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Are electric cars a Columbus egg?

The explosive growth in teleworking and flexible work accelerated by the pandemic, in some ways, supports my claim that the main limits to future innovation may be psychological and behavioral rather than technological. I am among a number of people who believe that the new adoption of video conferencing is of great economic importance. Some economists and commentators agree, but we all suffer from a slight social embarrassment when we take our point: It feels slightly absurd to evangelize a technology that is more than 20 years old rather than through the “metaverse” or any other fashionable nonsense to pose.

But history confirms us. As bizarre as it may seem in retrospect, most technologies – especially network technologies – are relatively old when they fully recognize their economic or social significance. Many emerging technologies require surprisingly high levels of collective behavior change before they can be adopted on the scale required to produce their value. The challenge is not always in getting people to adopt a new habit, but in getting people to give up an old one. If you were already traveling to an office five times a week, video conferencing offered very little other than avoiding pleasant business trips. Only with the option of not leaving the house did people notice the opportunity cost of commuting.

This asymmetry of perception is significant. Much can only be perceived in the light of experience. Bill Gates once said his biggest problem is that “people don’t know how to want the things we can offer them”. In fact, many good things are just as unsavory in theory as they are in practice. A Guinness ad from the 1970s said, “I’ve never tried it because I don’t like it.” The cost of trying something new is always more important than the opportunity cost of doing something familiar.

I’ve always wondered if there is a word for things that are only obvious in the light of experience. A colleague recently explained to me. It is called “Columbus Egg”. Google ‘the Egg of Columbus’ for the full story, but it’s a little trick the Explorer allegedly played on people who downplayed his achievement in discovering the New World. “Once you’ve done it, it’s obvious. That doesn’t mean it’s obvious beforehand. ‘

I can make a whole list of technology products that are Columbus’ eggs. Things that arouse skepticism from the start, but whose benefits, once seen, cannot be overlooked. I’m old enough to remember scolding cell phones, dishwashers, bedspreads, or multichannel television. Some people still do. That is not the point. The point is, few people who have tried these things ever voluntarily revert to the old behavior.

Hot air fryers, mattress toppers, and Japanese-style bumwash toilets also fall into this category in my experience. Likewise, automatic transmissions in cars. The reason Brits revere manual transmissions is mainly because our cars were so messy in the 1950s that it was essential (early Morris Minors could do 0-60 mph in 52 seconds). We made a virtue of necessity and started babbling about how the manual transmission “gives a sense of control”. Yet few people who have owned an automatic ever go back.

Are electric cars a Columbus egg? There is an important question to ask. If this is the case, many government measures to mandate electric vehicles could prove unnecessary or counterproductive. For decades to come, there will be a large number of drivers with low mileage, for whom gasoline-powered vehicles are economically and even ecologically sensible. Should we punish these people unnecessarily when the market does large-scale electrification all by itself?

I’m old enough to remember how people railed against cell phones, dishwashers, and bedspreads

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