Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Automobile and Society: A Brief Historical Commentary

Farm life would never be the same after the Model T

The automobile ended the one-room schoolhouse in favor of centralized schools
The automobile and interstates has made the mega-church possible

Automobiles and Society

Introduction. No other technology shaped 20th century society as much as the automobile. On a personal level, the automobile transformed how people thought of themselves, basic values, and everyday life. Over the course of the twentieth century, the car increased our desire to buy new things, connecting those things to our status and personal attractiveness. On a social level, the car influenced, among other things, the kind of the communities we live in, and how we value personal relationships and family. And finally, on a cultural level, our music and films were greatly influenced by the automobile.

During the 20th century, the automobile gradually knitted urban and rural areas more tightly together. The automobile slowly became a part of rural America and with it came many improvements in the quality of life. In economic terms, the appearance of the automobile broadened the market of farm goods for farmers, and in general made life easier. By World War I, the automobile enabled physicians to make their rounds more efficiently and rural areas established hospitals to serve surrounding communities. And during 1920s, the one-room schoolhouse gradually gave way to centralized schools, and thus the automobile improved education. While some church leaders railed against the car because of Sunday drives that would decrease church attendance, in reality the auto enabled once-isolated members to attend worship services.

From top to bottom in American society, the automobile created wealth and jobs. People left farms to work in factories and live in cities. People on the margins of society, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, found work in these factories. Their toil led to a better quality of life for themselves and their children. The nature of work changed as repetitive assembly line tasks replaced more seasonal outdoor labor. The skilled work of artisans gave way to more unskilled labor. Gas stations, motels, repair shops, sprung up alongside a road system that did not exist before the 20th century and the coming of the automobile. A large number of new managers and engineers were needed to design and oversee car production and the overall business. Before the automobile took root in American society, the average American owned very few possessions and had very little money. Automobiles played a crucial role in transforming Americans from producers of a limited number of goods to mass production manufacturers and consumers living in a Machine Age. And to persuade potential buyers, advertising became more important. People became fascinated with action movies featuring cars and the automobile was closely related to rock-and-roll music, and high-fat fast food. Our loves, hopes, fears, ambitions, and disappointments were now all somehow tied to the automobile.

Automobile Infrastructure. Before the automobile, most roads in America and many in Europe were nothing more than dirt paths that were dusty in dry weather and rutted and muddy in winter. Beginning in the 1920s, government became heavily involved in building roads that connected major cities, the money coming from taxes on gasoline. For the most part, these were undivided highways that could be very dangerous at times, such as the so-called “Mother Road,” Route 66 that connected the Midwest to Southern California. After World War II, more and more efforts were put into constructing divided-lane, limited-access roads, including parkways and interstates in America, the Autostrade in Italy and the Autobahnen in Germany. These highways, while convenient for the general population, also serve as critical routes in terms of national defense and evacuation planning. Most modern nations are now crisscrossed with these highways, and currently India and China are building similarly designed roads to support their burgeoning numbers of automobile owners. At one time rivers and coastal waters were at the heart of the flow of people and goods, and now paved highways usually serve that purpose in most countries.

In the United States, interstate highways going through cities that were first built in the 1960s were and still are controversial. In Europe, most divided highways stop short of entering cities. But in the U.S., urban expressways have allowed many people to move to suburbia and far suburbs called exurbs, at the expense of the core of cities that are in decline. Urban expressways built for commuters also can disfigure the landscape, and have done so in numerous cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and Baltimore.

Alongside the highways, gas stations, truck stops, restaurants, repair shops, camps, and motels sprung up to service the growing number of drivers who took to the road. Petroleum, once used mainly as kerosene to light lamps, became a big, international business as inexpensive gasoline became critical to the future of automobile use. At first, gasoline was only available to car owners at general stores, but starting in 1906 the gas station became a roadside fixture. Gas station architecture evolved throughout the twentieth century, beginning with structures that looked like small homes and now featuring wide canopies, self service pumps, and convenience stores. As automobile touring became more popular and people began to take longer trips and visited national parks, camping alongside the road gave way to first tourist cabins, and then motels. “Greasy spoon” diners quickly popped up as highways were being built, but later chain restaurants like Howard Johnsons were popular 1950s, only to lose customers to fast food from McDonalds by the 1960s. Perhaps the best snapshot of life in any one place can be found alongside the road.

Economic Impact. The automobile is a complex system of related technologies and as such depends on many different industries for its various components. As such the automobile is linked to the petroleum, steel, plastics, glass, textile, rubber, electronics, and glass industries. If one adds employment associated with the selling and servicing cars, including repair shops, finance offices, advertising in newspapers, and on television and radio, one can understand why approximately one in seven jobs in America is tied to this single product. Many small companies that make parts for the cars that are assembled in the large factories employ hundreds of thousands of workers in their own right. And several of the largest companies in the world, including General Motors, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Nissan, Ford, Fiat, Daimler-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, and Renault are directly tied to this industry. Wages in the automobile industry tend to be considerably higher than hourly pay in service industries. Not surprisingly, when the automobile industry began to experience a severe downturn in 2008, unemployment rose markedly in industrialized nations, and a global recession occured.

Safety problems.

Fatal accidents occur almost daily in every area of the U.S., and typically the scene is swept up and sanitized within hours, with the only reminder of the incident being the occasional cross and flowers on the side of the road. World-wide, each year more than a million fatalities take place.

Despite this carnage, until the 1950s Americans, and particularly the car companies, paid little attention to the problem of automobile safety. The typical American automobile had dashboards with numerous hard knobs, no seatbelts, poor brakes and tires, non-collapsible steering columns, doors that opened on impact, soft seats and suspension systems, and windshield glass that shattered easily. These features were the consequence of manufacturer neglect, consumer preferences, the psychology of driving, and the failure of the government to further public interest in this matter.

Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, industry representatives maintained that drivers and their behavior, not automobile design features, caused accidents and injuries. Nevertheless, several forces for change converged during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Indeed, by the end of the 1960s, the previously-unassailable industry was brought to its knees by the rising tide of public opinion, regulatory legislation, and a newly-created federal bureaucracy.

One major reason for the new emphasis on auto safety was due to enhanced technical knowledge about the “second crash,” that is, the collision of the automobile’s passengers with the interior after the initial exterior impact. These insights led to the development of crumple zones in cars, which absorb the energy from a crash. Other safety features that were introduced beginning in the 1960s included seat belts, padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheel columns, ABS braking systems, and air bags.

Despite all of these improvements drinking and driving, reckless driving, and faulty design, such as the high center of gravity some Sport Utility Vehicles all contribute to still unacceptable fatality rates. A serious question remains, however. Why would society put up with a technology that takes so many lives?


  1. Nice pictures. The automobile industry is growing vastly. We really need to look at the charges on a car repair estimate. Now car repair estimates can be confusing.

  2. Boy do I ever know that! I have my 1971 Porsche 911T targa in the shop for a clutch repair. The problem is I supplied my own clutch, from Gripforce in CA -- they are supposed to be a leading supplier. The clutch plate somehow does not fit and thus the engine will have to come out for the third time. A trunion was broken trying to move this clutch. How much labor am I going to have to pay for this? It is gut wrenching!