The turn of the century must indeed be a magical time. So many of the significant events in history seem to have taken place around the close or the opening of a new century. This seems particularly true with respect to the advance of tools and equipment. Archeologists cite the first tools as being manufactured in 2.600,000 BC, the use of fire around 1.500.000 BC, the oldest arrowheads in 25,000BC, and the Bronze age began in 3,000 BC. Apparently, we like to spring things on the world around centuries and millennia ;-) And, that tradition continues if we look at the last turn of the century, and this turn of the millennia.
The first auto revolution brought motorcycles and cars into being around the 1880s, and continued into the early 1900s. There was a mind-boggling variety of ideas and formats that were all competing for dominance and the hearts and minds of the consumer. Everything was variable. The chassis, the number of wheels, the steering mechanism, the controls, the fuel, everything. In 1900, it is estimated that 28% of the cars on the road were electric vehicles ! In fact the famous Lohner Porsche of 1899 had an electric motor at each of the four wheels and a gasoline engine to drive the generator. Essentially, it was a 4 wheel drive hybrid. He recognized the superior efficiency of the electric motor and the relative cleanliness. It failed to take off because of the state of battery/generator technology at the time. Steam was also big. Petroleum-based fuels such as kerosene, and gasoline were fighting against these variants and winning mostly because the fuel was cheap and plentiful, despite them being considered noisy and dirty. Hybrids were everywhere with motorcycle-car combinations, mixed propulsion systems and renewable energy variations.
Fast forward 100 years and we have the dawn of a new millenium. Computers and the Internet have revolutionized life, and transportation is no longer an adventurous pursuit. However, has the auto industry really progressed ? Sure, Google has a car driving itself around the US, but the car itself is not that special. It is a modified Toyota Prius. The current revolution (or the resumption of the old revolution) is fueled (pun intended) by the relative high price of petroleum-based fuels, and the relatively cheap price of electricity. Electric vehicles are just being (re)introduced. The latest versions have an electric motor at each wheel. They are expensive and not yet a good alternative because the battery technology is not quite good enough yet. Renewable energy alternatives are still experimental (eg: solar panel roofs) and are mostly used for supplemental systems. Diesel is the current “dirty” petroleum variant that is looking cleaner and more attractive. We are changing controls with paddle shifters and non-round steering wheels and headsup displays and even joysticks. Hybrids are everywhere and it is not clear which combination(s) will emerge victorious. Porsche has just introduced an all wheel drive hybrid supercar (the 918) that is redefining the segment.
If all of this sounds familiar, it is because we just spent about 100 years going around a giant traffic circle (roundabout). Maybe next century...