In a major way the advent of the autonomous vehicles today compares closely with the arrival of the controversial horseless carriage over a century ago. Initially neither innovation was broadly embraced by the general public.
The debate at the turn of the 20th century was why buy one of those new-fangled gas-powered, horseless carriages that were 1) difficult, even dangerous to start, 2) not dependable and 3) made an awful noise that scared horses and small children when you had behind the house the dependable old mare and buggy in the barn.
The horse vs. automobile debate continued on for a decade and a half. It is of note that during this period of uncertainty a number of all-electric cars like the Detroit Electric, Studebaker Electric and Baker Electric were making great headway in attracting buyers. And why not, early horseless carriages with internal combustion engines could only be started using a hand crank. Hand cranks, if used improperly, resulted sometimes in serious injuries including broken bones and even death. An electric car could be started by pushing a button. Milady would naturally prefer the ease of driving an electric car.
Why electric motors did not become the dominant power source in automobiles in the early 20th century was twofold. First, battery technology at the time was primitive and provided little range. Second, on February 27, 1911 in Detroit inventor Charles Kettering demonstrated his electric automobile starter on a Cadillac’s motor with the press of a button. In 1912 Cadillac put the electric starter on its Model 30 1912 Cadillac and the new invention changed everything. The shift from range-limited electric propelled cars to ones powered by internal combustion engines was immediate and the rest is history.
About the Author
St. Joseph Michigan resident Dar Davis is a life-long automobile enthusiast. In the late 60s he worked briefly for GM as a clay modeler. He has written for 19 years a weekly Sunday car column for The Herald Palladium newspaper. Dar founded and ran for 13 years the Lake Bluff Concours d’Elegance (formerly the Krasl Concours) in St. Joseph, a car show even that raised funds initially for the Krasl Art Center, then for Hospice at Home.
About the Series
This series of essays explores the vehicles that made up our Ten Cars that Changed the World exhibition. The exhibition was a partnership with the Society of Automotive Historians.
Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.