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From Horse Power to Horsepower: The Evolution of Travel

The recent footage of Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster floating through space, piloted by a dummy astronaut listening to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as Earth disappeared in its rear-view mirror oozed joy, hope and possibility. It also promises to be among the most iconic imagery of our time. “It’s kind of silly and fun,” mused Musk to the BBC following the February launch, “but silly and fun things are important.”


Following a handful of false starts, a couple of weeks earlier, our very own Rocket Lab finally launched its first successful rocket (called Still Testing) into orbit saying that it was “a significant milestone… to better understand our planet and improve life on Earth”.  Richard Easther, a professor of physics at Auckland University hailed the launch a “red letter day for New Zealand”, telling Stuff that it was “just the first chapter” of a “fascinating story for the country”. Our little island nation has now joined an elite league of countries to have successfully built rockets that can launch satellites into orbit.


And last month, a Kiwi transport revolution of a more down-to-earth nature was revealed by energy company Mercury with the announcement that they’ve created a “poster child for electric vehicles” by converting an iconic, previously gas-guzzling, 1957 Ford Fairline into an eco-friendly plug-in ride called Evie.  “This car is the true embodiment of energy freedom,” says Fraser Whinery, Mercury’s chief executive, “and a symbol of our escape from fossil fuel reliance.”


Boy, how we’ve moved as a nation — and a world — quite literally. Imagine how rockets and rock ‘n’ roll 1950s rides running on electricity would look to those pioneering Polynesian navigators and their waka. Our limbs aside, canoes were, in fact, the very first mode of transport, though the early incarnations were far more rudimentary than those that first sailed into Aotearoa.


The oldest known vessel is called the Pesse canoe, discovered in the Netherlands in 1955 and, through carbon dating, estimated to be 10,000 years old (though humans are thought to have taken to the seas up to 50,000 years before that). Stretching for three metres, with a width of just 44cm, the prehistoric paddler was dug from a scotch pine log. Other early cultures known to have fashioned canoes include the indigenous peoples of North America, Australia (likely the first to have done so), and several Amazonian tribes. The first sailing boats were crafted by the Egyptians around 3100 BC, a few centuries after the first wheel was whittled in Mesopotamia, around 3500 BC.  This led to the development of wheeled carts and river boats, but it may come as a surprise to learn that before the wheel, was the humble ski. Fragments of 8,000-year-old skiing equipment have been found in northern Russia, though cave drawings show man attached sticks to his feet to tackle snowy conditions some 22,000 years ago.


It’s been 5,500 years since the Botai people of northern Kazakhstan first figured out how to domesticate the horse, using it not just for riding, but for its milk, too. Chariots and wagons soon followed, later aided by the extensive networks of roads built by the Roman Empire. And the horse continued to dominate for millennia.


Major transport developments were sporadic during the Middle Ages when sailing technologies became ever more sophisticated, but it was from the pre-Industrial Revolution onwards, that things — excuse the pun — sure gathered steam, beginning in 1672 with the first steam-powered car. A century later came the steam-driven tractor, in 1783 the first hot air and hydrogen balloons, and the year after that the first steam carriage. Between the turn of the 19th century and 1840, steam powered locomotives were widespread, backed by boats and cars powered by hydrogen combustion engines, along with transatlantic steamships, and the bicycle.


Elevators, aircraft gliders, petrol combustion engines, electric bicycles and motorbikes all arrived before the 1900s did.  The Wright Brothers made the first self-propelled flight in 1903. The DC-3 transport aircraft was developed in 1935, jet-powered aircraft four years later and supersonic planes less than a decade after that (1947). The 1950s saw nuclear powered-submarines dive below the seas and man-made satellites puncture their way into space for the very first time. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and his crew made the ultimate journey, taking that small-step-cum-giant-leap onto the moon.


It was around this time that air travel really, ahem, took off in New Zealand — even though there had been a regular air service from West Coast since 1934. By the 1970s, wide-bodied jets were ever more common over Kiwi skies, boosting tourist numbers from 70,000 in 1960 to 1.65 million by the turn of the millennium. Now, of course, it’s our biggest earner.


And so with our permanent and visiting populations booming — as with the rest of the world’s — all electric vehicles promise to mark the next revolution on our roads (and likely, eventually in our skies). According to the New Zealand Transport Agency, there were 3,645 light EVs, including plug-in hybrids, registered last year — a promising 140% increase on 2016.


“We have all the key ingredients needed to electrify transport,” adds Fraser Whinery, “one of the best renewable electricity systems on the planet and a raft of already-consented renewable projects in the pipeline.”  Any renewable electricity target in New Zealand, he believes is not bold enough, “even at 100%”: “Only 40% of our overall energy consumption is currently from renewable sources. That’s what we need to work on, and by doing so we can leave the rest of the world in the rear view mirror.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces

Client: Mercury / Agency: FCB New Zealand / Production Company: Finch / Director: Patrick Hughes
Music | Sound: Liquid Studios / Photography: Steve Boniface | Match / Car Conversion: Control Focus | Scott Drive