What the eclipse of horses tells us about electric cars

The world might be on the verge of another revolution like that of the replacement of the horse with the rise of electric cars and self-driving

The outlook is expected to brighten up for electric vehicle makers  as costs to manufacture electric vehicles reduce. Bloomberg
The outlook is expected to brighten up for electric vehicle makers  as costs to manufacture electric vehicles reduce. Bloomberg

When the English invaded France in the 1300s, they had to move 14,000 horses across the Channel, an exercise that required about 400 ships. A warhorse in those days cost the equivalent of £50,000 (Dh229,084), as much as a Land Cruiser today.

For centuries, transport, war and the economy revolved around the horse, as ours do around the car.

Horses require skill to ride, are uncomfortable, can be dangerous, get tired, have a limited daily range (80-100 kilometres at most for a fit horse) and are expensive to care for and feed. Poorer people would have made do with a donkey or bullock cart.

But before steamships (1822) and railways (1825), the initial stages of accelerating mobility in Great Britain made use of horse-drawn canal boats, and better carriages with sprung suspension, patented in 1804, clattering over improved roads. Better communications spurred economic growth, nineteenth-century globalisation and, along with the telegraph and mass literacy, the rise of European nationalism.

By the late nineteenth century, cities such as London and New York feared drowning in manure, just as we suffer from diesel fumes and global warming. Technology came to the rescue: first the streetcar or tram, then the personal automobile.

We still use horses today, for recreation, as a status symbol, and in some specialised jobs. But our cities have been transformed with modern transport, allowing ordinary people to live some way from work. Dense European and Asian megalopolises like London and Tokyo rely on their metros, while the sprawling suburbs of Americana or the Gulf would be impossible without cars.

The Ford Model T, the first mass-market automobile, came on the market in 1908. As Henry Ford apocryphally said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. America led the way into the automobile age, thus also building the modern oil era with its insatiable demand for petrol and diesel. In many places, the new geography of roads disrupted communities and reinforced racial disparities and segregation.

Some three million horses were used by the fuel-short German army in World War Two, of which two million died. But after the war, autobahns and suburbia took over Europe too. More recently, China and other Asian countries embraced the car, with all that means in terms of pollution, congestion, vulnerable and volatile fuel supply, and consumption of concrete, asphalt, steel and rubber.

Now, we might be on the verge of another revolution like that of the replacement of the horse. It arises from the combination of electric cars with self-driving.

Battery vehicles themselves offer a better driving experience, much quieter, lower-maintenance and without air pollution. They can be charged cheaply, at home or work while parked. Their biggest advantage is not emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, at the point of use. They offer a climate benefit in nearly all cases, and particularly when powered from zero-carbon electricity from renewables, nuclear or with carbon capture and storage.

Still more expensive than oil-powered vehicles, costs are coming closer to parity as battery prices fall. Range is improving, with several available models going up to 400 kilometres, and versions of Tesla’s Model 3 offering over 500 kilometres. This is not far short of a typical petrol vehicle and well over most people’s daily driving distances.

Unlike the swap of car for horse, electric vehicles have some disadvantages compared to the internal combustion engine, for instance a more limited range in extremely hot or cold weather, and long charging times. But the environmental and cost advantages will become compelling over the next few years, even without major government subsidies.

‘Green’ post-viral recovery packages will probably concentrate on encouraging climate-friendly solutions such as electric vehicles, charging stations and, perhaps, expanding public transport systems. Oil demand, already hammered by the pandemic, will be pushed into inexorable decline. Manually-driven electric cars alone, though, will not reshape our cities or societies. The same logic of spread-out cities, privately-owned vehicles and congestion would persist.

We should be sceptical of the bolder claims for autonomous vehicles. A system that steers a car correctly around a well-mapped Google campus is still likely unaccountably to be ignorant of a well-known location, lose connection at a crucial moment, take the vehicle down an impassable farm track or repeatedly circle back to a junction blocked by roadworks.

Still, self-driving cars will probably become increasingly common on well-known and straightforward routes, or easy stretches of motorway, with the human driver taking over for more difficult stretches. Greater experience gained from millions of semi-autonomous vehicles will gradually push towards full autonomy.

If it continues for much longer, the coronavirus pandemic casts doubt over both shared vehicles and public transport. That would tend for a continuation of the status quo, in which families each own one or two electric, self-driving vehicles for their exclusive use.

But assuming the virus is conquered within a year or two, other possibilities open up. Widespread vehicle sharing, where we summon and hop in and out of self-driving vehicles, would free us from having a large amount of capital tied up in a car that sits idle on the driveway for twenty-two hours a day. Such a system would save on parking space in crowded cities and allow vehicles to charge themselves off-peak. Status can still be shown by ordering “gold class” luxury rides.

Governments, car and ride-hailing firms, urban designers and environmentalists are all devoting increasing time to imagining such a future. As with the eclipse of the horse, the economic and social consequences will be huge, many will be unexpected, some unwelcome. We should choose wisely to make those consequences as positive as possible.

Robin M. Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Published: July 6, 2020 07:30 AM


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