Mark Sinclair's blog: 18 November 2010 - Starter for 100
18 November 2010
Mark Sinclair is boss of leasing firm Alphabet
Next year sees the centenary of the invention of one of the most mundane yet most important devices in automotive history.
Until it came along, electric cars were the future. After 1911, they were history.
Just one impediment, it turned out, stood between petrol cars and mass market success a hundred years ago - a crooked length of metal.
Everyone hated crank handles. If you were careful, they just made your hands dirty. If you weren't, they would break your wrist.
Most drivers preferred electric cars - even though they were slower, heavier, pricier and almost literally tethered to local electricity grids - for the simple reason that one just got in, pressed a button and off one went.
So let's hear it for the approaching hundredth birthday of the humble starter motor*. By unleashing the internal combustion engine on a waiting world, this unassuming contraption literally fired up one of the greatest revolutions of the 20th century.
But before we reflect further on the miracles of progress, let's imagine for a moment that it's 1910 and we're a fleet manager.
Personally, we can see the operating cost advantages of a petrol vehicle. But let's face it, electricity's the thing these days. Oil's just for lamps and heaters. In any case, drivers will never put up with cars that have to be hand-started every time. And don't talk to us about Duty of Care, what with all those crank handles spraining our drivers' wrists or worse...
It's really a no-brainer to equip our fleet with a thousand of the latest, smartest electric cars.
Unfortunately, this has predictably dire consequences three years later when, thanks to the new self-starting petrol car, demand for used electric vehicles is deader than a 12-cell accumulator that's been left out in the rain for a fortnight.
Suddenly, we understand why they had to invent contract hire!
It's never easy to predict how quickly a new-fangled development will change the market. That's why modern finance gives fleets the option of letting someone else carry the residual value risk on the technology they're already using.
I certainly wouldn't bet heavily against history repeating itself with the help of another new upstart technology although, luckily, changes tend to happen more slowly in the kind of mature market we have today.
In any case, even though we humans like to see ourselves as endlessly inventive and quick-thinking, we don't come up with world-changing breakthroughs as often as we think. For instance, the earliest known dental drill is (amazingly) about 9000 years old - but it still took mankind another 7000 years to get round to inventing toothpaste!
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