The notion of masculine and feminine is never far from the business of selling cars. Minivans have long been marketed to soccer moms, and off-road trucks geared toward men, even if they never venture off the pavement. But in the early 1900s, when electric vehicles (EVs) were comfortably outselling gasoline cars, the idealized driver was female. Why that is has everything to do with how we think about gender.
EVs were invented in the early 1830s. By the 1890s, American entrepreneurs were building fleets of them to replace horse-drawn carriages in major US cities. New York’s first electric cab arrived in 1897, and the following year Ferdinand Porsche built one of the world’s first hybrid electric vehicles, the P1, with a generator and electric motors in the wheel hubs.
Though a transformative time, the emergence of the personal vehicle was also chaotic. In the late 19th century, at least 1,500 manufacturers were building models that used electricity, gasoline, or even steam for propulsion, according to The Birth of Big Business in the United States, 1860-1914. No single technology dominated the market for years. An 1899 US Census recorded that total automobile production that year included 1,575 electric vehicles, 1,681 steam-powered, and 936 burning gasoline.
This mix persisted for over a decade. One 1912 survey of electric utilities’ vehicle fleets found horses sharing stables with a menagerie of electric and gasoline vehicles. “The question was simply which type of vehicle best suited a given task,” write researchers Gijs Moms and David Kirsch in the journal Technology and Culture.
It seemed at one point like EVs might win. The largest carmaker in the United States (paywall) was the Electric Vehicle Company. Their vehicles were often simpler, cheaper to operate, and more efficient than those with gasoline engines, which remained dirty and unreliable. By 1915, the number of EVs in the US had soared to about 37,000 (12,000 of which were commercial trucks).
But limitations remained. Despite a few adventurers (p. 175) who drove electric vehicles over hundreds of miles between cities, EVs were were seen as the archetypical urban automobile: moderately paced, clean, and limited to a 30-mile range on a single charge. It was precisely these limitations that made them attractive for men buying them for their wives or daughters.
“It’s an understanding of a vehicle from the point of view from someone who can accept restrictions on their mobility,” says Virginia Scharff, a historian at the University New Mexico and author of Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. “The distinguishing characteristic of femininity is staying in your place.”
Indeed, some of most successful EVs of the time were marketed as “a sitting room on wheels,” according to the Edison Tech Center. Dealerships were appointed as tea rooms, showcasing “the silent-running machines, with little clumps of foliage here and there, like oases in a desert, sheltering dainty tea tables, where the ladies—and their husbands, if they care to come along—will be taken care of while they are being told about the polished cars flitting about on the floor,” write Curtis and Judy Anderson in Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History. Even the founders of gasoline carmakers bought EVs for their wives. Ford’s wife Clara received a Detroit Electric in 1908, a few months before her husband’s Model T went on sale. For the next six years, a new battery-powered car was delivered to the Fords’ driveway every other year.
If a mobile sitting room wasn’t appealing enough, EVs also offered female-friendly simplicity. The vehicles avoided mechanical problems “which often bewilder the owner of gasoline car who is not of mechanical turn of mind,” noted (p. 175) one New York Times reporter in 1909, adding that the “electric [car]…is essentially a ‘woman’s car.’” Another New York Times article (pdf), this time from 1911, pointed out that EVs were preferable for women because “early gasoline cars required more strength to crank than most women possess.”
Eventually, electric vehicles lost the market. It wasn’t just technology, argues David Kirsch, a historian at the University of Maryland. Electric-car makers had bet on a transportation model of leasing out their vehicles rather than selling them to individual buyers, not unlike what we see Uber, Lyft, and Waymo attempting to do today. But that doomed EVs when Americans adopted a culture of personal car ownership.
They were finished off by cheap gasoline, easier electric starters, and the plummeting cost of gasoline cars priced at $650, compared with $1,750 for an electric roadster. Mass-produced gasoline cars soon become the “universal vehicle.” While a few EVs were still being produced into the 1940s, the last successful mass-produced electric car exited the factory around 1920.
Of course, gender never disappeared from the auto market. Marketers tried to revive the female car again in 1955 with The Dodge La Femme, a pink dreamliner with the tagline: “The first and only car designed for Your Majesty… the American woman.” It came with matching calfskin purses, lipstick cases, rain capes, and umbrellas, but failed to gain a following. Only around 2,500 sold nationwide, and it was pulled from showrooms in 1957.
Today, Scharff says, Americans aren’t limited to the stereotypes of pink sedans and jacked-up trucks. The number of women registering full-sized pickups, for example, rose 67% (470,000 vehicles) between 2008 and 2016, according to Consumer Reports.
Yet driving and gender remain inseparable in some places. In 1990, dozens of women in Saudi Arabia defied Islamic religious authorities by driving in a convoy around the capital city of Riyadh. Police stopped them for violating the country’s then-active ban on women driving. “We went through around a year of harassment because they thought we did something that is not acceptable by society,” one of the protesters told NPR. “Wherever you work, you are labeled as a ‘driver’ and you will never be promoted, no matter how good you are.”
It was only last week, 28 years later, that the ban was finally lifted. “All I want to do is take to the roads,” 24-year-old Nour told The Guardian. “As soon as I can, I will.”
SELF-DRIVING CAR DEVELOPERS SHOULD PUT PEDESTRIANS FIRST
Since march, when an autonomous vehicle killed a pedestrian in Arizona, forecasts for AVs have been decidedly less optimistic. But autonomous vehicle promoters are undeterred. AI entrepreneur Andrew Ng contends that self-driving cars will be safe for pedestrians when walkers and cyclists conform to their limitations. “What we tell people is, ‘Please be lawful and please be considerate,’” he told Bloomberg.
Has Mr Ng ever walked for as much as an hour in a city? If so, he should realize that consideration of pedestrians’ needs—and motorists’ compliance with the few laws that protect pedestrians—are so deficient that any pedestrian who values their time (as drivers do) must improvise. And in fact, such improvisation can even make pedestrians’ journeys safer.
To be fair, Mr. Ng’s mistake is a common one. From a driver’s point of view, pedestrians’ behavior may appear erratic, lawless, and even suicidal. The solution, then, is to train pedestrians to do better, or to restrict them. In actuality, most pedestrians are much smarter than the dumb systems that are intended to control them—far smarter than signals, and even smarter than self-driving cars. A pedestrian who is on the right side of the street and wants to turn left at the next intersection may cross early, at mid-block. What may appear to some as selfish and dangerous rule-breaking may actually be safer and less disruptive to vehicular traffic. In one study of pedestrians aged 65 or older, for example, researchers found that the risk of a pedestrian-motor vehicle collision was 2.1-fold greater at sites with marked crosswalks, particularly those with no traffic signal or stop sign.
In the 1970s, research teams led by William H. Whyte filmed pedestrians on busy sidewalks as they walked around New York City. Walkers filtered past each other with extraordinary efficiency, coming within inches of each other but almost never touching. Such performance requires human intelligence. No one would propose putting pedestrians on autonomous Segways as a way to keep them from colliding with each other. Either traffic would slow almost to a stop, or collisions would increase.
Autonomous vehicles are frequently touted as safer and more efficient alternatives to conventional cars. But if safety and efficiency are indeed primary values, then cities should not deter walking by making it harder, but invite more walking by making it easier. This would entail, among many other things, urging drivers to be more lawful and considerate about pedestrians.
Indeed, the success of self-driving cars depends upon a rise in walking as a practical means of getting around. AVs cannot deliver on their own promises of safety and efficiency if they deter walking. Safety matters because we care about human health. Sedentary living is already inducing health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes; public health can only worsen if an autonomous future compels people to ride in cars for every mobility need. And self-driving cars will not be more efficient if we negate their per-mile efficiency benefits by increasing the total miles each person spends in the car.
Smart traffic signals can increase streets’ vehicle capacity by shepherding cars safely through intersections without compelling them to stop. But we don’t yet know how they’d work for cyclists and pedestrians, those who make the most efficient use of street space, use the least energy, and cause the least danger to others. Either they will have to be equipped with devices that incorporate them into signal systems, or smart signal systems will have to get much better at detecting and tracking them. The social and technical complications of either alternative are substantial.
In the meantime, we have access to innumerable low-tech possibilities. Traffic calming—design features that slow vehicles down—can make select streets much safer for everyone. Planners in the Netherlands, for example, apply humans’ smartness, instead of trying to suppress it, by designating certain streets “bicycle streets”; though drivers can still use them as “guests,” they must defer to cyclists. By conventional U.S. standards, this method is considered dangerous because it depends too much on human judgment. But the traffic safety record in the Netherlands should compel us to reconsider. In 2013, there were 3.4 road traffic deaths per 100,000 people in the Netherlands; the figure for the U.S. was 10.6. Extravagant promises about the driverless future too often distract us from implementing effective, inexpensive, low-tech improvements today.
To succeed on their own terms, AV developers will have to do much better by pedestrians. Bloomberg reports that AV developers are looking into “distinctive sounds—much like the beeping noise large vehicles make when reversing—to help ensure safe interactions between humans and autonomous vehicles.” This technique, in the form of the klaxon or car horn, is well over a century old. Honking was then attacked as a public health menace. Today, such noises can only make the walking environment less inviting, relative to the quiet, climate-controlled interior of a vehicle. For pedestrians who can’t afford this alternative, walking will be less pleasant than ever.
Too often we hear extravagant promises for self-driving cars, or warnings that “the AV future is coming; we have to get ready.” But the saw does not use the carpenter; the carpenter uses the saw. AVs are a tool. We humans have to decide if and how we want to use them. Despite the public relations, AVs will not, on their own, deliver safety or efficiency. We have to put them to work for the purposes of our choosing.
Chinese electric vehicle maker Nio closes 10 per cent up in New York IPO debut
In one of the year’s largest Chinese public offerings in the US, Nio, an electric-vehicle maker backed by the Chinese technology giant Tencent, debuted on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday and closed up nearly 10 per cent.
Nio stock opened below range at US$6 a share, and had a mixed reception on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was flat. After dropping to a low of US$5.35, however, shares recovered to close up at US$6.58.
Nio raised US$1 billion and has a goal to turn profitable within three to four years.
Founded by Chinese entrepreneur William Li in 2014 and based in Shanghai, Nio is regarded as China’s answer to Tesla, with its ES8 pure-electric, seven-seat sport-utility vehicle being compared to Tesla’s Model X.
Like Tesla, Nio continues to report a loss, posting a net loss of US$502.6 million in the first six months of 2018 on revenue of US$6.95 million, according to the company. Nio which is still at the outset of production, has sold 2,100 vehicles so far.
“We are aiming to turn a profit within three to four years by focusing on the Chinese market before going global,” Nio Chief Financial Officer Louis Hsieh told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday. “China accounts for about 60 per cent of the electric vehicle market in the world.”
The IPO comes as China continues to push into the electric-vehicle market. About 375,000 vehicles were manufactured by China in 2016, counting for about 43 per cent of total production globally, according to McKinsey & Company.
Nio, formerly known as NextEV, is backed by Tencent Holdings, along with other high-profile corporate investors including the tech giant Baidu, private equity firm Hillhouse Capital and Temasek, a holding company owned by the government of Singapore.
All the early investors have kept their stakes in the company at the time of the IPO, said Hsieh, indicating their faith in Nio’s prospects.
In the immediate future, however, uncertainty is building as trade disputes between the US and China continue to escalate.
“Tariffs currently help us for now because they make US cars more expensive,” Hsieh said. “But this is something we are monitoring closely as situations evolve.”
While acknowledging the comparison between Nio and Tesla, he said that Nio regards other high-end brands such as Mercedes and Audi as competitors as well.
“We are catering to the premium car buyers in China who want bigger cars like SUVs and that is how we design the cars,” said Hsieh said.
USS New York sailors pause to honor 9/11 victims, first responders
The sailors of Mayport-based Naval ship USS New York remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks every day.
Seven and a half tons of steel remains from the World Trade Center towers literally helped build their ship, reminding those on board daily of the sacrifices of the first responders.
The hat of a fallen police officer and the helmet of a fallen firefighter are displayed inside the ship, and a surviving fireman’s jacket hangs in the ship’s bridge, always standing guard as the crew’s “12th man.”
On the 17th anniversary of the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, hundreds of sailors gathered Tuesday for a brief but emotional ceremony at Naval Station Mayport.
Capt. Brent Devore spoke about the 9/11 memorial items throughout the ship, which is one of only three Navy ships with items from the World Trade Center.
“We constantly say that every day is 9/11 and that we have to constantly remind ourselves we’re surrounded by the heroes,” Devore said. “We know that Trade Center steel is baked into the ship. We have memoirs throughout the entire ship that remind us of the first responders and all of the families who gave the sacrifice.”
News clips showing the planes hitting the Twin Towers had sailors holding back tears during the remembrance ceremony as they listened to the screams and cries of people on the ground that day.
As the video played, smoke was released from one of several areas of the ship that includes steel from the World Trade Center, serving as a reminder of what New York City residents and first responders saw for weeks, even months after the attacks — a plume of smoke that made losing thousands even more difficult.
Shivanane Harry, a sailor from New York City, said the attacks affected his career path.
“It will be in the history books. It’s one of those things that’s going to be there — remember the people that passed,” Harry said. “I’m here, and that’s one of the reasons why I joined the military.”
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