Car Crash: A Look in the Rearview Mirror

Car Crash: A Look in the Rearview Mirror

Once it looked as if the automobile's dominance of transportation might be checked, but it's still king of the road.

In 1988, when I wrote about the future of automobiles in the premier issue of World Watch, there were no Hummers on the road and SUVs had not yet reached their prime. It would be another decade before Toyota unveiled its revolutionary Prius hybrid. The fact that both vie for consumers' pocketbooks today suggests that in the last 20 years we have come a long way and yet remain stuck in reverse at the same time. The Hummer, a knock-off of the heavy-duty U.S. military vehicle that was a centerpiece of "Desert Storm" in 1991, is not so much a car as a statement of defiance in the face of peak oil worries and growing environmental consciousness. As the anti-Hummer, the Prius promises drivers mobility without wrecking the planet. But it, too, is far more than a mere means of transportation: the Leonardo DiCaprios of the world have made the Prius de rigueur in certain circles.

The larger issue is not so much what divides Hummer partisans from Prius lovers as what unites them: the undiminished allure of motor vehicles of all stripes. The automobile-status symbol and technical fetish that it is-appears to be an unstoppable force despite its hugely destructive impact. And as much as the private car holds out the promise of personal freedom to those revving its engine, its ubiquity also signals a pervasive dearth of transportation alternatives.

For providing the automobile with the infrastructure it demands-everything from roads and highways, tunnels, bridges, and parking garages to gas stations and dealers' lots-means that there is less physical space and less money available for other means of transportation. And because the automobile ultimately creates distance more than it overcomes it, public transit, walking, and biking become less of an option. This is particularly true in the United States, where heavy reliance on automobiles is the result of a peculiar blend of preference and necessity.

In that inaugural issue of World Watch in January 1988, I pointed to factors that might cool humanity's passion for the automobile: the rollercoaster of oil prices in the 1970s and 1980s; market saturation in the strongholds of North America, Western Europe, and Japan; the debt crisis that brought Latin America's auto expansion to a near halt. In sharp contrast to three decades of inexorable growth following World War II, car production had by then entered a period of severe up- and downswings. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that the number of cars on the world's roads was unlikely to surpass 530 million by the turn of the century, a far cry from the 700 million or so that had been predicted earlier.

Back in 1988, I wrote that "auto production is not likely to rebound to the high levels once forecast. It could even decline." But such prognostications turned out to be premature. In fact, global output almost doubled from a temporary low of less than 27 million passenger cars in 1982 to about 49 million in 2006. What's more, the car industry developed a whole new class of passenger vehicle: sport utility vehicles, minivans, and other so-called "light trucks." It now manufactures more than 18 million of them every year, for a combined 67 million passenger vehicles. The number of passenger vehicles now on the world's roads is headed toward 650 million, and predictions are for many more to be added in coming years.

Among the most momentous changes of the last few years has been the emergence of China as an automobile power. From a half million cars in the late 1980s, the country's fleet grew to 9 million in 2005. Annual production has surged to almost 7 million vehicles, pushing China past Germany to become the world's third-largest producer. It's likely that this is merely the beginning of a massive expansion of both domestic and export production.

As my 1988 article suggests, it's tricky to predict future trends. Yet the day of reckoning can't forever be avoided. Cars increasingly clog cities and contribute to deadly air pollution. Sprawl is gobbling up precious land. The auto industry is a major consumer of resources. (In the United States, it accounts for 28 percent of total aluminum consumption, 25 percent of all iron, and 14 percent of steel.) Driving all the world's cars consumes roughly a quarter of global oil production. There's rising concern about "peak oil"-the point where the world reaches the maximum possible extraction rate, followed by a gradual decline. And the looming threat of climate change raises the stakes even further.

Efforts at corrective action so far have been relatively ineffectual. The oil crises of the 1970s helped bring about badly needed improvements in fuel economy, but (particularly in the United States) interest faded again by the mid-1980s when oil prices receded from previous highs. It wasn't long before Detroit and other car manufacturers began pushing larger, heavier, and more powerful models. The Hummer is merely the most extravagant exemplar of this trend. It's no surprise that average fleet fuel economy in the United States, which consumes some 44 percent of the world's gasoline, is at a 20-year low. And while Europeans might not choose the behemoths that Americans seem to desire, their habit of driving at extraordinarily high speeds-as on the German Autobahn, for instance-makes up for some of that. Although Europe, Japan, and China are pursuing improvements in fuel economy, they haven't exactly pushed the envelope.

In other ways, too, there's less than meets the eye to corrective actions taken.

Hybrid engines such as the one pioneered in the Prius are widely regarded as a savior, offering substantial fuel savings. Yet car manufacturers are increasingly introducing "muscle hybrids," using the technology to boost acceleration and horsepower instead of improving fuel economy.

Biofuels promise some environmental benefits over fossil fuels, but their pursuit may create a host of new problems. The current craze betrays a determination to prolong the automobile's reign rather than a willingness to rethink transportation in more basic ways.

Following industry failure to act voluntarily, the European Union adopted mandatory limits on how many grams of carbon a car may emit per kilometer traveled. But environmentalists charge that this falls far short of what's needed.

My article 20 years ago was titled "Car Crash." The industry managed to avoid a collision back then. Yet the massive expansion of automobile dependence since has magnified the challenge. Whether a crash down the road can be avoided-by reducing our automobile dependence and diversifying our transportation choices-will carry great significance for air quality and livability in the world's cities, for climate stability, and even for matters of war and peace, as automobile-dependent nations scramble to secure a share of tightening oil supplies.


Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at Worldwatch Institute.