Mistakes are lessons

I went to an exhibit last week on the history of American cars. It was fascinating, especially for someone working in innovation.

Did you know, that the first cars looked EXACTLY like a horse and carriage but without a horse? Like, exactly (photo below). This shows how consumer adoption is easiest when there is familiarity. This is similar to what we see today with alternative materials, especially alternative “leathers” where everyone wants a leather imitation and not necessarily a new material with its own unique properties.

The next mind-blowing thing: there were electric cars in 1910! What happened? Edison joined forces with Henry Ford to manufacture EVs, but they faced the same issues that we face today – lack of infrastructure (only 3% of homes had electricity at this point, though 35% by 1920), too expensive (the Edison car cost between $1000 - $3000 compared to $25 to $100 for a horse or about $600 for a Model T). Also, Edison’s batteries did not work (and Ford would not try others because Edison was his business partner). Next, cheap crude oil moved in with a powerful lobby behind it. Finally - and this is really crazy - electric cars were essentially marketed as “women’s appliances”! Many lessons to take away: misalignment of financial incentives (my favorite topic) and human psychology trumping rationality (loyalties and marketing).

And get this, steam engines were the first “hybrid” cars! They ran on steam fueled by vaporized kerosene. Why did these fail? Because there were 17 steps to start the car, then a wait of 30-40 minutes to generate the steam, then the driver could only travel 35-45 minutes before stopping to refill the 28 gallon tank with water. Lesson? Too hard to implement.

And voila, we ended up with gas guzzlers. Sigh.

Let’s not make the same mistakes as yesterday with the solutions of tomorrow.

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