THE MAR­KET DOESN’T AL­WAYS KNOW BES

New Straits Times - - Cars Bikes And Trucks - SHAMSUL YUNOS cbt@nst.com.my

JUDG­ING by the scram­ble of car com­pa­nies look­ing for ever bet­ter electric­so­lu­tions for trans­porta­tion of the fu­ture, it’s safe to say that the mar­ket got it com­pletely wrong some­time in the early 20th cen­tury.

A quick glance at the his­tory books will show that com­pa­nies of­fer­ing elec­tric cars were not in short sup­ply but some­how, the dirty and smelly in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine won the race.

Ob­vi­ously, I am all for the speed and fun that we’ve had with the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine but imag­ine what the world would look like if the mar­ket had cho­sen elec­tric over gaso­line.

Some might sug­gest that the elec­tric car died out be­cause it was short on range and the bat­ter­ies took three months to fully charge.

Yes, it took three months, in to­day’s time, to recharge.

So, you’re go­ing to in­sist that I explain how it works out to three months?

Okay, fine, I will. It’s all the same to me be­cause this ex­pla­na­tion is go­ing to take at least a few column inches and will re­quire only some­thing that sounds like pseudo re­search.

In the old days, af­ter di­nosaurs were ex­tinct but be­fore high-speed In­ter­net was wres­tled away from the mil­i­tary, we were will­ing to wait up to five min­utes for a video to down­load so we could watch it with­out buffer­ing. Remember those days when we had time to wait?

I remember open­ing sev­eral si­mul­ta­ne­ous tabs on the browser so that Part 2 and Part 3 would down­load while I watched Part 1 of the pro­gramme that was (prob­a­bly il­le­gally) up­loaded onto YouTube.

The early days of YouTube was full of silly rules like videos had to be shorter than five min­utes and 15 sec­onds and you had to wear red socks when up­load­ing. If I wanted to watch an episode of Cheers, it meant down­load­ing 4.5 dif­fer­entvideos.

Nowa­days, we flip the screen if a video takes longer than five sec­onds to start playing and God for­bid that it should buf­fer.

Given that five sec­onds to­day is equiv­a­lent to five min­utes 20 years ago, if we scale back­wards to 1920, it was worth seven days and eleven hours, give or take a few bushels. So, ob­vi­ously, an eight-hour charg­ing time in 1927 is equiv­a­lent to three months in 2017. Quod Erat De­mon­stran­dum.

Which may seem ex­ces­sive but that is noth­ing com­pared to the gen­eral lack of petrol or ben­zene or gaso­line at the time. Remember how Bertha Benz had to stop by sev­eral apothe­caries in search of rub­bing alcohol or some­thing sim­i­lar to feed her three-wheeler?

Petrol, as we know it, is at least three decades away but bat­ter­ies were ev­ery­where at the end of the 19th cen­tury.

Un­like the slim, but some­times ex­plo­sive, lithium ion bat­ter­ies of to­day, the early ver­sions wouldn’t re­ally fit in our pock­ets, weighed as much as three tapirs and can drive a car a few asth­matic kilo­me­tres.

Rechar­gable bat­ter­ies were already in use but the sit­u­a­tion wasn’t ideal be­cause it would take less time to charge an ac­coun­tant for tax eva­sion than bring a car bat­tery back to full power. At least they didn’t ex­plode, and you could safely carry them on planes.

By the time Karl Benz made his three-wheeler work, New York was already in­fested with elec­tric taxis and elec­tric trains were already run­ning for a few decades. Buses and tram­cars were all fed elec­trons from over­head cate­nar­ies.

Imag­ine if Henry Ford hadn’t been so suc­cess­ful with the Model T and the mar­ket voted for clean, quiet cars. Imag­ine Nikola Tesla suc­cess­fully con­vinc­ing the mar­ket that wire­less trans­mis­sion of elec­tric­ity is the best way for­ward.

We might have a higher in­ci­dence of can­cer thanks to the ra­di­a­tion from roads feed­ing our elec­tric cars but at least the air would be clean.

Af­ter 130 years of elec­tric mo­tor­ing, politi­cians of to­day would prob­a­bly be chant­ing for petrol power so that we can pre­vent can­cer and celebri­ties would drive gaso­line burn­ers in­stead of hy­brids.

So, this is one clear ex­am­ple where the mar­ket was not smart enough to know that elec­tric cars was the fu­ture and fought hard to keep the smell of burn­ing kerosene in the air. Kerosene was the first com­mer­cial light fuel ex­tracted from oil re­finer­ies of yore, pow­er­ing lamps at home and on the streets.

Not all in­no­va­tions were wel­comed by the mar­ket but, luck­ily for us, many were, and to­day, we can get to­tally plas­tered on Satur­day night and be able to ride home in a self-driv­ing Tesla that the CIA can hack and re­motely com­man­deer. At least, that’s what Wik­iLeaksclaims.

The irony is that it was elec­tric mo­tors that killed elec­tric cars. The most an­noy­ing thing about early gaso­line cars was that they re­quired a hand crank to start.

In the best-case sce­nario, the driver would have de­vel­oped moist armpits be­fore he could start on a jour­ney, and in the worst case sce­nario, the engine could kick the crank in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and snap your wrist.

When the elec­tric starter mo­tor was de­vel­oped, sales of petrol-pow­ered cars re­ally took off and this was helped by the fact that gaso­line was also widely avail­able by then. Gaso­line was used as in­dus­trial rub­bing com­pound and that was why they were widely avail­able.

When chemists dis­cov­ered, in the 1920s, that cer­tain ad­di­tives could re­duce knock­ing, engi­neers de­vel­oped faster, more pow­er­ful and more fu­el­ef­fi­cient en­gines, and the same decade saw elec­tric cars go the way of golf carts.

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