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Memories of the 28th Century

Automobile Era

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I just red an article from the New Yorker, "Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?" By Nathan Heller.
I don't think the automobile era was a mistake, but that article was, for the most part. Private transportation has been around for as long as there are records; although at the beginning of that era shank's mare was the primary mode of transportation. Being able to go where one wants or needs to go and bringing along passengers and/or freight is and long has been important and useful. Where and how people live is partly determined on what they have for transportation. Whether one uses a horse, bicycle, automobile, buggy, or whatever, being able to go to an emporium, buying what one needs, loading it into the transportation, and bringing it back to one's place of residence is a good thing. Public transportation has its place, but it is inconvenient when one is hauling a trunk-load of goods.

There have always been problems with private transportation. People are imperfect, so they bump their units of transportation into each other, and have been doing that for thousands of years. Sometimes the horses get spooked and run off with the wagon, and sometimes they suffer a medical problem, and sometimes a car or truck smacks into another, and so on. It happens, and we can't fault anything for it.

The last century has been dominated by internal combustion engines that are complicated and expensive. The world would be a better place, if steam engines had become the rule, but greed and economics decided otherwise; although we could switch back very easily. The problem was that the manufacturers of steam automobiles tried to make more money on each unit sold, while Henry Ford decided to make and sell lots of low priced units and make a little bit on each one. In the early 1920's Ford was selling car for about $1000, while Doble was selling something of similar utility for about $5000. The drive trains for both cost about the same, actually, the Doble had a simpler drive train without a transmission, so it probably was cheaper to make, but the Doble had a large chassis and body that was the expensive part. Well, Ford is still around and has never gone into bankruptcy, which is unique in that business, while Doble folded in the mid 1920's, even though they had a superior product. If you have a superior product tat people do not buy, then there is something wrong. Ford had an inferior product that was so cheap that people bought it even though it wasn't very good.

That New Yorker article seemed to suggest that the automobile era may be ending. I think that there will be demand for versatile individually owned and controlled vehicles for a long time to come. There are reasons for self-driving cars, but those are and will continue to be of limited utility; although they might be a good idea on crowded highways, and after the grand pandemic there will be reasons for having vehicles deliver goods without human involvement, the way that horse drawn wagons could.

One development that hasn't really caught on is the small enclosed vehicle. Motorcycles have some appeal, but four wheels are more stable than two, and have space for hauling goods is desirable. The Smart for Two is an example of what could be done, but there are other configurations that are possible. And keep in mind that much of the body of an automobile is simply for appearance; bodies could have thinner skins without the user losing anything, except weight and cost. I can envision a steam power train weighing only a couple hundred pounds and putting out more than adequate power and costing a fraction of what a similar sized gasoline engine and transmission would cost.

Regardless of what kind of personal transportation machinery will be available, the versatility of private vehicles is necessary and will continue to be necessary until humans stop moving from one place to another. Someday we will switch to matter transmitters like the transporter on the USS Enterprise, but that won't be available for a fairly long time. For long distances I am looking forward to time machines along the lines of the Travellers in Harry's Time Tours, but they aren't available right now.

Unless you plan to grow roots and never travel, then personal transportation machinery is not a mistake; although many people think the Edsel was a mistake.


  1. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    I agree. And It's a useless thing to speculate about besides. An engine that runs on flammable and combustible toxic waste (which itself produces toxic waste), to be used in a vehicle that responsible for far greater mortality rates than most diseases (at least in the West), would very likely be prohibited today. But today was made by that engine--the concept of place, the pattern of settlement, the reachability of employment, the greater availability of goods, asphalt roads and highways, patterns of crime and law enforcement, the decline (yes, decline) in casual drinking in comparison to previous centuries...Today is not yesterday. Not even close.

    And that's the real point. Speculative history is the same thing as historical fiction. The world got the internal combustion engine when it did, and "knowing how way leads to way" there's nothing we can do about it now--there's no going back nor should there be. And as far as the historical dangers of transportation you mention go, yes, there are a lot of bones on the bottom of that sea. Hand-wringing about this will get us nowhere. We need to go forward. Even a Model T knew that.
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    Alternative history is a sub-genre of science fiction, and there is some great stuff in there, but eliminating personal transportation isn't something that has been done, because it would create so many other problems.

    And I just thought of one of the ways in which motorized transportation has been very good. Without motorized vehicles, there would be huge numbers of horses dragging freight and people around, and many of the drivers, etc. would abuse the animals.
  3. Pompey Bum's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by PeterL
    Without motorized vehicles, there would be huge numbers of horses dragging freight and people around, and many of the drivers, etc. would abuse the animals.
    Yes, all of them, really. To make a horse go you have to show it who's boss, which unfortunately means whipping it or kicking it--with or without spurs. But enslaving horses is better than enslaving people to carry other people around on litters. And ask any farmer if he wants to go back to plowing fields with teams of animals. But most people are ignorant about the past, so technology becomes the bad guy.
  4. PeterL's Avatar
    Yes, ignorance is a problem there, but horses can be gotten to do things by receiving good treatment, but many people have a problem doing that.

    Actually, I don't think that the power sources for transportation would suffice for the present population.