Monday, July 24, 2017

Innovation in the Automobile Industry

In the 1900s the automobile industry was the most important and innovation industry in the USA.  But one could question if this was good for our society in the long run.  And one could question if they actually innovated.

In the early 1900s there were few automobiles, very little infrastructure created to support the industry.  For example the road system was still designed for horse drawn wagons and the wagon wheel (remember a steal rim and wooden compression spoke wheel).  The future US Highways, or the 1950s Interstate Highway System at the cost of $425 billion were decades and many innovations away. There was no gas service station, there were however horse stables, farriers, and blacksmiths in each town along the roads.  There was no real "road map", there was no road naming system, like was created in 1926 - the United States Numbered Highway System.

The industry employees millions of people, and was a large factor in the economy of the USA.  It created or was created by major cities in the USA - for example Detroit.  Countless pattens are related to the industry, yet what has been truly innovative about the industry.  I'm sure we could list wonderful innovations from the industry.
Roberts Electric Car -1896
This is a partial list, but if you look at the history of each of these inventions a pattern emerges.  The pattern is one of slow innovation, delay in introduction of improvements, and sometimes downright refusal to adopt life saving improvements without government interventions.  But the innovation that tops them all is the internal combustion engine.  The first automobiles had a variety of propulsion methods.  The combination of petrol's energy storage and the internal combustion engine create a real innovation.  However it wasn't a quick adoption either.  And it displaced a technology that might have been a better alternative - the electric vehicle (e.g. the 1896 Roberts EV gets 40 miles on a charge, same as the 2010 GM Volt).  Yes, early options were both steam driven and electric motor driven autos.  So why did the petrol version win the market share?

Perhaps it had something to do with the petroleum industry - a synergy of innovations.  The ease of oil drilling and distillation created a ready source of energy in a compact form for use in autos.  And the two industries became very powerful.  Capable of controlling the political process with respect to  many aspects of air quality, safety of the populations, protection of the environment, legislation of all types, and the ability to protect access to  resources via waging wars.

Had the electrical generation and distribution industry been a few decades earlier in development perhaps we would have a different transportation system.  One that was based on Telsa's AC Motor and wireless power transmission.  Perhaps we would be 20 years closer had GM not killed the EV in 1990s.

See Also:

From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System by Richard F. Weingroff
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