September 18, 2008

Taking the Road Less Travelled

AT the dawn of the car era many years ago, entrepreneurs dabbling in the fledgling industry came to the crossroads.

Along one path, manufacturers such as Henry Ford were developing petrol-driven cars. These early cars were noisy, smelly, inefficient beasts, spewing out clouds of black smoke, but they could travel long distances, and were easily refuelled.

Down the other road were the electric cars - quiet and efficient.

Some were fast too. In 1899, an electric car made history by being the first car to reach 100kph.

One of the most iconic cars of the early 1900s was the Detroit Electric - a car brand produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company in Detroit, Michigan.

In 1907, their cars - powered either by a rechargeable lead acid battery or Edison nickel and steel battery - could reliably travel 130km between each charge, one even reached 340km on a single charge.

With such impressive performance - many may wonder why cars today are not powered by electricity.

There were a number of reasons, mostly due to their limited range, electrics fell out of favour.

In 1914, the introduction of assembly line production methods sounded the death knell for the Detroit Electric.

Petrol-powered Ford Model Ts were coming off the assembly line every 93 minutes.

Furthermore, petrol-powered cars at the time proved to be cheaper - the price of a new Detroit Electric was about US$2,650 while the price of a new model T was US$600.

That year, powered by the efficiency of mass production - which the Detroit Electric did not benefit from - Ford sold more cars than all other car manufacturers combined.

By the 1930s, while they once outsold petrol cars 5:1, the electric car had become irrelevant - never to be seen again in significant numbers anywhere in the world.

Seventy years later in 2008, things appear to have changed. Crude oil prices are at a historic high, and the world is clamouring for alternative forms of propulsion.

In July, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi revealed that the government would use "out-of-the box, creative and innovative measures" to overcome the problem.

He said national car-maker, Proton Holdings Berhad, had been asked to carry out testing of electric cars with a foreign partner. He also mentioned a name: Detroit Electric.

Detroit Electric was resurrected earlier this year by Chinese investors, who said they would revive the 100-year-old brand for a joint venture to bring electric cars to the market by next year.

Today, a conglomerate of investors are trying to reintroduce the electric car as a cost-effective answer to transportation in the 21st century.

But can they change 100 years of history, when others in the last century have tried and failed?

It is ambitious and certainly "out-of-the-box".

If Malaysia manages to have access to a usable electric car, it would be freed from the political and economic turmoil that comes with a dependence on fossil fuels.

Is it worth revisiting that fork in the road, 100 years ago and take the path less travelled?

It would seem in the present situation, we would be none the worse for trying.

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