Plug and play: the Chevrolet Volt, Detroit, January 2009.
Mark Blinch / Courtesy Reuters

In 1896, a 33-year-old engineer working for the Detroit branch of Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company traveled to New York for the firm’s annual convention. The automobile was the obvious technology of the future by then, but it wasn’t yet clear what would propel it: steam, electricity, or gasoline. Edison had been tinkering with batteries that could power a car, so he was interested to hear that the engineer from Detroit had invented a two-cylinder gasoline vehicle. After hearing a description of the car, Edison immediately recognized its superiority.

“Young man, that’s the thing; you have it,” Edison told the inventor. “Keep at it! Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either, for they have to have a boiler and a fire. Your car is self-contained -- it carries its own power plant -- no

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  • DAVID M. LEVINSON holds the Richard P. Braun Center for Transportation Studies Chair in Transportation Engineering at the University of Minnesota and is a co-author, with William Garrison, of The Transportation Experience.
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