Save the horse! A story about propaganda, failed prophecies, and the future of the electric car

If electric cars are so bad, why is the oil lobby terrified of them?

By: Kjetil Hopland, Creative Lead at Zaptec.

Technological innovation is a double-edged sword: it promises a brighter future but often stirs fear and resistance. From the steam locomotive to electric cars, every breakthrough has faced strong opposition. This article explores four significant technological shifts – the steam locomotive, the automobile, the internet, and the electric car – and how the patterns of resistance reveal how economic interests, political power, and human psychology shape our response to new technologies.

Innovation 1: The steam locomotive – the birth of a revolution

In the early 19th century, the steam locomotive emerged as a symbol of industrial innovation and progress. It was a huge leap in transportation technology, promising faster and more efficient travel. Before this, transportation on land was limited to horse-drawn carriages. The steam locomotive allowed goods and people to be transported over long distances quickly, opening new economic opportunities and societal development. However, not everyone welcomed this technology. Many feared what this radical change could mean for their livelihoods and societal stability.

Speed and scepticism

In 1830, there was widespread fear of this new era. Many thought that the rapid speed of these mechanical beasts would lead to chaos, accidents, and sheer insanity. People believed the human body couldn't withstand speeds over 30 kilometres per hour. They feared not just physical harm but also the social and economic impacts. Would it lead to job losses? Would it change power structures in society? The locomotive was seen as a threat to the established order and a source of disruption.

Economic warfare and cultural anxiety
Canal and stagecoach operators, whose businesses were threatened by the locomotive, launched campaigns to hinder its growth. They lobbied for strict regulations and spread propaganda warning of the terrible consequences of rail travel. For instance, it was claimed that the smoke from locomotives would spread diseases like cholera and plague, fostering public scepticism. Beyond economic interests, there was cultural resistance rooted in the fear of industrial destruction in rural life. Poets like William Wordsworth described the railways as "destructive machines" that scarred the landscape and disrupted the harmony of nature.

Beating the odds
Despite massive barriers, the steam locomotive's practical benefits eventually won out. Faster, more reliable transportation became essential, and even the strongest opponents adapted, finding new opportunities within the growing railway industry. Railways became essential to the economic and social fabric of the time, transforming logistics, commerce, and communication. It’s interesting to observe the economic interests behind the heaviest criticism, even as the railroad’s impact on society raised valid questions.

Innovation 2: The automobile – freedom on four wheels

As the 20th century began, the automobile promised to revolutionise personal and commercial transport. It offered unprecedented freedom and flexibility, but this promise was not without its critics. Early automobiles were viewed as dangerous novelties. A carriage manufacturer in 1902 expressed a common sentiment: "These noisy contraptions frighten horses and are far less reliable than a good pair of horses." Such views were widespread, and many believed cars were impractical for everyday use.

Economic opposition
The strongest resistance came from those whose livelihoods depended on horses and carriages. These industries mobilised considerable resources to combat the rise of the automobile and lobbied for restrictive laws, such as the infamous "Red Flag Law" in the UK and the United States. In the UK, all self-propelled vehicles had to be preceded by a person walking 60 yards ahead with a red flag or lantern to warn pedestrians and horses, effectively limiting the practicality of cars. Naturally, these are mechanisms we understand today, where the debate about technology is not based on facts, predictions, or research but on vaguer concepts like feelings, a sense that something is wrong or the belief that 'this will be bad.'

Cultural shifts

Like many emerging technologies, there is an initial awkward phase where roles and responsibilities are unclear, and there is uncertainty about how to proceed and how much to undertake at once. Cities enacted laws to manage the chaos cars brought. For instance, Paris introduced early 20th-century regulations mandating strict speed limits and safety measures to protect pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. Despite all this, the automobile's advantages – speed, convenience, and (eventually)affordability – led to widespread adoption.

The cost of innovation

Both the steam locomotive and the automobile demonstrate that new technology often requires significant effort and substantial early investments. However, the infrastructure surrounding the machine – the piece of technology itself – is a crucial and central success factor. There must be a strong and bold willingness to support it. Two cars on a bumpy, rocky mountain path do not constitute a revolution. But 10,000 cars on a smooth, straight road between two cities do.

Innovation 3: The Internet – a web of scepticism

This innovation stands apart from the others primarily because it exists in the digital sphere rather than in the physical one (though the internet significantly impacts the transport sector as of 2024). But it is fascinating to look at the internet and its resistance, considering how new communication channels and platforms have evolved since the days when railroads and cars first appeared. The commercial introduction of ‘The Internet’ in the 1990s promised to change every part of life, from business to education but faced a lot of doubt.

False prophets and false prophecies

Traditional media and telecommunications companies saw the internet as a threat and fought against its rise, emphasising its risks and downplaying its potential. Telecom companies lobbied against investments in internet infrastructure, promoting alternatives like ISDN lines. Media companies ran stories highlighting the dangers of the internet, from privacy breaches to fraud, attempting to preserve their traditional business models.

Public perception and adoption
The general public was divided. While many embraced the internet's potential, others feared its implications. Critics like Clifford Stoll, an American astronomer, author and computer security expert, wrote dismissively about the internet, predicting its failure to live up to the hype. He argued that the Internet would never compete with traditional media like newspapers and television and that online shopping was impractical and unlikely to succeed. Despite initial resistance, the internet's transformative power became undeniable. It reshaped industries, created new markets, and became a vital part of everyday life. Many companies that initially resisted the digital age went out of business, and the Internet became a central pillar of the global economy.

The golden age of narratives
Storytelling has always been a glue that holds our society together, but with the internet, the game has changed. Now, influential corporations and powerful groups can spread their narratives directly to the public, often without the editorialising and fact-checking provided by traditional media. This has blurred the lines between credible information and misinformation, making all content and information appear equally valid. The oil lobby, for instance, uses these new channels to cast doubt about climate change and (some) renewable energy sources, complicating the acceptance and discussions of new technologies. In this landscape, the ability to craft a persuasive story often overshadows the strength of evidence, reshaping how we perceive truth and facts.

Innovation 4: Electric cars – the battery-powered horse

Electric vehicles represent a significant shift towards greener mobility. However, this transition has not been smooth. Despite their environmental promises, EVs face substantial resistance from strong interests in the oil industry and parts of the automobile sector.

Economic and political resistance

With its vast economic and political influence, the oil industry views EVs as a direct threat to its dominance. This has led to significant lobbying efforts to maintain subsidies for fossil fuels and oppose incentives for EVs. For example, in the United States alone, fossil fuel industries spent more than $124 million on federal lobbying efforts in 2022. These efforts aim to protect their market share and delay the transition to EVs and renewable energy sources. Additionally, oil companies have funded research and think tanks that exclusively publish studies questioning EVs' environmental benefits and viability.

Psychological tactics and public opinion

The oil lobby uses sophisticated psychological tactics to shape public opinion and foster scepticism toward electric vehicles. They highlight concerns like range anxiety, high initial costs, and the environmental impact of battery production, tapping into public fears and the unfamiliarity with new technology. These issues are framed to appear unsolvable, even though they are clearly not. The strategy is essentially to say, "See, it's not any better," despite evidence to the contrary. Certain groups within the population pick up on this narrative, creating a constant cycle of misinformation that must be countered.

Changing perceptions and market shifts

Despite facing logistical, political, and public opposition, electric vehicles have gradually gained acceptance, starting with early adopters and environmentally conscious consumers. Large-scale demonstrations of EV technology have played a crucial role in this shift, showing that the technology is viable and worth investing in. Under Elon Musk's leadership, Tesla significantly influenced public perception by proving that EVs could be practical and desirable on a large scale. Tesla's commitment to innovation and large-scale production set a high standard and created competition, forcing traditional automakers to adapt. However, more than just Tesla drove the broader transformation in perception.

The role of lawmakers and governments
Government support has been crucial in speeding up EV adoption. Countries like Norway have created environments that encourage EV use through generous incentives and supportive infrastructure. Norway's policies, such as tax exemptions, access to bus lanes, and free parking for EVs, have greatly increased adoption rates. This large-scale testing ground has shown that EVs can fit into daily life, easing public scepticism and proving the benefits of the technology. In 2023, 82.8% of all new cars sold in Norway were electric, setting a new record.

The combination of industry innovation and government support has built a strong framework for EV adoption. Seeing new technology in action is vital to overcoming fears and misconceptions about its potential.

The path forward
Despite these positive trends, the path to widespread EV adoption is not a straightforward upward trajectory. Economic factors, such as reduced consumer purchasing power in certain markets, can temporarily slow EV sales. Critics may seize on these downturns to declare the failure of electric vehicles. However, this perspective ignores the broader trends and the long-term potential. Temporarily fluctuating sales are part of the natural process of integrating new technology into the market. As infrastructure improves and consumer confidence grows, the adoption of EVs is expected to continue its upward trend. As mentioned, the path to mass adoption is seldom a smooth, upward climb.

The psychology of resistance

Fear of change

At the heart of resistance to technological innovation lies a fear of change. This fear is both psychological and societal, rooted in the disruption of familiar routines and the unknown implications of new technologies. People are often wary of the unfamiliar and prefer to stick with the status quo, even if the new technology promises significant benefits. This resistance can manifest in various forms, from scepticism and fearmongering to outright hostility and sabotage.

Economic interests and power dynamics

Resistance is often driven by strong economic interests. Industries that dominated the market before the introduction of these technologies are naturally inclined to protect their investments. Canal owners against railroads, horse breeders against automobiles, traditional media against the internet, and fossil fuel industries against electric vehicles all mobilised – and continue to mobilise – significant resources to maintain their market positions. They lobbied for restrictive laws, funded research to cast doubt on the new technologies, and launched public relations campaigns to sway public opinion.

Psychological mechanisms

Several psychological mechanisms underpin resistance to new technologies:

  1. Status quo bias: People prefer things to remain the same, fearing that change might bring negative consequences. This bias makes them more likely to resist new technologies that threaten established ways of life.
  2. Loss aversion: The fear of losing something familiar or valuable can be more powerful than the potential gains from new technology. This reluctance leads to a focus on the risks and downsides of innovation rather than its benefits.
  3. Confirmation bias: People tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This bias can make it difficult to accept new technologies that challenge established norms and perceptions.
  4. Groupthink: Social groups often reinforce collective beliefs and resist external changes. When influential members of a community or industry oppose a new technology, their views can sway the entire group, leading to widespread resistance.

The cycle of acceptance

Despite initial resistance, the practical benefits of new technologies eventually become undeniable. Over time, resistance gives way to acceptance and even enthusiasm as societies adapt and integrate these innovations into daily life. This process involves several stages:

  1. Awareness: The public becomes aware of the new technology through media coverage, advertisements, and word of mouth. Initial reactions are often mixed, with curiosity tempered by scepticism.
  2. Understanding: As more information becomes available, people begin to understand how the technology works and its potential benefits. Demonstrations, pilot programs, and early adopters play a crucial role in this stage.
  3. Trial: Individuals and organisations experiment with the new technology on a small scale. Positive experiences and successful case studies help to build confidence and reduce fears.
  4. Adoption: As the technology proves its value, adoption rates increase. Early adopters become advocates, and the technology gains traction in the mainstream market.
  5. Integration: The technology becomes an integral part of daily life, reshaping industries, economies, and social norms. Resistance fades as the new technology becomes the new status quo.

Conclusion: This is the future

The history of technological progress shows a recurring cycle of resistance and acceptance. Understanding this cycle helps us navigate current and future technological shifts. The EV revolution is an undeniable change that will reshape the future of transportation. For companies like Zaptec and all pioneers in this electric revolution, it’s crucial to understand these dynamics to communicate our vision clearly and effectively. By recognising the tactics used to create doubt and resistance, we can better strategise and advocate for the benefits of more sustainable transportation. Embracing this knowledge allows us to drive the transition to greener mobility and ensure we are on the right side of history.