14th General Election (GE14)
Let’s welcome electric cars

WITH all the hullabaloo about electric cars, you’d think that we just invented electric motors last Tuesday, but the reality is that we are coming back full circle, of sorts.

The invention of the horseless carriage was made possible by replacing the mobile dung factory with a package that is smaller and lighter and made a little less stink when it moves.

Imagine driving a horse-drawn carriage from Kuala Lumpur to Kangar all the while looking at a pair of horses’ bottoms which would plop out nasty things every hour or so.

Frenchman Nicolas Cugnot is credited for strapping on a kettle in front of a three-wheeler in 1769, resulting in a contraption that was heavier than four Shire horses, moved no faster than a septuagenarian with a Zimmer frame, while being more temperamental than a pimple-faced teenager.


Cugnot’s 1770 Steam-powered vehicle

Given the ridiculousness of the resulting machine and the, probably, high price, it comes as little surprise that the target buyer was the military. Cugnot devised the machine as a cannon puller, thus starting the modern military tradition of finding something complicated to replace something simple that had worked for the better part of a thousand years.

Thank God for that.

If we insist on not changing everything that had worked for a long, long time, we probably would still be living in mud huts and fighting over silly things. Oh wait a minute, we still are. Never mind.

Seriously, we do have to thank Cugnot for being silly and the French military for wanting to get rid of horses because his steam-powered tractor started a revolution. And, like Cugnot’s three wheeler, the revolution started very slowly.

Due to the insurmountable barriers of impracticality proposed by Cugnot, the French lost all interest in the idea and this is when the Brits took up the idea. Cornish mining engineer, Richard Trevithick, developed the first high-pressure steam engine and made mobile steam power a little more plausible.

He built steam trains and as the technology developed, steam cars became more common before peaking around the 1920s before disappearing suddenly.

The disappearance is caused by a change in tax regulations in the United States, which made them uneconomical and promptly left the scene.

At this time, cars only really existed in numbers and variety in the US and rule changes there affected technological progress in the rest of the world.


A Cugnot electric car being charged in 1910

By the mid-1800s, electric cars became a possible contender to steam, but it wasn’t until 1880s before the first practical electric-powered cars became available.

Electric cars made good sense then because the internal combustion engine was still in it’s infancy and unreliable as well as difficult to start and maintain.

However as we moved into the 1920s, the introduction of the electric starter and the development of high-speed petrol engines with large capacity meant that the preferred juice was gasoline.

With the change in US taxation capping the development of steam-powered cars, internal combustion engine came out on top.

With that, we see further development of the petrol and diesel engines, two- and four-stroke motors gained maturity and the automobile industry achieved some sort of stability in terms of technology path.

The Americans led the way in terms of design, styling, engineering and choice of engine. Thanks to the country’s size, American-preferred cars that could travel long distances reliably and this meant building large, but relatively lazy engines that can do the job.

Compact European and Asian cities and countries meant cars coming from these regions were smaller and nimbler.

They also developed more efficient engines that burnt less fuel because, for the most part. Europe and Asia did not have much by way of national oil reserve and, therefore, petrol and diesel were much more expensive when compared with US market prices.

As the electric car died out in the 1930s, internal combustion-powered vehicles gained total dominance, but throughout the years many inventors and futurists predicted the return of electric cars.

Electric cars, even in their early days in the 1880s, were superior due to their low-noise and hassle-free operation. The immediate advantage of gasoline infrastructure pushed battery technology onto the back burner.

The lack of range and speedy recharging methods killed the electric car once. This time around, the same concerns are being raised but the scenario is completely different.


Thomas Edison poses with his first electric car, the Edison Baker

The huge number of mobile devices and the need for their speedy charging means that battery technology is developing very quickly and the need to provide clean and sustainable transport solutions for packed cities means that electric power is fast becoming the power of choice.

More important than technological development, we see many countries now promising to limit or stop internal combustion sale in their markets in the near future and this looks like the final straw that will kill the internal combustion car.

In a way, I am sad. But, on the other hand, this may mean that the cars that we have now will be worth a lot more in the future, the only problem is we probably won’t be able to drive it without some ridiculously expensive or restricted special permits.

I, for one, welcome the new age of electric cars. I better, because they’re likely to be networked to some powerful artificial intelligence network and are listening in to what I say and type.

If they know I don’t like them, they may take me on a long, scenic drive to nowhere.

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