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Does the invisible hand always get it right?

The other day I happened to watch the well known Chris Paine documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car”.  It started me thinking.  My thinking was not directed so much to the themes of the film, but more to how in the very early days of the 20th century “we” selected the internal combustion engine and the automobile over other forms of power and transportation.

 

The question I asked myself went something like this.  “If one could foresee that the automobile and gasoline engine would inexorably lead us to the precarious state in which we now find ourselves, would we have looked upon these “new” technologies differently?”

 

The original electric automobile began development in the 19th century (http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aacarselectrica.htm).  These vehicles, which were mostly electrified carriages normally pulled by horses, were clean (relative to horses), but had short ranges and could not go very fast.  Internal combustion engines on the other hand were very dirty, but offered the prospect for much longer ranges and higher speeds, features which continue in the saga of electric cars versus gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.  Everyone seems to agree that longer ranges and higher speeds were a good thing.  How could it be otherwise?


Suppose we looked at this slightly differently.  What is the impact of having longer ranges? Well to begin with we can obviously locate things (people, houses, factories) farther apart from one another.  We can then NOT deal with issues like the integration of these different components of our societal provisioning system, simply because we can physically separate them.  It means that we can put off issues of industrial pollution (it can be located elsewhere) and how do deal with population density (we just move farther apart).  The consequence of lower population density also makes mass transit less viable as a means of moving people about, and out of synch with the “new” distributed way of living.

 

Looked at from this perspective, the “advantage” of the internal combustion engine seems rather curious.  We might then see a shorter range as the advantage because it minimizes land waste, is more compatible with mass transit, consumes less energy, and thus overall has a far smaller impact on the world.  One wonders then if such obvious advantages of other technologies in our present day might also turn out to be decided disadvantages when viewed with the wisdom of hindsight.

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