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A series of improvements turned the steam-propelled carriages of the late eighteenth century, mere amusements for nobles, into the 600 million automobiles that crowd the roads of the world’s developed areas—and automobile and fuel technology innovation is likely to continue. The development of the mass produced personal vehicle has had a profound, though not entirely positive, effect on the Earth’s population.
The automobile has been one of the defining technologies of the last one hundred years. From its roots as a European technological curiosity to its reinvention as a mass consumer product to its current status as the product of the largest manufacturing activity on earth, the automobile has fundamentally changed the global economy and the lives of most people, even those who do not drive.
The earliest cars, a strange blend of the eccentric and the practical, were built long before people such as Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900), Henry Ford (1863–1947), Ransom Olds (1864–1950), Carl Benz (1844–1929), William Durant (1861–1947; founder of General Motors), James Packard (1863–1928), and Clement Studebaker (1831–1901) entered the scene. During the fifteenth century the Italian artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci thought about carriages that could move under their own power and left drawings showing rudimentary transmission and steering systems. In 1510 the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer sketched a complex and undoubtedly heavy royal carriage, propelled by muscle power through geared cranks.
The early history of the automobile gives little indication of the long-range impact of its technology. Beginning in Europe during the 1870s, research and invention led to development of the first gasoline-powered automobiles in the 1880s. The international character of automobile enthusiasts and inventors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is representative of the scientific and technological culture, where news traveled quickly between continents.
At the heart of any car is its engine, and the development of the internal combustion engine was pursued separately from and earlier than that of the automobile. Initial research into internal combustion engines was motivated by desires to improve on the efficiency and portability of the steam engine.
Full Steam Ahead
Until the first practical internal combustion engine was developed in 1860, constructing a workable steam car was the obsession of scientific geniuses and eccentrics, most of who received only scorn and ridicule for their trouble. Historians can only imagine the scene in Paris in 1769 when Nicholas Cugnot (1725–1824), a French military engineer serving Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, retired from active duty and began working, under royal commission, on his idea for a steam-powered military truck. The truck may have been capable of only 11 kilometers per hour, but it did move. This, the world’s first automotive test drive, sufficiently shook loose royal purse strings to fund a second and larger model. Cugnot’s second truck had front-wheel drive, with the boiler hanging off the nose, a design that resulted in such an unbalanced weight distribution that a driver could barely steer the vehicle.
Following in Cugnot’s Tracks
After Cugnot, developments shifted to England, where the significance of the technical breakthroughs was met by public apathy. After all, who could imagine that these outlandish contraptions, easily outrun by even the slowest horse, could be practical?
James Watt (1736–1819), the Scottish inventor whose technical innovations made the Age of Steam possible, was granted a patent for a steam carriage in 1786 but did not actually build it. Watt was so afraid of explosions from high-pressure boilers that he had a covenant written into the lease for any potential tenants of his home, Heathfield Hall, stipulating that no steam carriage could approach the house.
In the United States steam pioneers faced ridicule and censure too. Oliver Evans (1755–1819) is not well remembered today, but he built the first self-propelled vehicle in the United States—and it also swam. Evans also built the first high-pressure boiler in the United States and created an automation system for a grain mill that prefigured Henry Ford’s assembly-line system by 150 years.
Obstacles to the Dream of Steam
Inventors struggled to make their fire-belching vehicles practical. Nevertheless, English entrepreneur Walter Hancock was the first to offer regular passenger routes of the type that Evans imagined. For five months at some time during the period 1824–1836 Hancock had nine steam coaches taking on paying customers. However, Hancock’s revolutionary coach service didn’t attract enough passengers, and ultimately failed. It’s probably going too far to say a conspiracy killed the steam coaches, but certainly the powerful railroad interests threw some spikes onto the road. As automotive writer Ken Purdy reports in his classic book Kings of the Road: “The railroads of the day took a very dim view indeed of the kind of competition steam coaches obviously could offer, and arrangements to make things difficult for the upstarts were not hard to contrive. A four-shilling toll-gate charge for horse-drawn coaches, for example, could easily be raised to two pounds and eight shillings for a steam coach” (Purdy 1949, 196).
Steam carriages during the next half-century would make their mark, particularly in the United States. Government Indian agent Joseph Renshaw Brown commissioned one particularly innovative model, shaped like a railroad locomotive, to carry supplies and food to isolated bands of Sioux before the Civil War, although the bad roads in the hinterlands of Minnesota made the carriage impractical. Brightly painted steam fire engines were more successful in several cities after the war. Steam cars survived the onslaught of internal combustion during the first decade of the twentieth century, and brands such as “Stanley,” “Locomobile,” and “White” had many admirers who loved the cars’ range, silent operation, and absence of a crank handle (a necessity for an internal combustion engine in the days before electric starting). This latter advantage was a prime consideration in an era when misapplied cranking could break one’s arm.
However, Whites and Stanleys could require half an hour to work up a head of steam, frightened people who read accounts of boiler explosions, and consumed great amounts of wood fuel and water. When rapid technological advancements improved the gasoline engine after 1905, the market for steam cars evaporated.
Electric cars developed out of early experiments with electric trains and trolleys and became possible only with the invention of the practical storage battery in 1859. A three-wheeled carriage made by Magnus Volk of Brighton, England, in 1888, may have been the first true electric car.
In the United States electric cars first made a discernible impact through their use as taxis, particularly in New York City. By 1898 the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company had a fleet of twelve electric cabs— with well-appointed interiors able to accommodate gentlemen in top hats—plying the city streets. Drivers, as in contemporary horse carriages, sat outside on a raised platform.
The electric car gradually won acceptance through such small-scale, successful businesses. By 1900 U.S. drivers could choose their form of locomotion, and at the first National Automobile Show, held that November in New York City, patrons overwhelmingly chose electric as their first choice. Steam was a close second. Gasoline ran a distant third, receiving only 5 percent of the vote. That year 1,681 steam, 1,575 electric, and only 936 gasoline cars were manufactured.
The self-starter for internal combustion cars—the device that largely killed the electric car as a viable product— was, like the electric car itself, first marketed to women. A 1911 ad from the Star Starter Company (“Any Woman Can Start Your Car”) featured a bonneted woman sitting at the wheel of a crankless gas buggy. By “cranking from the seat, and not from the street,” she was neutralizing one of the last major advantages that early electric cars had.
Electric cars have made sporadic reappearances, mostly in response to fuel crises such as the oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973. However, most electric cars have been underdeveloped conversions, such as the utility-endorsed Henney Kilowatt of 1959 to 1961, which started life as a French Renault Dauphine gasoline-powered car. About 120 Henneys were built, which is a good run for a postwar electrical vehicle (EV).
The Gas-Powered Automobile
In 1860 the Belgian inventor J. J. E. Lenoir invented a gas engine that was similar to James Watt’s double-acting steam engine, except that when the piston rose it drew a mixture of coal gas and air into the cylinder. The mixture was ignited by an electric spark. Lenoir’s engine, although plagued by overheating, was a commercial success. The market for gas engines opened, and similar inventions followed, the most important of which was the gas engine of the German inventor Nicolas Otto, who patented his engine in 1866 and exhibited it at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, where it won a gold medal. Otto’s engine, unlike Lenoir’s, compressed the gas before igniting it, with the small detonation pushing the piston up and forming a near vacuum under it. Otto’s engine weighed nearly a ton and produced all of two horsepower. However, the piston was vertical and occupied a small space, making it practical in workshops that were too small for a steam engine. Otto’s engine was an immediate success, and his company was soon overwhelmed by six thousand orders during the next five years. By 1869 Otto was licensing the invention for production in the United States, Britain, France, and elsewhere. However, his engines required gas mains to carry the gas to the engines; therefore, they were not portable in the sense that a liquid-fuel engine would be.
The internal combustion engines of the 1870s required gas to be compressed and ignited—properties not possible with liquid fuel. The invention that made liquid fuel usable was the carburetor, a device that vaporizes gasoline and makes it possible to be compressed and then ignited. The carburetor was the first product of the company formed by Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler of Germany. By 1885 the two men had attached their gasoline engine to a bicycle to produce the world’s first motorcycle. In 1886 they attached their engine to a carriage to produce an automobile. In 1890 they formed the Daimler Motor Company to manufacture automobiles. They also sold their engines to the Peugeot carriage company in France.
In 1892 the German engineer Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent on a more powerful double-acting, liquid-fuel engine. His engine compressed air to heat it to the fuel’s ignition point, then introduced the fuel, which instantly ignited, producing power without further heating of the air. Diesel’s principle led to a more efficient, more powerful engine that ran on a less refined product of petroleum oil than gasoline—a fuel now called “diesel.” Diesel wanted to challenge the steam engines used in ships and locomotives—a goal he reached by the turn of the century.
Automobiles were a common sight in European and U.S. cities by the twentieth century. But to become a worldwide phenomenon, automobiles needed to be less expensive and more useful. Although several inventors focused on making the automobile accessible to the masses, Henry Ford is associated with the milestone of making the world’s first motor car for the multitude. Although the Model T was not his first automobile design, Ford began designing it in 1907 with the goal of making a utilitarian car affordable for the U.S. middle class—and in the process redefining that middle class through car ownership. The Model T rolled out in 1908 at a price of $850, advertised as the car “even you can afford.” But the 1908 Model T was neither the world’s least expensive car, nor the one produced in the largest numbers. For the Model T to capture a mass market, Ford had to revolutionize how it was produced. This he accomplished with what Ford called “mass production.” In 1913 Ford opened a plant in the Highland Park area of Detroit, where he installed his first assembly line. Assembly lines and production by machines required fewer skilled laborers. Ford’s new production methods changed the character of industrial labor and attracted foreign-born workers, particularly from eastern and southern Europe and the Middle East. In order to retain his employees in this machine-based, repetitive work, Ford doubled their daily wage to five dollars and reduced their working day to eight hours. Ford’s mass production techniques led to cheaper (as low as $360 in the 1920s) and more numerous Model Ts.
Ford was producing more than 1 million Model Ts by 1920. The amount of materials required to produce that many automobiles had a ripple effect across the world’s economy and environment. The demand for commodities such as rubber and oil increased rapidly—creating new socioeconomic dynamics in areas such as Brazil and the Dutch East Indies, where rubber plantations proliferated. In addition, the role of the automobile in warfare, as proven during World War I, had brought a new emphasis in securing these commodities through imperial systems in the Middle East, Africa, and southern Asia. Demands for enough rubber, oil, and steel to produce and operate millions of automobiles also changed the world’s environment: steel mills belched smoke into the air from Pennsylvania to the Ruhr Valley in Germany to India, and millions of acres of tropical forests were cleared to plant rubber trees. Oil derricks sprouted from the California coast to the Middle East.
Given the immense number of Model Ts, they and other inexpensive autos inevitably began to appear in places where people had never seen cars before. By 1904 Ford had set up a small subsidiary to sell cars in Canada. By 1910 Fords were being sold around the world, including in Mauritius, Kuala Lumpur, and Turkey. A Ford assembly plant opened in Manchester, England, in 1911 to serve the growing British and European markets. In addition, nearly five thousand U.S. cars, mostly Fords, were being exported every year. This amount only increased with the coming of war to Europe in 1914 and throughout the 1920s.
After World War I the Model T began to lose its overwhelming market advantages as competition from other manufacturers began to increase. Creation of the General Motors conglomerate led to a proliferation of competing car models, many of which had features that Fords lacked. In addition, during the 1930s Nazi Germany introduced the Volkswagen as a car for the masses. However, the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s slowed automobile market growth. Rapid growth, especially in Asia, would reemerge after World War II.
The Postwar Picture
Numerous shifts in the international automobile market have taken place since World War II. After the war the United States was clearly the world’s dominant supplier, but by the 1960s the global automobile industry was shifting toward Asia. Korea and Japan have developed the most globally significant automobile industries. In Japan companies such as Mitsubishi have been producing vehicles since the 1920s. Japanese automobile factories suffered relatively light damage during the war and, as a result, the automobile industry was one of the first that the U.S. occupation allowed to resume production.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 provided Japan with an export market for vehicles, and by 1952 the Japanese Ministry for International Trade and Industry (MITI) was creating conditions favorable for exporting Japanese autos. Japanese manufacturers also teamed with European companies to produce Hillmans, Austins, and Renaults. In 1955 MITI again directed the industry with a new strategy for small, inexpensive automobiles. Japanese companies began to excel in the production of these cars, creating an international niche where Japanese cars could undercut European and U.S. cars. By the 1960s the U.S. counterculture had found a surprisingly consumerist way to avoid supporting the U.S. automobile industry and its ties to the defense industry—it bought Japanese cars.
The oil crisis of 1973 increased international interest in small, fuel-efficient Japanese cars. The explosion of the international market for Japanese cars was marked by the changing output of the Japanese industry—from less than a half million cars in 1960 to 7 million in 1973. Japan had become the world’s second-largest automobile producer, and its automobile industry, along with its consumer electronics industry, was the driving engine of Japan’s postwar “economic miracle.” Korea followed the Japanese model during the 1970s and by the late 1980s became the first new major exporter to the industrialized nations since Japan’s emergence during the 1960s.
The Modern Era: Power and Pollution
The U.S. vehicle population since 1969 has grown six times faster than the human population and two times faster than the rate of new drivers. Despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population, U.S. drivers own 34 percent of the world’s cars. Registrations of new cars in the United States increase by 2 percent each year. By the year 2100 the current 600 million cars registered worldwide (one-third of them in the United States) could reach 4.5 billion. China, the world’s most populous and rapidly industrializing country, is leading the Third World rush to “modernize” through the use of private cars. Although almost 80 percent of its travel is now either by foot or bicycle, China could have 100 million cars by 2015. Tata Motors of India, the world’s second most populous nation with around a billion people, is helping to make the dream of car ownership a more accessible reality through the manufacture of the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car at around $2,300.
Because of this global mania for private automobiles, together with the means to acquire them, experts project a huge increase in the world car population during the next one hundred years. Because cars account for one-third of smog-related emissions and one-quarter of global warming, such an increase would obviously have disastrous consequences for global health. In half the world’s cities the greatest source of air pollution is exhaust emissions; the World Bank estimates that in Asia thousands of people die prematurely every year from filthy air. The problem is worst in China, which relies heavily on coal, but the problem is bad elsewhere. In Athens, Greece, the death rate increases 500 percent on bad air days. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, clogged streets and dirty air have forced officials to set up a rotation system for drivers to keep one-fifth of the city’s cars off the streets at any given time. In Tel Aviv, Israel, cars are a huge problem: by 2010 smog is predicted to reach the levels of Mexico City (the worst in the world, with ozone levels three times safe limits); already smog has caused outbreaks of asthma and bronchitis in Tel Aviv and in nearby Jerusalem. In Prague, Czech Republic, smog forces police to set up roadblocks to keep all but essential traffic out of the city center. Drivers in Singapore pay a premium for licenses that allow them unlimited access to highways.
But even as we realize what our continuing reliance on the private automobile is costing us, we add 50 million of them to the global burden every year. Whether they are in China or the United States, cars are pollution factories on wheels. The average gasoline- powered car in one year produces 4.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming.
Sport Utility Vehicles
Despite Japanese-led efforts to produce lower emissions cars, the rapid growth of the gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle (SUV) has obliterated advances in clean engine technology, especially in the United States. In 1985 SUVs accounted for only 2 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States; in 2003 they were the most popular form of vehicle, accounting for more than 25 percent of sales, and in 2004 SUVs accounted for 24.6 percent of sales. No other country has taken to SUVs so enthusiastically, but they are an increasingly familiar sight on roads around the world.
In the United States SUVs are considered to be light trucks and thus are allowed to pollute more than cars. According to Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, a Volkswagen New Beetle (a small car) will emit close to 49 metric tons of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, whereas a Lincoln Navigator (an SUV) will emit 90 metric tons. The National Academy of Sciences reports that light trucks (including SUVs, pickups, and minivans) could reach a fuel efficiency of 13 kilometers per liter (30 miles per gallon) with an expenditure of $1,200 to $1,300 per vehicle, but they are required to meet only the federal light-truck standard of approximately 9 kilometers per liter (20.7 miles per gallon). In 2000 General Motors and Ford announced efforts to improve fuel economy for SUVs, but the vehicles still lag behind. The EPA estimates that a 1.2 kilometer-per-liter (3 mile-per-gallon) increase in average fuel economy would eliminate 140 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and save $25 billion a year in fuel costs annually.
Other Environmental Problems
Beyond the tailpipe, one-third of the average U.S. city’s land is devoted to serving the car, including roads, parking lots, and service stations. Jan Lundberg, an anti-car activist and founder of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, says asphalt covers 96,000 square kilometers of the United States, obliterating 16 million hectares of farmland. Ten percent of the arable (fit for growing crops) land and 2 percent of the nation’s surface area are covered, he says.
Daily commutes are also increasing as cities sprawl farther into suburbs. In the United States an hour a day in the car has become the norm. The average U.S. family takes ten car trips a day, mostly to shop, recreate, or socialize. For every 16 kilometers a person travels, approximately 14 kilometers are traveled in a car. The U.S. interstate highway system is completed, but $200 million is spent every day improving, repairing, and building roads in the United States. Parking enforcement and traffic management on those roads cost $48 billion annually, and another $20 billion goes to routine maintenance. However, the National Transportation Board predicts that delays caused by congestion will increase by 5.6 billion hours between 1995 and 2015, wasting 28 billion liters of fuel. The federal General Accounting Office estimates the loss of national productivity resulting from traffic congestion at $100 billion a year. Seventy percent of all daily peak-hour travel on interstates now occurs in stop-and-go conditions.
Reinventing the Wheel
Fortunately for the human race, alternative fuel technology has continued to develop, and replacements for the internal combustion engine may at last be practical. Fuel cell technology, which was first demonstrated in principle in 1839, can be compared to car battery technology: both fuel cells and traditional car batteries produce electricity. The difference is that batteries store both their fuel and their oxidizer internally, which means that periodically batteries must be recharged, whereas fuel cells, like a car engine, can run continuously because their fuel and oxidizer are not sealed up inside them.
Although several kinds of fuel cells exist, developers are considering only one type, the proton-exchange membrane (PEM) cell, for cars. The modern work on fuel cells is all fairly recent, but the technical problems of the cells themselves have been mostly worked out, and the main obstacles concern building a worldwide infrastructure for hydrogen production and distribution. Fuel-cell buses preceded passenger cars onto the road, appearing in the late 1990s. Fuel-cell cars keep appearing in very small numbers (not really prototypes, but certainly not production scale vehicles, either). Most automobile developers are putting some varying level of R&D into fuel-cell development. In addition, government labs in most industrialized nations are also researching the problems of manufacturing and distributing hydrogen production technologies. However, even with the presence of fuel cars on our roads, analysts don’t expect hydrogen vehicles to have a serious impact on internal combustion cars until 2015 or 2020. When hydrogen vehicles arrive, they promise a new era of sustainable, zero-emission cars and trucks.
Auto manufacturers have been forced to recognize that the future of motoring must change. The global financial and economic crises of that began in 2007 saw a lot of major car companies in serious financial trouble and requiring government bailouts. Combined with growing environmental concerns, car manufacturers have been forced to restructure and abandon some of their longstanding yet inefficient “gas guzzler” models. There is a general push for more compact, fuel efficient, and low emissions cars, including under the leadership of Japanese manufacturers, Toyota (Prius model) and Honda, a surge in “hybrid” petrol-electric engines. More fuel-efficient and low-emitting turbo diesel engines popular with European manufacturers are also increasing in popularity in other markets.
The Road Ahead
Although people think of the automobile as a symbol of the developed world, its impact in environmental, economic, and social terms has not been limited to wealthy nations. During the twenty-first century virtually every nation produces automobiles and automobile parts, and commodities peripheral to automobiles, from rubber to oil, play major roles in the global political economy. The automobile industry has become global in that automobile manufacturers view the world as a single market instead of as a series of nationally defined, discrete markets. Manufacturers also view production as borderless, with both automobiles and their components moving seamlessly between Europe, the United States, Asia, and Latin America. However, automobiles also present an environmental challenge that is borderless.
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