Cars and the Problem of Horse Poop: Automotive Remains the Most Innovative Industry Today

Leaders in the automotive industry are historically innovative problem-solvers and inventors.

To ensure the health of our environment, cars of the future are moving toward electric. Their move toward autonomy will allow us to continue to be safer and more comfortable in our travels, and to get where we’re going faster. And future cars’ connectivity means fewer (if any) stalls along the side of the highway, or other surprises while on the road.

McKinsey reports that by 2030, this combination of new services and advanced technologies will give a $1.5T boost to the automotive market.

But the first problem solved by cars was much more, um, organic.

“The automobile was invented to solve the problem of horse poop,” William Knoedelseder, author of the new book Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, recently told a St. Louis radio station. “That was the big environmental problem in the United States and all the cities. There were so many horses in New York they were shoveling up 15 million pounds a day. And getting rid of it.”

There were people riding horseback. Starting in 1834, there were hansom cabs – carts pulled by two horses, carrying up to three people (if they squeezed in), with a driver sitting above. Then came horse-drawn buses, whose demanding loads required a lot more “horse power.”

In addition to human cargo, horses also pulled carts that delivered a wide range of goods.

On average, one horse produces between 15 and 35 pounds of manure every day, which in the 1800s was sometimes piled four stories high in empty lots. Add to it flies, rain, the heat in the summer, horse urine, and horses who drop dead from being overworked, sometimes left to decompose where they lie, and you’re really beginning to get the picture.

“There was a race … to come up with a self-propelled vehicle that would take people and their stuff from one place to the next efficiently and without creating a mess that had to be cleaned up behind them,” Knoedelseder continued. “And Henry Ford was the guy who won that race.”

At the age of 32, Henry Ford created a solution in the form of the self-propelled quadricycle. It had a simple frame, four bicycle wheels, and a gas-powered engine, but it was very expensive. However, this “toy for the rich” laid the foundation for the future of automobiles.

Encouraged by his new friend Thomas Edison, Ford continued to experiment and come up with other vehicles. On October 1, 1908, he introduced the dependable, affordable vehicle he had imagined from the start: the first Model T.

In a matter of days, 15,000 were sold. Less than 20 years later, Ford watched the 15 millionth roll off the assembly line.

“The farther you look back, the farther you can look ahead.”

Henry Ford

In a competition spanning three years and overseen by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999, the Model T was named the most influential Car of the 20th Century, beating out the BMC Mini, Volkswagen Beetle, and all the rest. And although it hasn’t been produced in over 90 years, the Tin Lizzie remains on the “top 10” list of the most popular cars of all time (at ninth).

Of course, Ford was also innovative in establishing better pay and a reduced workweek (five-day, 40-hour) for his employees, attracting and retaining top talent.

Where will automotive innovation take us next? In a historically inventive industry, the sky’s the limit.

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