome but had their problems. Something lackluster came up and solved those problems. People initially shunned the cars, but soon realized they were a better option and today cars have replaced horse carriages to the point that they have the emotional appeal that horses had back in their day.


tesla

Tesla announced the much awaited and their most affordable car, the Model 3, earlier this year and it is expected to hit the market by late 2017. According to the Forbes Magazine, almost 400,000 people have paid the stiff $1000 booking amount until now, which is a huge deal considering the fact that the Model 3 is not expected to be available in large volumes any time before 2018. Moreover, the Model 3 is expected to come to the Indian shores and that has created quite a buzz in the local automotive industry.

Tesla is continuously changing the scape of the global automotive industry since their inception in 2003. With successful models like the Roadster, the Model S and the Model X under their belt, they have created a positive image for all-electric cars in the minds of consumers. Gone are the days when all-electrics were assumed to be the rides of nerds who probably went to their prom alone. Tesla cars are considered hip and a status symbol and boy they are practical! With a range well north of 300 miles or around 500 kilometers on full charge, they sure mean some serious business.

Tesla Motors aren’t the first manufacturers to roll out all-electric cars. Nissan, Chevy, Ford, Kia, VW, Renault, everybody has tried their hand at making all-electrics. Even BMW joined the charade with the futuristic i3. The concept of all-electric cars in fact is a rather old one with the first electric cars dating back to as early as the 19th century. However, the idea never caught traction because of problems inherent to electric cars like limited range, expensive and bulky batteries, unjustifiable costs, et cetera and all-electrics to this day live in the shadow of the success of their more practical petrol-powered cousins. I mean, I’d rather deal with three storeys of horseshit than a range of 50 miles!

However with the introduction of space-age technologies like autonomous driving and the breakthroughs in increasing the energy density of batteries, what Tesla has shown us is that all-electrics can be sufficiently practical too. Tesla has given us the hope that electric cars might be the solution to our growing and undeniable problem of pollution from running of IC engines.

Did you, my dear reader, notice the recurring pattern here? Yes!

Cars with IC engines have their problems. Something lacklustre has come up that might solve these problems. People initially shunned the electric cars, but are now realizing that they might be a better option. And if history has taught us anything, (and trust me, as a die-hard petrol head, it’s difficult for me to write this, but) they might have the emotional appeal someday that ICE cars have today.

But there’s yet another twist in the tale. You see, there is a mighty ‘might’ involved here. Not everybody thinks that electric cars are the solution to IC engine related environmental problems. Some people believe that the ICE cars still have many hands to play. Richard Muller, professor of physics at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley, said on Quora, a US based question and answer site that the possibility that reducing the environmental stress from IC engine vehicles to acceptable limits is well within our technological capabilities. To quote him,

“The batteries are too expensive, and not decreasing rapidly in price. The expense of running such a car comes from the battery replacement cost, which happens after 500 to 1000 full recharges. Tesla builds in a one-time replacement cost into their initial high price to cover this issue. That keeps the initial cost high. There is little to no environmental benefit, since in most of the world the electricity is derived from coal. An electric car in China produces more CO2 than does a gasoline car.”

He has also predicted that soon the fad for electric cars may get over and companies like Tesla will run out of business once their subsidies get over. Richard Muller thinks that if there is any future in electric cars, it is in the form of hybrid vehicles that run on both electricity and petrol. And considering the hybrid cars of the day, like Porsche’s insanely fast hybrid, the 918 Spyder, that can churn out about 875 bhp and go from 0-100 in 2.6 seconds while maintaining emission levels lower than that of a Toyota Prius, I think Dr. Muller is on to something.

So are electric cars just another fad that would wither away with time? Or do they have what it takes to replace the modern-day equivalent of the grandiose horse-drawn carriages? Is this the beginning of a new era, or shall I say new e-ra? Or is this just a distraction in the grand scheme of how future technology evolves? That my friend, and I’d like to quote Jeffrey Archer here, only time will tell.

 

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