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

Article excerpt

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. …