Finnegan's Take

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as Winston Churchill once noted.

The most striking thing about EurActiv’s new links dossier on electric cars is the ‘milestones’ section.

In most such articles, this section typically takes the form of a list of bulletin points on the history of a particular policy development, often stretching back a decade or so. This time, however, the timeline can be traced back to the 19th century.

Remarkably, electric cars were all the rage in the late 1800s and early 20th century, only to be overtaken by mass-produced petrol engines.

However, after energy crises in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a ramping up of political support for electric cars. We need to be independent of foreign oil, they said; prices are too volatile and we are at the mercy of unfriendly nations. And the oil might not last forever, apparently.

Sound familiar?

It’s also worth noting that the ailing General Motors company in the U.S. actually had an imperfect but workable prototype electric car called the EV1 in the late 1990s. It was a cult classic but fell by the wayside when political support dried up. (It was such a great story they made a movie about it.)

So here we are again, heading into 2010, with industrialised nations throwing incentives at industry to come up with workable electric vehicless. Only this time, there’s the added imperative of curbing greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the looming threat of climate change, and the public is more environmentally conscious.

Have we learned enough from previous failures of the electric car craze to get it right this time?

We know industry must be incentivised (with carrots and sticks); we know customers must be won over by the product; we know public investment in electric grids and charging infrastructure is essential. Whether this will prove to be a perfect moment where politicians, the public and industry are pulling in the same direction will be decided years from now by historians.

Over the summer I started reading a fascinating Jared Diamond book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Survive or Fail. One of its key messages is that humans have tended to ignore events that took place more than a generation ago.

This may have been forgivable before the printing press was invented and education was for the few, but it’s harder to explain when most of the Western world is literate and has access to high-speed Internet.

Let’s hope ths current push for electric transport isn’t just another fad.

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