The modern day car owes much of its history to Henry Ford, who dreamed of “producing an automobile that was reasonably priced, reliable, and efficient…” Many of Ford’s dreams have not come to fruition since Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903. It is debatable how affordable and reliable today’s autos are, and the average car’s fuel efficiency leaves much to be desired. Today’s auto industry is not what Ford envisioned, especially considering he predicted cars would be constructed of hemp and run on biofuels.
In fact, in 1941 Ford constructed a vehicle made from biodegradable cellulose fibers derived from hemp, sisal, and wheat straw. The car was even fueled by hemp ethanol. In 1925, Ford told the New York Times:
The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.
Why has it taken us so long to return to Ford’s dreams? There are many factors involved, especially politics, as Bill Kovarik, Ph.D. writes in “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the ‘Fuel of the Future’“:
In this case, fuel technology developed in a direction that was a matter of policy choice and not predetermined by any clear advantage of one technology over another. For different reasons, Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both saw the fuel of the future as a blend of ethyl alcohol and gasoline leading to pure alcohol from cellulose. A dedicated agrarian, Ford thought new markets for fuel feedstocks would help create a rural renaissance. On the other hand, Kettering, as a scientist, was worried about the long term problem of the automotive industry’s need for oil, a resource with rapidly declining domestic reserves. Clearly, the shortage of domestic oil that was feared in the 1920s has occurred in the late 20th century, although it has hardly been noticed because of the abundance of foreign oil. Whether the oil substitute envisioned by the scientists and agrarians of the first half of the century would be appropriate in the latter half remains an open question.
Although the merits of ethanol are debatable, its share of the fuel market has grown from one to seven percent in recent years. In addition, Ford’s biomaterials team have invented seats made from hemp and soy. Almost 75 years later, Ford Motor Company may actually be moving in the direction its founding father predicted.