The success of innovations depends on a number of factors. Engineers and large public companies are just one of these. They need to be supported by journalists who can assess and explain the new technology. The wishes and expectations of the public, plus their readiness to adopt new developments, play an essential role, together with the cooperation of politicians and favorable economic conditions. That is why anyone who wants to evaluate current innovations, such as electric cars and their alternatives, should take a look back into the past.
This is precisely what makes the history of technology so relevant. With its assistance, we can consider individual cases and learn lessons from them. Who were the main drivers of successful innovations among the complex network of different players? What is the meaning behind this? By way of illustration, here are three examples from the history of mobility: the rotary Wankel engine, the safety belt, and the airbag.
The Wankel engine: a technology-friendly atmosphere
The rotary engine was invented at a time when the public both expected and welcomed technological revolutions. Aircraft with jet engines were replacing their propeller counterparts, vertical take-off airplanes and flying cars seemed like a possibility, nuclear power plants promised a constant supply of cheap energy and space had been “conquered.” Positive reports from journalists contributed to the technology-friendly atmosphere and this paved the way for the acceptance of the “miracle engine the size of a saucepan,” as it was described in one popular technology magazine. Many companies jumped on the bandwagon.
The euphoria came to an end in the mid-1970s, but not because of technical problems. After the first oil crisis, “vibration-free, turbine-like operation” was no longer what was needed. Customers wanted low fuel consumption, which was not something that the rotary engine, with its awkwardly shaped combustion chamber, could offer. Instead, cars with small economical diesel engines were developed. The Wankel engine was written off, including by journalists.
The safety belt: a defensive utopia
The safety belt was more of an “incremental innovation.” It was taken over from the aviation industry and became the most important life-saving feature in cars. There was a lot of pressure for improvements at the time, because in 1970 around 21,000 people died in traffic accidents. The aim was to achieve a defensive utopia with no fatalities or injuries on the roads. In the 1970s, a whole series of measures was taken to introduce the belt and ensure that it was used. These ranged from regulations making safety belts mandatory in new cars, insurance incentives to retrofit them to older vehicles, and laws requiring them to be worn, which were later backed up with fines. Advertising campaigns involving celebrities on television and in newspapers promoted the safety belt with slogans such as “Buckle Up For Safety.”
Safety belts were not initially well received by drivers, who felt that their freedom was being restricted. Many people used tricks to avoid having to wear them. It was claimed that safety belts were dangerous because the occupants of a car involved in an accident could be trapped inside. The introduction of the mandatory wearing of safety belts was a slow process, which was accompanied by much unease among drivers. This example shows how a simple innovation was imposed by the state against the will of the majority of users and how their opposition was overcome.
Airbags: the idea of engineers
Another important safety innovation was driven not by the wishes of drivers, nor by a state-run program, at least initially. The airbag was an idea thought up by engineers and developed with the aim of replacing the restrictive belt with an almost invisible safety feature. This was not entirely successful, but the combination of the belt and the airbags resulted in a dramatic increase in safety for vehicle occupants.
This third lesson shows how an innovative solution was developed without state intervention. Car buyers recognized the importance of airbags and took them into consideration when making their purchasing decisions. It was only after this that airbags were required by law in new models. They are a good example of a technically creative solution developed by the automotive industry without interference from the state.
Lessons for today
What is the situation like today? Once again, we are in a period of upheaval. Society has changed and media-driven criticism has become louder and more dominant. A skeptical approach to cars is representative of skepticism of the entire Western industrial system, as it has been before in automotive history. The regulations imposed by both national governments and the EU are becoming increasingly inflexible and dirigiste in nature. In the case of electric cars, this involves sacrificing technology neutrality and going against consumers’ wishes. This last point is important, because throughout the history of the car, users and buyers have been central to the success or failure of products.
The same is still true now. Without subsidies, battery electric vehicles are unlikely to be a viable proposition anywhere in the world. Their weak points have been under discussion for more than 120 years: a short range, high costs, a short service life, and high levels of raw material consumption for the batteries, plus no obvious recycling process. Over and over again since around 1895, battery electric vehicles have been heralded as “the cars of tomorrow.” This rarely had any impact on sales, because they were not very popular with customers.
What is needed instead is creative technical solutions driven by scientific and engineering expertise, without the intervention of technopolitics. Unintended consequences (which current policies often fail to consider) can be expected as a result of focusing on one single technology, in particular in Germany, which is largely failing to take a technology-neutral approach. Other factors include the impact on Germany as an industrial country and predictable problems involving jobs, the loss of engineering skills and company relocations. In addition, electric mobility will put further strain on the “transformed” energy system of the future, which no longer allows for dispatchable power plants.
Confident research into alternatives
What are the opportunities for the automotive industry outside the boundaries of the powerful, state-driven technology transformation that is being followed sometimes unwillingly, but often dutifully? In my view, there are two options, one technical and one cultural, which will help to overcome the obvious paralysis.
In technical terms there is a whole series of alternatives to battery electric cars, but these are not on the public’s radar. In most industrial countries, electric cars are being imposed with the help of subsidies in a way that influences the market, and this has the effect of putting a block on the potential alternatives. This one-sided state technopolicy is restricting research and development. Hydrogen for fuel cells or for direct combustion in rotary engines, biofuels, climate-neutral fuels, and hybrid cars with Stirling range extenders are just some of the possible approaches to the future of energy that help to avoid CO2 and pollution emissions. Given the importance of environmental policy and reductions in CO2 emissions, creative and confident research in this area seems to be a good route away from the narrow state-driven approach to technology.
But it is not enough to identify practical technologies that represent an alternative to batteries. An analysis of the early 1960s, when there was a fascination with technology, shows us that communication about new technologies is highly important and effective. Being technically creative and bold is no longer sufficient. We need to report on new developments and their potential in the media, for example fuel cell vehicles and climate-neutral fuels. Engineers and science and technology journalists all need to discuss these issues as they did during the previous phases of upheaval in the history of mobility.
Inspired by technology
Ideas about a positive technological future that can be generated in this way seem to me to be an effective means of countering the widespread skepticism about technology among the public. Developing new forms of technology for use in vehicles, returning to our fascination with technology, taking consumers’ wishes into consideration and inspiring them and encouraging a positive, enthusiastic approach to technology, particularly among young people, will take us into a viable automotive future even if the political conditions prove to be difficult.
Until his retirement in 2021, Dr. Kurt Möser was adjunct professor of the history of technology in the department of history at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). After studying history and new German literature at the University of Constance and completing his doctorate in 1982, he became a DAAD lector in Oxford and New Delhi. He then joined the State Museum of Technology and Work in Mannheim as a scientific trainee and was appointed curator in 1988, with a focus on the history of mobility. He was also an assistant lecturer at various universities. In 2007, he moved to what was then the University of Karlsruhe and is now Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. The subject of his postdoctoral thesis in 2009 was “Driving and flying in peace and war – the cultures of individual mobility machines from 1880 to 1930.” He has written numerous papers on the cultural history of technology, the history of mobility, and military history.