Tuesday, 3 January 2012

So it seems that within a day of the city of Paris launching its AutoLib electric car hire scheme last month, a woman was knocked down by one because she didn't hear the thing coming. According to this, the US Senate passed a law back in 2009 requiring electric car drivers to make "a minimum level of sound to alert pedestrians" of their coming. All of which is somewhat reminiscent of a line in Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) about car owners playing the tapes of authentic 20th century car noises as they drive their vehicles with otherwise silent power sources. 

Being a frequent Paris-London traveller, I was very pleased to have an article published about the AutoLib scheme in the December issue of Eurostar's onboard magazine, Metropolitan. As is so often the way with these things, most of my favourite bits of the piece cot cut out in the to-and-fro of the editing process so, now that a new issue is to be found in the seat-back pockets of the cross-channel express, I thought I might offer you a little remix of some of the off-cuts from the essay Metropolitan called 'Electric Avenue' . . .

In the first novel by Hugo Gernsback, the man who coined the phrase "science fiction" and published the first magazine devoted to the stuff, we learn that gasoline-driven automobiles have long been obsolete in the year 2660 thanks to the "electromobile". Each of these electrically-driven vehicles is equipped with a small mast to convey power to the motor and rubberised wheels to insulate the car from metallic roads. 
Ever since the 1911 publication of this heroic fantasy, electric cars have been unable to shake off the association with science fiction. The Vanguard CitiCar turned up in George Lucas's (1971) film THX-1138; and only a couple of years ago, the swoosh-shaped, three-wheeled Aptera made an appearance in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot. This December, as the new fully-electric, noise-free, emission-free AutoLib system is rolled out across Paris, science fiction becomes quotidian reality - six and a half centuries ahead of Gernsback's prediction.  
Perhaps the strangest thing about the history of the electric car, however, is that they were a fact of life long before they were the object of sci-fi speculation. There were miniature electric vehicles invented as early as 1828 (by a Hungarian priest, named Ányos Jedlik), and a full-size model drove into the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris in 1881. By the end of the 1800s, there were nearly 34,000 electric cars on American roads, nearly double the number of petrol-driven motors. In fact, in the nineteenth century, it was the gas guzzler that was science fiction, as evinced by the "horseless carriages" of Jules Verne's (1863) fantasy of Paris in the Twentieth Century.