Cars can’t help but affect architecture, as they constrain so much of what we design and build. We devote a big chunk of our homes to them, and build shopping centers in which a quarter of the space is for people, and the rest is for parked cars. Add up all this area given over to cars, whether moving or standing still, and you’ll find that around 40 percent of our cities belong to our four-wheeled friends.

Of more pressing concern to humankind, however, is the fact that cars consume vast amounts of petroleum while pumping out vast amounts of pollution. Here, at least, there’s a ray of hope: Americans can now buy hybrid vehicles, which use small, efficient gasoline engines to produce electricity onboard. Hybrids are far more efficient than the gas-guzzling, mechanical-drive dinosaurs most of us still drive, not to mention being quieter and more powerful to boot.

Still, industry analysts, bureaucrats and other fonts of conventional wisdom would have us believe that, because hybrids still account for only a small fraction of vehicles sold, old-style cars will be with us for a long, long time.

They may be in for a big surprise, and steam locomotives, of all things, can help us see why.

For more than 100 years after U.S. railroad service began in 1831, steam locomotives ruled the American rails. What’s more, by the 1920s, only three companies were building all of the nation’s locomotives. Sound familiar? The largest of these was the mighty Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, whose vast Eddystone Works once ranked among the world’s largest industrial complexes. Baldwin was, in many ways, the General Motors of its field.

During the 1930s, a seemingly puny threat to this dynasty appeared.

It was the diesel-electric locomotive, an innovative product built by a complete outsider to the world of steam. The sleek, clean-running diesel-electrics cost a lot more than steam locomotives, but they were also about three times as efficient.

The Big Three locomotive builders hardly took notice of this innovation. They devoted trifling resources to developing their own versions, and instead kept right on doing what they’d always done — building bigger and more powerful steam locomotives. After all, steam had been king for over a century, and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

But it did change, and fast. The railroads quickly saw the potential savings in this new technology. To the astonishment of Baldwin and its brethren, they began rapidly replacing their huge fleets of steam locomotives with diesel-electrics. How rapidly? In 1936, steam locomotives still outsold diesel-electrics by about four to one. In 1948, by contrast, the railroads bought 2,800 diesel-electrics — and exactly 13 steam locomotives.

The last American steam locomotive chuffed out of Baldwin’s Eddystone Works the following year. While the steam-engine builders had been snoring at the throttle, demand for their once-invincible product had vanished. Not surprisingly, all of the Big Three locomotive builders quickly succumbed in the diesel-electric era, since they’d done next to nothing to prepare for it.

The moral of the story is that the gasoline-engined, mechanical-drive automobile — the kind we’ve driven for more than a century now — is far from invincible. No one should know this better than General Motors. Why? Because they were the upstart firm whose shiny, efficient diesel-electric locomotives put the steam engine out of business.

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