Part 2 of our alternate reality tale reveals the shape of things to come, and what powers it.
The Faster Horse is an exclusive work of fiction commissioned by Motor1.com, written by David Erik Nelson, and illustrated by Jesse Thomas Glenn. A new chapter of this four-part series will be published every Tuesday for a month.
(Click here to jump to Part 2)
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, 'Faster horses!'"
—attributed to Henry Ford
"It was the worst train wreck I've ever seen," Cynth told the bartender, Vince, as he set down her beer and nonchalantly scooped up the dollar tip she'd laid down. Cynthia immediately took a slug.
"So they won't air it?" Vince asked, wiping down the bar.
"Pfff! You bet your ass they'll air it next season. If they can."
Cynthia had only been working as a production assistant on Shark Tank – that reality show where people pitch their businesses to high-rolling investors – for a couple weeks. But that was a couple weeks on top of years spent as an office, set, or location PA on a diverse array of third-string reality shows. Usually, if Cynthia called something a "train wreck," it was with a twinkle and a smile, the setup to an over-the-top rant about this producer's trophy wife – "young enough to be a trophy daughter" – or some dipshit film-school kid who thought he was the next Tarantino but didn't have the sense to make sure everything was locked up before echoing "Roll!"
No twinkle here, though. Just a frown, a big gulp of beer, and the empty held aloft for a re-up. Vince obliged; Cynthia was a reliable tipper, and he had two part-time jobs and a goddamn horse to feed.
"This one started OK," Cynthia said. "Heck, it started great: Handsome guy, pitch polished without seeming over-practiced. Strode out those double doors to centre stage, hit his mark, and asked a question. Brass balls. No small talk, no introduction, not a drop of sweat on his brow; just this single question..."
"How did you get here today?"
The five Sharks sat in their deep faux-leather chairs, leaning forward a little, expectant. They thought the question was rhetorical. But it wasn't, and the entrepreneur – a slim, intense man, eyes shrewdly a-sparkle beneath a wave of dark hair – repeated himself, this time directing the question to the steeliest Shark of them all, Kevin O'Leary: "Mr. Wonderful: How did you get to the studio this morning?"
The round little man smiled with his mouth, but remained dubious around the eyes. "I rode, of course."
"Of course. A bicycle?"
"No," Mr. Wonderful smirked sidelong at Mark Cuban, an avid cyclist, "I'm not that kind of guy. I rode Dusty J."
"Dusty J. A horse?"
"Of course, of course. A little guy, my runabout: A 15-hander."
The slim man's eyebrows shot up, "A 15-hander? That is a little guy! He's not even as tall as me at the withers!"
Mr. Wonderful smiled affectionately, clearly thinking about Dusty J.
"You take him on the highway?"
The smile died quizzically.
"No, of course not," Mr. Wonderful replied. "Dusty's a standardbred trotter; he tops out at 35, 40 miles per hour. In L.A. traffic, he hardly gets near that, hardly breaks a sweat most days. But he's no highway horse."
In the dark wings Cynthia was crouched over an apple box, trying to sort out a rat's nest of cables. She was only half-listening, but at the phrase "highway horse" her heart jumped. Highway horses were her last remaining trigger, and her therapist had been emphatic: Engage with the trigger. Breathe through it. Don't draw away, don't hide. Panic attacks are not an existential threat.
Cynthia stood up in the dark, breathed in on a four count, held it, breathed out on a four count, and focused on the Right Now: the set, the Sharks, the entrepreneur making his pitch.
"So, then," the intense little entrepreneur said, "you also have a highway horse? You're a multi-horse household?"
"Yeees," Mr. Wonderful said carefully, "But, you know, I try to avoid highway travel."
The entrepreneur feigned incomprehension. "Really? Why would that be?"
Mr. Wonderful shrugged and looked around at the other Sharks. "Same reasons as everyone else, I assume: It's stressful."
The slim man smiled now in earnest. "But most Americans don't avoid highway travel – most Americans can't avoid highway travel: 68 percent are on the highway for at least 90 minutes per day, round trip."
This clearly gave the Shark's pause – Cynthia imagined that they rarely reflected on how the Other Half lived.
"Ninety minutes each day," the slight man said reflectively, "45 at a time, perched up on the backs of highway horses – seven feet tall at the withers, galloping 70 or 80 miles per hour."
Cynthia blew out another measured breath. This was going to be as bad as she feared. Cynth had spent a lot of time on the highway when she'd first come to Los Angeles; she'd been a highway EMT for three years. Absolutely no one in Cynthia's current circle of friends knew this. These days Cynthia avoided the highway at all costs. If she couldn't get there by steam train or horse-bus, she just didn't go. Highway horses terrified her. Highway horses were objectively terrifying, she'd learned.
Cynth took another deep breath.
Finally, the slim man turned and pulled the top blank card from his easel, revealing a heat map of the United States, dark purple around the affluent urban centres – Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles – quickly dimming to washed out pinks, and even white. "This chart shows the concentration of horses per household. The darkest areas are mostly two- and three-horse households, while the lighter – well, roughly half of all American households have one horse or fewer. And those single-horse families, they almost always have to go with a highway horse, because of their commutes. And a highway horse is expensive – even just standing in your yard idle, he'll eat around $500 in feed and hay each and every – "
Lori Greiner – the "Queen of QVC" – pushed back a lock of blonde hair. "I'm sorry – " she glanced down at her notepad, paused, then began again: "I'm sorry, but you never even introduced yourself."
The slim man smiled. "Yes, all apologies: I'm William Firestone Ford. Billy."
Billy Ford. Eyebrows were raised.
The Queen of QVC settled back, resting her elbows on the chair. "Billy, I'm sorry to interrupt your horse talk with Mr. Wonderful, but what's your product?"
Billy Ford, unruffled, pulled away his map and let the paper see-saw to the floor. The next image was… something. Something Lori couldn't immediately identify. It was boxy and enclosed – Lori would never have said this with the cameras rolling, but she thought it looked like a couple of those wheelchair-accessible port-a-potties strapped together.
But with windows. And on wheels.
Mr. Wonderful squinted, "Is that a carriage? Where are the shafts and traces?"
Mark Cuban – silent to this point – flopped back in his chair: "I'm out!"
For the first time Mr. Billy Firestone Ford looked nervous. "Wait, let me – "
"No," Mark said flatly. "No. What even is this? A porta-john on wheels? He can't be serious. It looks awful. He's only here for exposure." Mark was getting lathered. "This guy is just an anti-horse nut, and this is just a BS publicity stunt for whatever his political agenda is."
"Mark, Mark," Mr. Wonderful was holding up his pen shushingly, "I'm interested, I want to hear – "
"Look, Kevin, I get the kid's basic schtick – it's in the news every night: Feed prices are crushing people, really stifling innovation. Americans have long commutes and can hardly afford the horses they need to make them. That's a real problem, a real opportunity. How the hell is that solved by some godawful ugly contraption that would need at least, at least, a twenty-horse team to drag it up to highway speeds?"
Billy began, "It doesn't need a twenty-horse team – "
"Hold on, Mark," Mr. Wonderful soothed. "Looks like mostly plastic construction; maybe it's very light, very inexpensive. Highway speeds, but multiple passengers. That could go a long way toward relieving the crunch for a lot of people."
"So what's this thing cost?" Mark challenged. "If cost is the pain point, then low-cost has to be in the solution. What's the cost to consumer?"
Dead silence on the set. Mark Cuban was literally agog. This was good – plenty of time to get reaction shots of everyone to be edited together later – but it quickly went from dramatic to awkward to excruciating. Mark Cuban wasn't just frustrated now; he was red-faced, absolutely apoplectic:
"Most Americans – most of these one-horsers you're talking about – don't even have $500 in their savings account to cover an emergency visit to the large-animal vet. But you come in here with this weird, ugly, totally impractical horse cart – " he threw up his hands. "You could buy three, four decent horses for that kind of money! They'll be paying it down until the day they die!"
"This is not a horse cart." Billy Firestone Ford said evenly. "It's a self-propelled personal motor carriage."
Part 2 – Fuel
(Click here to start from the beginning)
As Billy Ford continued his pitch, Cynthia, still standing in the studio wings, succeeded in reining in her racing heart. But her thoughts remained stuck on her old job working as a highway EMT. Back then she'd spent her days sitting in the relentless L.A. sun astride one of several pretty good-natured standardbreds the company owned, patrolling the stubbly median between the dirt highway track of the 405 and the bulk service drive reserved for the large, slow traffic: kid hacks, buckboards, family buggies, and caryalls, as well as lumbering steam buses and big rigs.
On the one hand, the job was moderately miserable: between the locomotive smoke and choking highway dust, she could choose between hacking and coughing up tawny mud snot at the end of each day, or getting a rash from the rubber gasket around the edge of her cheap hardware-store breathing mask. By the end of the day, she was half-deaf from the roar of steam engines on one side, the ceaseless trip-hammer pound of hooves on the other, and the max-volume radio chatter from the walkie-talkie earpiece.
On the other hand, she'd grown up barrel racing in Nebraska, it was cool to live in Hollywood, and she loved horses.
Still, she saw a lot of scary shit on the highway. And then, one day, she saw too much.
Back in the studio, Mark Cuban was fuming in his faux leather chair, but the other Sharks had perked up at the notion of a personal self-propelled vehicle. Barbara Corcoran – usually not a gadget person; she'd made her nut in real estate – cocked her head like a small bird spotting a fat worm. Robert Herjavec – who was a techie, not to mention being wild for horses and carriages alike; just that afternoon Cynth had seen him whip into the lot in a gorgeously lacquered Scuderia Ferrari phaéton – stitched his brows quizzically.
"This is some sort of ultralight passenger-driven brougham?" Robert hazarded.
"No," Billy Ford said. "No horse at all. It is entirely self-propelled."
Both Mr. Wonderful and Lori "Queen of QVC" Greiner were clearly getting close to biting the hook.
"So some sort of miniaturized steam lorry?" Robert Herjavec asked.
"Nope," Mr. Wonderful said. "Can't be. Steamers are way too heavy and slow for a commute, and waaay too thermally inefficient to be practical for the average consumer."
"Indeed," Billy nodded. "Also that would be an external combustion engine. While one could be made small enough to power a personal vehicle, that poses some rather grave operational and safety concerns in the hands of average consumers; this vehicle relies on internal combustion."
"Like they use on big ocean freighters and in power plants?" Mr. Wonderful asked. Billy Ford nodded. "Impossible!" he gasped. Ford shook his head with a smile.
"This is a concept rendering?" Barbra asked, indicating the picture of the ugly plastic combustion carriage.
"This is a photograph." Billy Ford tapped his nose, and Cynthia cued the riggers to fly in the flat-panel display. "And this is video." Ford snapped his fingers, and the video began:
Long shot, worms-eye-view down a country road. With a swoosh of generic electronic dance music, Mr. Ford's contraption swoops up over a small rise. Its yellow plastic body panels shimmy as it closes on the camera, reflections of the surrounding trees racing across the glass pane at the front. It swiftly glides toward the camera, then sweeps over. Wipe to a series of side-on tracking shots, showcasing the thing's unflagging speed as it climbs grades – even loaded with three adult passengers – its maneuverability through a series of orange cones, its short stopping distance, its sprightly acceleration, its apparent warmth and security through a rain shower, then a snow storm, then a camera-rattling thunderstorm in the dead of night. Cut to long shot, matched to the opening shot, now facing down the road. The vehicle cruises away along the dark lane, gloomy road and trees splashed by the lights mounted at the motor cart's front end.
Billy Ford's carriage was zippy and cute. It sparked something in Cynthia's chest, a warm acquisitiveness. She wanted one of the little things. She wanted to be the kind of independent, confident person who had one of these secure boxes to pilot through the world.
"Like a train, but no tracks," Billy intoned as the video faded, the dark of the stormy night blending with the dark of a blank screen, "Glides smooth as a ship on calm waters. Can be safely operated by even a child with almost no training."
That word – safely – filled Cynthia's head like the highway thunder of hooves.
Robert Herjavec was the first to speak:
“Billy, I just want to start by saying this is amazing.”
“Thank you, Robert."
"How did you come up with all this?"
"I'm the black sheep in my family: I went to university to study the history of patent law, and happened to stumble across a slew of patents filed by a German locksmith-turned-engineer named Karl Benz. These were all from the late 1870s, just prior to his death in a factory accident. His patents included designs for lightweight horizontal two- and four-stroke internal combustion engines – engines small and light enough for practical road travel – a speed regulation system, a battery-powered 'spark plug'-based ignition system, an air-fuel blending 'carburetor,' a water-cooled radiator, a 'clutch'-controlled multi-gear transmission – all vital to adapting the stationary internal combustion engine to this much smaller mobile platform."
“Amazing!” Robert enthused, “Kudos to you! I love change, and I love technology, and the technologies you’ve brought together here are just amazing. Amazing! But I'm very uncertain about the viability.” Billy Ford’s smile did not falter, but it fell away just a touch, so that his eyes were no longer smiling, even though his mouth continued to do so. “First, no doubt you’ve created a product here, but where have you created value for the potential customer? They already have a way to get to work: The United States has excellent horse infrastructure for daily commutes. They might not love their highway horses, but that problem is solved. Where's the value to the consumer with your self-propelled wagon?"
"Let’s start by returning to household economics: Highway horses are big, lean animals with exceptionally long strides – terrifically fast, but that comes at a cost. Mr. Wonderful's trotter probably gets by on 20 pounds of hay with four or five pounds of feed on top. I imagine we're probably talking about around $250 per month in feed?" he asked Mr. Wonderful.
"That sounds about right," Mr. Wonderful allowed.
"And your highway horse?"
Mr. Wonderful was clearly uncertain.
"I know: You don't do much highway riding. But I can tell you this: Highway riding is strenuous both for the rider and the steed. The average highway horse being ridden at highway speeds five days per week for the average American commute, and eating the quality of roughage most Americans can afford, consumes almost $500 in hay and grain each month."
"There's your $500 emergency fund, Mark," Barbra quipped, "It's in the manger."
"Even resting almost entirely idle – just being used for quick errands – a highway horse is going to be gobbling up at least $350 in feed. It's just how they're bred."
Cuban – the notorious cyclist – opened his mouth, but shrewd Billy Ford was already there, with a dazzling smile and eyes as sharp as pencil points:
"A good quality bicycle being ridden by a fit adult on a good hard track can only average 16 miles per hour. Switching from highway horse to bicycle quadruples the average American commute time. And, that's assuming that the commuter has a macadam race track stretching from his or her door to his or her job, instead of a clay-based sand/silt highway track. And assuming that the rider is fit. And assuming that the rider has two spare hours in the day to commute. I don't have to tell you that for the average working-class American, all of that is far from the case. Given the world we live in, the bicycle is quite impractical."
"So, it's established that feeding a horse is expensive," Mr. Wonderful said, then gestured at the picture on the easel. "What runs your self-propelled carriage?"
"This vehicle in the video is running on gasoline."
"Gasoline?" Barbara asked.
"It's like kerosene," Mr. Wonderful supplied, clearly more than a bit charmed by the idea, "like you use in those old-fashioned camping lanterns."
"Indeed," Billy confirmed, "It's largely a novelty fuel now – the only common use I can think of are backpackers’ lightweight cook stoves. At one time it was popular as a solvent, but there are safer alternatives now; today it's practically treated as a waste product, generated at volume as a byproduct of processing sweet crude into kerosene. The U.S. is disproportionately blessed with sweet crude. Gallon to gallon, gasoline costs less than milk." He tapped the picture of his double-wide rolling porta-john. "And this vehicle can go about 25 miles on each gallon of gasoline. All in, the average American could make their average commute for about $24 per month."
"Maybe I should be feeding Dusty J. milk?" Mr. Wonderful quipped.
Billy Ford smiled. "A highway horse needs an extra nine mega-calories for each day it's ridden on an average American commute. At 2,040 calories per gallon, that's just about 4.4 gallons of whole milk each day, or 88 gallons per month for the average commute." He shrugged theatrically, "Not very cost-effective. Energy is expensive, and animals simply are not efficient – not in the way a machine can be. In fact, efficiency is another primary selling point for this product. How much manure does Dusty J. produce each day?"
Mr. Wonderful chuckled, "You'd really have to talk to my horsekeeper."
"I already have," Ford chirped.
Mr. Wonderful looked surprised, but still amused.
“I do my homework,” Billy Ford added.
Coming Tuesday, November 29th: Part 3 – Manure
Coming Tuesday, December 6th: Part 4 – Finale
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Written by: David Erik Nelson
Illustrated by: Jesse Thomas Glenn
Produced by: Seyth Miersma and John Neff