There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest carmaker in the United States. It was also the biggest owner of cars in the country. That’s because the E.V.C. opted to rent or lease its vehicles instead of selling them. You could pick up an E.V.C. car for a short trip or take it for a week or a month, but you couldn’t own it. The business model was based on the E.V.C.’s assumption that its customers didn’t have the know-how or facilities to maintain their own cars. This may have been true, but when a series of shady business dealings drove the New York-based company into bankruptcy, it took electric cars down with it. Investors, soured by their experience with the E.V.C., swore they’d never put money into the industry again, and in the lull in electric-car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper. Over the next 20 years, Americans formed a new idea of what a car was. And from that point on, right up to today, it was hard to get them to try anything else.
“Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility,” Kirsch told me. “When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves — installing charging stations at our houses, for instance — we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car.”
Society shapes the development and use of technology (this is a function of social determinism; for example, cars didn’t really become ubiquitous until they became easy to operate and cheap to buy), but technology also shapes society (technological determinism; think of the way cars then essentially created the suburbs). Over time, the two interact with and change each other, an idea known as technological momentum, which was introduced in 1969 by Thomas P. Hughes, a historian of technology. According to Hughes’s theory, the technologies we end up using aren’t determined by any objective measure of quality. In fact, the tools we choose are often deeply flawed. They just happened to meet our particular social needs at a particular time and then became embedded in our culture.
In 1983, the science historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote an essay called “How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum,” which appears under a different title in her book, “More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology.” In the first half of the 20th century, Cowan explains, people could choose between an electric refrigerator and one that was connected directly into the home gas line. Both technologies had flaws. The early electric fridges were loud; the best gas fridges used a toxic ammonia coolant. Ultimately, though, the deciding factor had nothing to do with the tech itself.
We use electric refrigerators today because General Electric had lots of money and gas-refrigerator companies like Servel did not. G.E. was built on Thomas Edison’s patents, and as a result it had piles of cash to invest in mass production and provide financing to consumers, making electric fridges available to more people during the depths of the Depression. On its own, using electric refrigerators rather than gas hasn’t made much of a difference to Americans’ daily lives. But Cowan points out that the gas refrigerator was just one of a fleet of alternative appliances — from the waterless toilet to the home composter — that could have created a very different relationship between the American consumer and the environment. Once domestic life was built around electricity, this had profound effects on the way we perceived the role of energy, and electric appliances, in our daily lives.
This isn’t just about history, though. W. Bernard Carlson, professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia, told me the best engineers have to think about how social forces will affect the way people use technology in the future. “We tell young engineers that they are going to produce sociotechnical systems,” Carlson says. Doing that means paying attention to how users interact with technology. For instance, lots of different gadgets use the same symbol and round shape for the button that turns them on, the idea being that even though a new camera is very different from a coffeepot, it will be easier to learn to use the camera if the first thing you see is that comforting “on” button.
In other cases, the path to success is more complicated and depends upon societal change. The technology to recycle glass bottles, metal and paper existed in 1960, when Americans recycled 6.4 percent of their trash. In 2010, we recycled 34 percent of our trash. That change wasn’t caused by improvements in technology. Instead it was about public perception of a problem and access to the solution. We created an ethos of recycling, beginning with anti-littering campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s, and later, curbside recycling programs gave people a way to easily express that ethos.
You can change the technology. You can change the infrastructure and culture. And sometimes, you have to change both, easing people into accepting a new tool by making it look and feel like the old one you want to replace. It’s this, Kirsch says, that will enable electric cars to finally succeed. The trick is to not expect people to jump straight from all-gasoline to all-electric. What’s necessary is a transitional step that makes electric cars operate more like the cars we’re used to driving.
Kirsch thinks hybrids will ultimately help us make that jump. You can use a hybrid without building a separate infrastructure. You don’t need to learn new habits of driving and maintenance. Hybrids are even designed to mimic the feel of a gas engine. If you’ve ever ridden in a Prius, you may have noticed that it creeps forward when you take your foot off the brake. There’s no technological reason it should do that; engineers just added the feature for the sake of familiarity.
“That’s an artifact of what people expect cars to do,” Kirsch says, “because it’s what internal-combustion engines do. It gets people exposed to the idea, gets them comfortable with plugging a car in some way.”