Cadillac pic

Cars: A Historical, Social and Environmental Glimpse At The Automobile

Though it seems impossible to most of us, especially Americans, the car is not only a new phenomenon, also one that has endeared itself to the human shockingly fast. The change happened so fast and has made the car a necessity to almost all Americans, both practically and ideologically. The personal vehicle has gone from an incredible luxury, to somewhat of an extension of one¿s physical being, as well as an impediment to our social, economic and physical health. For something that we ascribe so much to, the car has come to be a pariah to our existence. One that we feel we cannot live without.

The purpose of this project is to examine the possibility for changing our relationships with cars through technology, community planning and education.

History of the Automobile in the United States

Electric cars Image.jpg

The evolution of the automobile containing an engine and wheels for the purpose of transporting passengers was a worldwide effort, with contributions from many inventors and can be dated back to Leonardo da Vinci and Issac Newton.

The first steam engine was created by Nicolas Joseph Cugnot (1725 - 1804), to transport heavy artillery for the French army. In 1770 Cugnot used this engine model to build a tricycle that was able to transport 4 passengers. The design of gasoline engines later followed in 1875, with the first practical model designed by Nicolaus Otto. Mechanical engineer Karl Benz applied the idea of an internal combustion engine and patented the first practical gas-powered car in 1885. external link:

The first electric car was designed by a Holland Professor of chemistry and technology Sibrandus Stratingh. The design was later constructed by his assistant Christopher Becker in 1935. The American inventors Thomas Davenport and Scotsmen Robert Davidson constructed the most effective electric car model in 1842. Both of these cars used a non rechargeable electric cell to power the vehicles. By 1890-1900s, interests in the electric car use in the United States grew tremendously. A fleet of electric cars was used in New York City as taxis (figure 1), which were mass produced for commercial use by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia. During this time America was experiencing economic growth, and consumers had the option to purchase all three types of automobiles (electric, steam, and gasoline).

The electric car compared to gasoline cars was the easier to drive, created minimal amounts of vibration, did not need manual start ups (hand crank), and contributed the least amount of noise and smoke pollution. When compared to steam cars, the electric car was favored because there were no long manual start-ups, it did not require maintenance after short periods of driving (water input), and they were not affected by cold weather (up to 45 minutes during the winter). The electric car was so easy to drive that it was soon labeled the ¿woman¿s car¿. The early 19th century car market in the United States was very competitive, with a market share of approximately 40% steam, 38% electric, and 22% gasoline.

However, the electric and steam cars soon disappeared from the American automobile market for a number of reasons:

*The electric car was only effective for local transportation and not long distances.

*The roads system was improved in the 1920¿s to contact cities; therefore vechicle capabilities long distances were needed.

*The oil reserve discoveries in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, cause a drastic reduction in price in gasoline making it affordable too many.

*Henry Ford started the bulk production of vehicles with internal combustion engines, reducing the price of gasoline cars.

The 2nd Death of the electric car

external link: Who Killed The Electric Car

Gasoline cars dominated the market for more than half a century, until the 1970¿s and 80¿s when the hydrocarbon market fluctuations and pollution effects lead to renewed interest in the electric car. The California Air Resource Board who issued a mandate for fuel-efficient cars with the intention of one day having zero-emission vehicles initiated one of the most predominant events during this time. The mandate was constructed to alleviate and prevent the intense smog that loomed over the state to pollution by car exhaust. Automobile makers (Chrysler, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Ford) responded by producing electric models. This product was not even marketed, but consumer demand quickly grew and oil companies got worried that the demand for petroleum demand would decrease if these electric cars were kept on the market.

Automakers seemed to be in support of oil companies and instead of selling the electric cars to consumers they allowed customers to only sign close-ended leases. They also proceeded to sue the California Air Resource Board stating that their mandate for zero emission technology was too stringent, and there was no demand for the product. The latter part of their statement was proven to be untrue, because even though these automobile companies did not market this product like they do for all other car types, a wait list developed for GM¿s electric model EV1, through word of mouth and the visibility of the few cars that were already on the roads.

The mandate was soon dismantled electric car production stopped and most leased electric cars were retrieved and destroyed. Shortly after this event the the Federal Government proposed a 1.2 billion dollars in research funding for clean hydrogen power vechicles, basically support the car and oil industries. It must be stated that we have had the capability to create, build and use clean technology for more than 100 years, however we have not been using them. The California Air Resource Board and the people of California State made a request and an effort to use an environmentally sound product that would have not only benefited their well beings but also promote a sustainable environment, however, their effort failed and was silenced. This has created the new questions from our history car history:

  • Why haven¿t we been using the clean car technology that will be better for our environment?
  • Who really holds the power for its creation and supply to consumers?

Cars damage our environment by the emissions released from the combustion system of an automobile.


*Cars release 30% of CO2 in the earth¿s air. every time an automobile burn a gallon of gasoline it releases 22 pounds of CO2. These released CO2 does harm to our respiratory system.

*Cars account for 76% of CO in the earth¿s air which is also dangerous to our health.

*Cars also contribute 30% of NO2 in earth¿s atmosphere, adding to an already existing problem of acid rain.

*The U.S. Government does regulate acceptable emissions standards for passenger vehicles, but has different standards for cars and light trucks. Unfortunately the trends on type of vehicles purchased has changed to show an increase in the percentage of light trucks to 50%, thus allowing for an increase in GHG emissions allowed by passenger vehicles overall.

external link: Pollution from passenger vehicles

Dependence on Foreign Oil

Fuel used for transp.jpg

The United States consumes almost 20 million barrels of petroleum per day, or 7.2 billion barrels annually. It is mostly used for the production of gasoline for motor vehicles, which accounts for 69% of petroleum products.

The United States currently imports 11.6 million barrels of petroleum per day. This makes the US, world¿s largest oil consumer accounting for 25.4% of world¿s consumption. There are a number of ways that an oil-price increase could lead to a reduction in aggregate economic activity. On the supply side higher input price could raise the cost to firms of producing output which then induce them to cut back the level of production. On the demand side, the transfer of purchasing power from the domestic consumers to overseas suppliers reduces aggregate domestic demand for goods and services. The greater the gap between domestic consumption and domestic supply, the greater the transfer of purchasing power from US consumers to foreign firms, following a US induced increase in world price.

A statistical analysis of vehicle use trends in the U.S.: 1960-2000

Where are we going?.jpg

Changing Family Patterns and Workforce Structure Have Increased Dependence on Personal Vehicles.

Since 1960 the U.S. Government has been collecting data on vehicle use in the United States through the Census Bureau, external link: The Department of Transportation, external link: The Federal Highway Administration and external link: The Department of Energy The culmination of their efforts is extensive documentation of individual and family vehicle use over the last fifty years. The reports attribute many of the changes in vehicle use to the increases in population as well as the increases in the workforce. However much analysis shows that lengths in commute times are increasing as a result of our changing family patterns and workforce structure as well as residence proximity to the workplace. Vehicle ownership per capita has increased significantly over this period as has the amount of time we spend in our vehicles. These trends have resulted in a phenomenal increase in greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil. In order to mitigate the effects of vehicle use on our health and environment it is important to identify the patterns of use that contribute to the problem.

vehicle per household.jpg

In 1960, 52% of family households consisted of married couple with children, contrasted with just 35% now, eclipsed for the first time in history by single-person households. Because our communities are no longer laid out with concern for pedestrian traffic each household needs a vehicle; more households equals more vehicles. We can see from the `Journey-to-Work¿ study that Average household size went from 3.3 in 1960 to 2.6 in 2000, a decline of over one-fifth. At the same time, vehicles per household rose from just over 1.0 to about 1.7, an increase of almost two-thirds.

external link: Census Bureau; Household Vehicle Ownership

travel to work.jpg

In 1960, 41 million commuters were in private vehicles; by 2000, 113 million workers commuted by private vehicle, nearly three times as many (See Exhibit E) . Between 1990 and 2000, drove alone continued to increase, as carpools continued to drop. By 2000, the average vehicle occupancy for the commute trip was 1.08.

Added number of vehicles per decade. Number of workers commuting by private vehicle,1960-2000

From the 1960s to 2000, according to the external link: United States Census Bureau; Population and Vehicle Profile, vehicle ownership has increased dramatically. In 1960 79% of U.S. households owned fewer than two vehicles. In 2000 that same statistic is 42%. In the 40-year period between 1960 and 2000, 123.6 million vehicles were added, almost two vehicles added for every added worker, showing that increased incomes has allowed for us to own cars for purposes other than our daily commute to work. The number of vehicles has increased across the country about 15 percent since 1990; compared to 13 percent increase in population and 11 percent increase in workers. The most dramatic change has been the astounding increase in households with two or more vehicles. In 1960, 11.4 million households had 2 or more vehicles; in 2000, 58.5 million households have 2 or more vehicles. . In 1960, very, very few households (only 1.3 percent) had three or more cars. In 2000, 17 percent have 3 or more vehicles.

how we value our cars.jpg

Perhaps the most shocking statistic uncovered by this portion of the research is how we value our vehicles monetarily. The average American spends an exorbitant portion of its annual income on their vehicles. In fact, by spending, on average, seventeen percent of our income on our cars, we value them more than food and healthcare. We spend one third more on cars and three times that of which we do on healthcare. According to this study, ¿Transportation is second only to housing (34%) as the largest expenditure for the average household¿

external link: Census Bureau; Average Annual Expenditures of Households

Solutions to the Dilemmas We Face As a Result of the Automobile

trolley.jpgh3 Public transportation and urban planning

Many cities are starting to invest in their futures by creating trolley systems that meet the local transportation needs of their citizens and tourists alike.

One solution to the problem of personal vehicle overuse is the expansion and modernization of the public transportation system, external link: Public transportation helps protect our environment. ¿Total national fuel savings from (increased access to) public transportation would double to 2.8 billion gallons per year.¿ This could save each household an average of $6,251 every year, compared to an equivalent household with two cars and no access to public transportation service. (The average U.S. household spent $5,781 on food in 2004.) The external link: American Public Transportation Association has researched the positive changes we could realize from augmentation of our public transportation systems.

obesity.jpgAmericans must commit to using their bodies for transport more than their personal vehicles; local and federal governments must support this with appropriate funding of pedestrian friendly urban renewal.

While our population grows and reshapes itself constantly, we must consider the effects of community planning on our environment, health and economy. Facilitating pedestrian use and public transportation are essential to this.

Biofuels and Technology

In the past, car designers never accounted for the environmental impacts of goods they produced. Most automobile designs took at least 4 to 5 years for completion, with an additional 7 to 8 years of production. After the car is placed on the market and sold to consumers the environmental effects would occur a quarter century later after the cars life span had been depleted. The growth in the automobile industry has used drastic amounts of our natural resources and negatively affected the environment in the creation too retirement. Approximately, 80% of the materials used to build cars come from the mining raw materials (steels), the creation of plastics and textiles, and the use of other resources in production (water and energy). Each of these processes in production produces hazardous waste in both solid and liquid forms. Today our climate crisis and other environmental concerns have motivated some automobile producers to focus their creativity to ¿clean technology.¿ Their aim is to plan for every sector of a car¿s total life cycle. The government and international standards have also regulated these goals:

o Reduce emission

o Energy efficiency

o Evading the use of non-renewable materials

o Product sturdiness

o Limited use of hazardous substances

o The reducing pollution and the use of natural resource during production

We might think that biofuels are a recent idea, however it has be around since the days of Henry Ford since his first model actually ran on ethanol, while earlier engines actually used peanut oil. The main difference between biofuels and fossil fuels is that biofuels are created from plants that grow today while fossil fuel are from decomposed plants in the past. Much the gasoline sold at gas station today contains a percentage of the biofuel- ethanol, which is created from corn.

Biofuels pros and cons:

Pros- ¿ It is renewable

¿ Growing more plants means a reduction in CO2

Cons- ¿ Increased use of pesticides and fertilizers

¿ Processing plants consumes large amounts of energy, which is derived from coal and natural gas.

New technology: Where are we?

Researcher is trying to replicate photosynthesis to create clean energy from water and sunlight. They have created genetically modified viruses into wire-like structures that are able to use the energy of the sun to split water molecules into their constitute parts of oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as a source of chemical energy.

For more information:

external link: Department Of Energy: Transportation Energy Data Book

external link:

Sources and Research Tools:

1Planning for an environment-friendly car Udo Mildenberger, Anshuman Khare *Universita¨t Mainz FB03, Lehrstuhl fu¨r ABWL und Produktionswirtschaft, Jakob-Welder-Weg 9, 55099 Mainz, Germany.Received 18 December 1998; received in revised form 9 June 1999; accepted 19 June 1999

2external link:

3external link:

4external link: