Remember city centres in the late 1800s? Yes, me neither, but based on historical data, it was pretty much a mess, in a very literal way. For example, in the city of New York, the level of pollution was so high, that some researchers found out that if population growth continued at the same rate, the city would not be able to sustain itself, and NYC would be doomed. The problem here was that the transportation mode at the time, the horse and cart, produced so much pollution that the city was now awash with diseases and air/noise pollution. The need for an urgent replacement for the horse was huge, and being the time of entrepreneurs, many people rose to the challenge.
What resulted was a big diversity of automobiles, only a small proportion of which were actually petrol powered. For example, battery electricity was no mystery as it is sometimes portrayed today. You had the Baker Electric battery powered cars (1909, which had a range of 110 miles by the way, and very popular back in the day) and the Galt hybrids (yes, same system as a Fisker Karma, only in 1914) or the Lohner-Porsche hybrid before that in 1901. Steam? The Doble steam powered cars (1915) or the Stanley ones (1902) were there. Ethanol powered car? Yeah, the Ford Model T had that in 1908.
The only reason the petrol powered car won in the end was because petrol was so plentiful. The original car, the Daimler-Benz carriage or 1886 was designed to function on alcohol, not petrol after all. Then again, the true original car, the Cugnot steam engine was an alternative fuel vehicle, but I digress… My point is, that in times of crisis, a solution can be found. And in the early days, the solution did not always come from the biggest player.
Today, it seems we are facing the same problem. Oil is running out, and people are starting to panic. Lots of reports keep being made about how unsustainable life has become, and in a few years we will all be dead if we keep using our cars, that is if we do not die from cancer due to pollution. The perfect time to start looking into new technologies, then! Yes, the bigger companies are doing it (often out of necessity due to tighter regulations), however the small new companies springing about seem to be the leaders in the market. Take Tesla for example. Yes, I may not be the biggest fan of the company, but you have to admit, they played a big role in promoting electric cars again. Now they are working with Toyota to help them make their electric vehicles. Look at Reva, the small Indian manufacturer of small electric cars. They were absorbed by Mahindra, one of the biggest players in the country. With regards to alternative fuel technology, we should not just focus on the established players. The time is ripe for new players to emerge, the Teslas, Revas or Exagons of this world, just like we had Baker, Doble or Galt back in the day.
But don’t forget, battery electric cars are not the only form of alternative fuel technology. Hydrogen is there also, and I still believe it could be the best solution for the future. At the moment, only the big companies are working on this (Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai…), but the opportunity is there for someone to think outside of the box and bring a viable option for the future before the others. Think about it, suppliers of hydrogen are there, such as Air Liquide in France, the technology is known and is safe, and universities are working on it. The only issue is cost, as the current systems are too expensive for commercial use.
All is needed is another Henry Ford to come along and find a way to bring the technology to the masses. Or another Ferdinand Porsche or De Dion and Bouton to figure out a new way to power a car, that we have not explored yet.