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Lessons from the history of mass-adopting the automobile

In one of @pmarca 's talks, he mentioned a paper in a debate with Peter Thiel.

It's a fascinating deep-dive into the early adoption of the automobile and how much of an uphill battle that was.

It's the 1900's and you hear about this new invention - a horseless carriage.

The potential to remove tens of pounds of manure, get rid of the disease-carrying flies, relief some of the street congestion are hailed by the newspapers.

But as much as the automobile changed the way we live our lives, for many it was an intruder. It was premature.

Here are a couple of my favourite parts 👇

The first version wasn't that great

"they would run about a mile and stop"

The paper describes the first cars as noisy, dull and unpredictable.

They were so noisy, people compared them to "machine guns". They vibrated a lot, released a bad odour and frightened the horses.

Farmers saw the automobile as an intrusion, so they buried spikes and glass in the road, put barbed wire or pulled their wagons into the middle of the road.

For a middle class worker, about 3 years of salary could get you either an electric which wouldn't go very far, a steam car that always needed water or a small, noisy, greasy car for which fuel was not yet decided on.

Even if the car was ready, everything else wasn't

Most of the streets were not paved yet. And whatever was paved, the macadam (or sawdust, or oyster shells) used was creating enormous clouds of dust when a car would go over it, only fuelling the anti-car movement.

Routine maintenance costs for driving on rural dirt roads was three times that of driving on paved roads. Tire punctures, even on gravel roads were 58 times more frequent.

The first Federal-Aid Road Act was given in 1914, allocating $75 million over five years for rural road building. By this time, we're already 20 years in.

It was not only the car that got better

The paper explains how the emerge of gasoline, the mass production of vehicles and the interchangeable parts all helped with the exponential rise of the vehicle.

Financing was still a problem: bankers were skeptical to invest in this unproven vehicle, especially after they got burned in the boom and bust of the bicycle craze.

Even so, there were plenty of people that wanted to rub shoulders with the wealthy and enjoy the new motor clubs

The bad reputation lingered

The vehicle was still the noisy, greasy, smelly and dangerous intruder.

They tackled the noise by using mufflers. The adoption of gasoline improved the odours.

Engines got better so the clouds of smoke slowly began to disappear.

Yet, it was still seen as dangerous.

Regulation rapidly ramped up.

  • In some cities, the car could not be driven after dark.
  • Some cars had 2 or 3 license plates due to registration laws.

Regulations were one thing, but early motorists were victims of vandalism: taunted and ridiculed by neighbours whenever breakdowns occurred, vandalism.

Some people gave up, the automobile remained a toy for the wealthy.The Curved Dash was $650 and almost as much in maintenance.

Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the automobile - they are a picture of the arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness.

Not only transport changed

Blacksmiths, harness makers, carriage-makers, farmers, street sweepers saw the car as a threat to their jobs and way of life.

It got so bad at some point that the drivers were picked for their size and "fistic prowess".

The Ford T drove the price down massively and managed to swing a lot of the audience on the other side.

With "Honeymoon Special" cars, drive-in movies, the adoption among teens was rising.

Towards the end of the 1920's, America was in love with the automobile.

In the following years, it went through ups and down as society remodelled around the automobile.

For an invention that changed society so much, it's amazing seeing how people reacted without the benefit of foresight.

It's an awesome lesson about emerging technologies: they are not always obviously correct and don't always work on the first try.

You can read the entire paper for free at JSTOR:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/44472041

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Jamie Larson
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