10 Aug 2011

Henry Ford and the Green Car Revolution

By Judy Wearing

What does the history of invention have to do with modern technology issues?
The name Henry Ford is often associated with inventing the car. He did no such thing, though he did invent several models of car – the Model T being the best known. What Henry Ford did do was turn the car from a rich person’s toy into the main means of family transportation. This was a massive feat. To succeed, Ford had to overcome a long list of obstacles, which bear remarkable similarity to the obstacles facing the popularization of green car technology today.

Ford and his Model T had it rough…
Ford had a mission – at least one car owned by every family in America. To achieve this, he needed to invent a car that was strong enough to travel over rough roads. There were no garages and few mechanics around, so Ford also had to build a car that did not break down. He envisioned a car that was “so strong and so well made that no one ought ever to have to buy another one.”

The problem of price
And, so that every family in America could afford to buy this car, he worked for years and years to perfect the manufacturing process to bring the price down. The Model T in 1909 cost $950; in 1927 it cost $290. His investors did not like this strategy; they wanted to maximize profits. In response, Ford paid off all loans and went it alone.

The list goes on
The technology was expensive – Ford searched far and wide for materials to meet his standards cost-effectively.  Not only were garages and good roads scarce, but so were gas stations, car dealerships, and sales people. Ford had to create businesses to support the sale and maintenance of his cars.

Transporting the materials to build the cars – and getting them to his customers – relied on ships and railroad lines. These industries relied on income from passengers who would no longer need their services if they all had cars to get around. They were reluctant to help him; Ford had to develop his own rail and shipping companies to get around that one!

There was also some public resistance to the changes. Imagine the chaos on the roads, as horse-drawn buggies and generations of people used to travelling by horse were suddenly mixed with loud, fast machines.

The outcome
With ingenuity, Henry Ford overcame all these challenges. In 18 years, 15 million Model Ts were sold; transportation was changed forever.

What would Ford do now?
With the challenges facing society today, it sometimes seems impossible that green transportation can become commonplace enough to bring about the needed reduction in the pollution causing climate change.

The story of Henry Ford suggests that it is not impossible at all, though it will require determination and creativity. As Ford said, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way you’re right.”

Source: Wearing, J. (2009) Edison’s Concrete Piano: Flying tanks, Six-Nippled Sheep, Walk-on-Water Shoes and 12 other Flops from Great Inventors, ECW Press, Toronto.

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