Gas cars are like horses—one day we’ll just own them for fun (like Elon Musk)

Bad news for Mustang Sally.
Bad news for Mustang Sally.
Image: CC/ Flickr/firelizard5
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Technology skeptics often fixate on how one technology will eliminate another. While it’s true fewer typewriters exist today than when word processors arrived on the scene in the 1960s, that’s often not how progress works.

As lithium-ion batteries begin displacing the internal combustion engines, it’s worth remembering how new inventions often redefine, rather than replace, previous technologies, particularly ones that have been banging around usefully for centuries.

Take books. Ebooks have replicated a dynamic that shook up the book industry with the arrival of paperbacks in 1939. Suddenly, the a cheaper mode of production redefined the role of the book (paywall). Hardbacks could now be sold to discriminating buyers at higher prices as gifts or luxury items, while mass-market buyers bought commodity paperbacks. E-books are the new paperworks, yet none of the formats have gone away.

Similarly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s collection of gas cars foreshadows how many people may one day approach conventional cars. In a tweet this week, Musk explained why the owner of the world’s most valuable electric car company owned two gasoline cars: a Ford Model T and a Jaguar Roadster. Of course, both are wildly impractical and inferior (from an efficiency point of view) to anything now sold by Honda, GM, or even Tesla today, but that’s not the point. Rather, the British sports car was his “first love.”

Gas cars, like hardbacks, deliver symbolic and sentimental value, along with the incidental function of getting you from A to B. You could argue that owning collectible cars is a merely a luxurious indulgence for Musk. That may be true, but he’s more common than you think.

Take another transportation analogy: horses.

Equines were the mass-transit of their time in the US. At their peak in 1915 there were 26,493,000 horses in the US, more than any country besides Russia. Since then, horse numbers experienced a precipitous decline, and then a resurgence. Today, horse populations are rising again surpassing almost 10 million in 2003, according to private and US government surveys.

While low on a per capita basis, there’s obviously still a vast demand for horses in the US economy which has virtually no use for them beyond a scattering of farms and ranches. Of course, horses have followed the same path of other useful technologies transforming from something valued primarily for its utility to something valued for its intrinsic qualities and aesthetics.

There are, of course still, working horses across the country, but they are vastly outnumbered by those being kept for pleasure, entertainment and companionship.

While it’s hard to think of a car as companionship (for most), we’re many years away from conventional cars being tossed aside as a form of transportation. Yet that day is coming. Within a few decades, experts say, autonomous electric vehicles could account for 95% of all U.S. passenger miles traveled. Thanks to their low-maintenance and fuel costs, and their ability to work around the clock, it wouldn’t make economic sense to do otherwise.

Many such cars will remain on the road out of necessity, especially in rural areas or for specialized applications, but tens of millions of conventional vehicles will eventual be stranded with no economical use. Don’t expect them to disappear. Expect them to go the way of the hardback and the horse.