World's Love Affair With the Automobile: A Century Old and at Full Throttle

This much is clear: One hundred years after the invention of the automobile, the vast majority of people on earth do not own one.

We can be grateful for this.

If even a quarter of the world's estimated 5.7 billion people piled into a car every day bound for work, or elsewhere, most cities on Earth would very likely resemble Bangkok - where cars are semi-frozen in an exhaust-belching traffic jam day and night. The ozone layer might look like Swiss cheese.

This Armageddon gridlock would confirm a car critic's observation from a few years back: "The wheel was man's greatest invention until he got behind it."

An estimated 630 million motorized vehicles are currently operating on the planet, according to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA). In the United States, where Henry Ford first mass-produced cars like Energizer bunnies, the enshrined irony is that most Americans continue to absolutely love/idolize/revere their cars.

Last year Americans bought 14,325,000 new cars and small trucks. And developing countries are importing more and more American-made cars and trucks. After the United States, Thailand sells the most American-made pickup trucks

But in the years since Henry Ford built his first successful gasoline-powered car in 1896, a global challenge has arisen: how to keep the car as a concept of quick and personal transportation, but buckle down to eliminate the way it befouls our air, swallows resources, and clogs our streets and highways.

Car as a security blanket

For better and worse the automobile, and the internal combustion engine, is us. Many owners bestow names and personalties on their cars. They escape inside them, or escape with them as if they are driving four-wheeled security blankets.

Some of the rich and famous, like comedian Jay Leno and retired baseball superstar Reggie Jackson, collect cars by the dozens.

Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins confesses in the latest Vanity Fair magazine that he drives his car around aimlessly, covering thousands of miles. "I play tapes and I think, 'I've got a wonderful life,' " he told the magazine.

For 100 years, carmakers have promoted the concept that "your" car bestows personal freedom and mobility, enhanced sexuality, luxury, status, and of course, speed calculated from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in five rubber-laying seconds. Until recently, safety had not been a driving force in selling cars.

Car owners spend huge amounts of money to buy or lease cars, and in turn the car systematically pulls money from their pockets for gas, insurance, upkeep, tape decks, security devices, and countless accessories. And how to dispose of millions and millions of used tires is another whole story.

Yet, for all this, cars are loved like nothing else simply because they take individuals where they want to go. Privately. Rain or shine. With favorite music on the tape deck. With the seat adjusted just the way you want it.

Car reviewer Al Marsocci echoed much of what consumers have been told to believe about cars when he recently reviewed a Mercedes-Benz SL320 for a weekly newspaper, the Boston Tab.

"The Mercedes-Benz has the distinction of producing an automobile with what has to be the most magnetic personality of any vehicle available today," he writes. "The SL320 is definitely drop-dead gorgeous." He says several women shouted requests for a ride when he drove by.

The price of an SL320? Around $80,000.

And more high-tech dazzlement is in store to make cars safer. In the near future, automobiles may have such features as forward radar sensors, to determine whether objects in front of the car are moving, stationary, approaching, or returning; intelligent cruise systems that automatically adjust a car's speed or apply the brakes if one car is too close to the vehicle in front; and night vision systems, in which an infrared camera detects objects far beyond headlights and displays images on the windshield.

But for all the sizzling hype and personal freedom, the price paid to keep cars pivotal in American culture remains high. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said for years that cars, pickups, and trucks are the industrial-strength polluters of the air we breathe.

The US Department of Transportation puts the cost of traffic congestion at $168 billion annually, and over $200 million a day is spent building and rebuilding roads. Cars use half the oil consumed in the US. And tragically, the lives of tens of thousands of Americans are taken each year in automobile accidents.

A central economic force

Still, unless the world's oil resources surprisingly dry up in a decade or two, the automobile will probably remain a central economic force in the world.

"Any analysis that has ever been done shows that the benefits of car use far exceed the total social costs of driving vehicles," says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of "Future Drive: Electric Vehicles and Sustainable Transportation" (Island Press, 1995).

"It is virtually impossible to imagine a future without some mode of private transportation similar to, or based upon, a car concept," he says. "So we have to focus on the fuels and the engine."

What the EPA, environmentalists, and many others are working toward is just that: a future where less noxious fuels are used in cars or the propulsion system is far less polluting. So far, California is leading the way.

Governmental pressure there forced automakers to design a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV). Despite improvements in gasoline quality, air pollution in car-clogged Los Angeles remains so severe that it does not meet air-quality standards more than a quarter of a century after they were established.

Originally, state regulators had set a quota mandating that automakers make at least 2 percent of their vehicles emission-free (battery-powered electrical vehicles) by 1998. Later the conditions were changed because of pressure from the oil and automobile industries, which have to spend millions in research.

Now car manufacturers need only begin to sell ZEV cars in California with a goal of 10 percent ZEVs by 2003.

Meanwhile, a host of other efforts are under way to transform or bypass cars as we know them.

"Electrical vehicles are not the be-all and end-all, but they are one of the pieces in the puzzle," says Kevin Conners, an organizer for the Gas Guzzler Campaign of the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"What we want to do is enhance community livability so that everything is not centered around the automobile," he says. "We are not antivehicle. We just want to give people choices."

These automotive choices, as far as fuel and engines go, are mostly in the formative stages. Alternative fuels include engines powered by methanol, ethanol, natural gas, or propane. The Ford Motor Company has tested cars in Switzerland that run on methane, which is made from decomposing organic waste. Other experiments include "hybrid" cars combining gasoline and alcohol, or gasoline and electricity.

Other research, to overcome the limited storage capacity of batteries for electric cars, includes ultracapacitors, which can store large amounts of electricity; flywheels, which store energy in a rotor spinning up to 100,000 revolutions per second; and fuel cells (power sources like those used in a spacecraft), which burn hydrogen to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide while they generate electricity.

Car-free alternatives

In Portland, Ore., the United Community Action Network works to end car use with a unique system of free "public" transportation. The Yellow Bike Project encourages citizens to use 500 yellow bicycles scattered over town. The bikes, rescued from the junk pile and restored, are popular.

"We need a lot more emphasis on nonmotorized vehicles like bicycles or small electric cars," Mr. Sperling says. "The problem with conventional public transit systems is that they don't fit our current travel and land-use patterns. So, we'll need more flexible routing and smaller vehicles."

But while it becomes smaller, cleaner, and more technologically advanced, the automobile will continue to be the transport of choice well into the future.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.