What killed prognostication?

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DVD cover of Who Killed the Electric Car?The beginning of the new year is always the time when people will either traditionally ask, “What do you predict will happen in the future years?” or they’ll traditionally tell you.  I’ve been avoiding making outright predictions of what will happen in the future… and the reasons go back to 1980, and a slam-dunk future that turned out not to be.

Back in 1980 (or thereabouts), Washington, DC had a celebration on the Mall for Earth Day.  This was a time when Carter was still President, he’d installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, the EPA had recently made sweeping decisions that improved the air quality in many parts of the country (including Washington, whose dirty air in the 1970s could give me a migrane within 60 seconds of walking out my door), Popular Science magazine ran monthly features about new homes that featured energy-conscious designs, and the environment was trés chic at the time.

In this pro-environment-pro-alt-energy atmosphere, one of the things I remember among all the sales booths and promotional sites were no less that four fully electric vehicles on display.  One of them was from GM—the prototype of the EV-1, which actually ran on American roads until GM recalled and scrapped every one that could get their hands on.  At least one car was from a major manufacturer, though I don’t recall which.  Both of those had strong endorsements from the newly-established US Department of Energy.  And there were at least two more, made by unknown garages hoping to get in on the ground floor of American electric vehicle production.

And I remember thinking at the time: “This is great!  If there are four prototypes here now, and two of them from major manufacturers… imagine what America will be like in the year 2000!  (Back then, you could say “in the year 2000″ and sound really futuristic doing so.)  Why, there’ll be dozens of electric vehicles out there to choose from… maybe all of them!  When I’m ready to buy a car in 2000, it’ll be electric!”

Ford Explorer

The epitome of car technology in the year 2000.

Cut to the futuristic-sounding year 2000, in an America when Reagan took over the White House, disconnected the solar panels and turned the Dept of Energy from an agency actively researching and supporting alternative energies to an agency tasked primarily with monitoring spent nuclear waste from the military.  Popular Science had abandoned its energy-efficient home showcases, and had become another venue for showy cars and trucks and other outrageous toys.  The SUV was still the ruler of the roadways, and Americans were in a constant battle to self-hypnotize themselves into forgetting how much they spent on energy costs.

In this landscape, I went looking for a new car.  And instead of having “dozens of fully-electric cars” to choose from, I was aware only of the EV-1 being out there somewhere (because who ever actually saw one?), vague hints of electrics being built by a few Mom-and-Pop garages in SoCal, and Honda has just introduced the hybrid Insight to Americans.  The Toyota hybrid Prius had been manufactured, but was not available in the US yet.  And the Insight seemed like an insult, with its tiny size, anemic performance and $19,000 price tag.

So after 20 years of car development squandered, I found myself buying another gas-fed car.  And adding insult to injury, the car I bought was rated at some of the highest mileage of any car sold in America… and it was no higher than the original mileage rating of the 1985 Datsun 200SX that I was trading for it!

Clearly a lot of elements conspired to change what originally looked like a slam-dunk future: An American culture that rejected Carter’s “sensible” lifestyle choices and decided to embrace credit and conspicuous consumption over savings and frugality; an auto industry that conspired to avoid development of more expensive electric vehicles, over the re-branding of low-mileage trucks as SUVs; an oil industry that wanted to continue making high profits, and so supported the auto industry in dialing back technology 20 years and locking it there; and politicians who were more than happy to accept the bribes of industry leaders to de-fang environmental regulations and pollution controls, thereby removing the value and attractiveness of electrics for most Americans.  All of these things put together spelled the death of the electric car, and made sure that in 2000, I’d be buying a Hyundai instead of an electric.

And it serves as an effective reminder of why prognostication isn’t the easy thing it sometimes seems to be.  Though a technological breakthrough may seem like a shoe-in to be part of our lives in the future—no matter how easy, no matter how promising, no matter how sexy—so many factors, some from way out in left field, can influence it (ebooks), alter it in ways no one would be able to predict (social media), or kill it altogether (the Apollo Moon program… and the electric car).

Tesla RoadsterFortunately, some of these technologies have a chance to come back, and sometimes stronger than ever, giving our hopes for a brighter future back to us.  We may yet see a future with dozens of electric cars available to the public… just as we might someday see highways of self-driving cars, permanent manned bases in orbit, on the Moon and Mars, a 100+ year lifespan, a brain-computer interface, and any number of other things.

But when it comes to exactly what we’re gonna get… or when we’re gonna get it… your guess is as good as mine.

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