The evolution of transport

Last week, we talked a bit about our namesake, Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution. In this post we’re going to look at a different type of evolution: the evolution of transport.

How non-living things evolve

We often use the word ‘evolution’ to refer to the way non-living things have changed over time: the evolution of architecture, the evolution of medicine, the evolution of transport.

This ‘evolution’ is different from natural selection, of course, because humans are consciously involved. It’s more similar to selective breeding, where humans choose animals or plants with particular qualities and breed them in the hope of manifesting those qualities in their offspring.

However, it’s easy to see where the evolution analogy comes from. As time goes by, new techniques and new technologies are developed. If these prove to be more efficient than the previous way of doing things, they may become widespread as more people adopt them. If they prove to be a step down, they will usually be abandoned after this becomes clear. In this way, positive developments survive and the world evolves.

At Darwin, of course, we’re particularly interested in the evolution of transport.

The decline of the horse

Over time, more efficient technologies are adopted and flawed ones fall out of favour. Horse-drawn carriages were used for thousands of years, but they were swiftly replaced by motorised vehicles after their introduction. The Microsoft blog post ‘The Day the Horse Lost Its Job’ gives an idea of how quickly transportation was transformed:

In 1900, 6,000 horses hauled New York trolleys, more than all U.S. cities combined. But just 17 years later, the horse-pulled trolley took its last trip and the electric trams took over … In 1890 there were 13,800 companies in the United States in the business of building carriages pulled by horses. By 1920, only 90 such companies remained.

An engine-powered car is faster than a horse-drawn carriage, of course, and it also has other advantages. Engines don’t need to rest in the same way horses do, and they aren’t vulnerable to epidemics. In 1872, an outbreak of horse flu brought parts of North America to a halt, causing food and fuel shortages; The Conversation has an interesting article on this epidemic if you’d like to know more.

The rise of electric vehicles

We’re now seeing the rise of electric cars. Electric cars have a surprisingly long history; electricity-powered vehicles were first built in the nineteenth century, and the first road vehicle to exceed 100 km/h was the electric La Jamais Contente in 1899. In the early twentieth century, petrol-powered vehicles won the race against electric cars, as at the time electric cars struggled to compete in range and speed.

Since the 1980s invention of the lithium-ion battery, with its capacity for longer journeys and its relatively low size and cost, electric cars have become more practical and more attractive. However, for a long time, electric cars struggled because the infrastructure to operate them simply wasn’t in place: something that’s now changing. According to, the number of public charging devices in the UK has increased by 700% in recent years, from under 4,000 in 2015 to over 28,000 in 2022.

With the number of charging points in the UK now over three times the number of petrol stations and constantly increasing, it’s easier than ever to operate an electric car, and that’s reflected in their accelerating sales. In 2020, according to the BBC article ‘Why electric cars will take over sooner than you think’, the number of electric cars sold jumped by 43%, despite the number of overall car sales decreasing during the pandemic.

As electric cars produce lower carbon emissions, the government has banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, encouraging the evolution of the UK’s vehicles from combustion engines to electric motors.

We’re watching evolution in action, as one form of propulsion gradually grows in size and influence, preparing to overturn the status quo. There are more changes to come on the heels of the electric vehicle revolution; self-driving cars are on the horizon. We’re excited to be a part of what comes next, and we hope you are too.

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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