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The Automobile's Effects on American and World Society

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The Impact of the Automobile

The Impact of the Automobile

How the Automobile Impacted Society

The invention and mass production of the automobile had far-reaching impacts on daily life and the landscape. Cars have affected all aspects of society such as family life, the layout of cities, the economy, and the environment. It is hard to find a movie, book, or TV show that does not have some type of automobile in it.

How the Mass-Produced Automobile Changed American Life

When first invented, automobiles were considered a luxury, but once they were mass-produced and more people could afford them, they began causing profound changes. The first mass-produced automobile became publicly available in the 1920s. Changes in the manufacturing process lowered the cost to the point where the average American could own a vehicle.

Ford’s main goal with his assembly line was to make sure that production costs and thus the selling price would be low enough to make the Model T available to a majority of the public. As Kenneth Hess writes, “Between 1900 and 1920 Americans went from owning 8,000 cars to owning 8,000,000." This change was due largely due to lower production costs.

Cars Made Suburbia Possible

The more widely used automobiles became, the more they began to affect the daily lives of Americans. The automobile played a major role in the spreading out of the city population into suburbs; it made it possible to live further from the necessities of life. People in cars could reach a grocery store in minutes even if it was miles away.

Automobiles Promoted Gender Equality

Automobiles helped change the role of women in society. When people lived in cities, women didn't need to own cars because they lived within walking distance of everything that they needed. But in suburbs, women needed a comfortable and fast way of transportation. “The urban housewife of 1925 who could do well without a car was transformed into the suburban housewife of 1960 who required a car to do all her shopping or to pick up the kids after school” (Hess, p. 9).

Once women had cars, as a rule, they were no longer limited to the house or to domestic roles. They could escape their normal jobs at home, and go into the “cultural scene” (Hess). They obtained more gender equality by competing with men for the same types of jobs outside the home.

Autos Promoted New Kinds of Businesses

As people began to spend more time on the road than in their own homes, business-minded individuals were able to experiment with innovations like the drive-through restaurant. Ray Kroc took advantage of the situation by buying a six-restaurant chain named McDonald's, and opened up the first modern-day fast-food McDonald's in Des Plaines, Ilinois, in 1954. Today, McDonald's restaurants can be found all over the world.

Cars Gave Rise to a New Kind of Theater

The automobile also brought entertainment to a new level in the middle of the 20th century with the drive-in movie theater. People would park their cars in front of the huge screen, and watch the movie in comfort. Drive-in theaters became a hot spot for teenagers, who would take their dates to the movies. Families could pack into the car with their snacks, and watch movies late into the night. While being interviewed about societal changes brought on by cars in his generation, one speaker said, “Drive-through theaters were one of the greatest places to be on a Friday night. They used to put little sound boxes on each car so that everyone could hear the movie. What better form of entertainment could there be for teenagers with newly acquired licenses? These theaters just added to the fun of owning your own car.”

Starlite drive-in theater

Starlite drive-in theater

A Shift in Employment

Automobile manufacturing companies hiring workers to put together the cars created numerous jobs in the U.S. “Employment by firms engaged in motor vehicle and equipment manufacturing peaked in the late 1970s at approximately one million individuals—twice the employment of 1929” (Hess, p. 9). If cars did not exist, hundreds of thousands of Americans would be out of work.

The Amazing Interstate Highway System

America’s landscape was also affected by the automobile. Large trucks were starting to be used in the '60s for mass transit of goods. Highways and interstates were being paved to allow large numbers of truck and car drivers to arrive at their destinations faster. The Cold War was also a major factor in influencing President Eisenhower to pass the Interstate Highway System legislation in 1956. It was argued that such highways would be needed to transport troops around the country in wartime; the reason overpasses are 16 feet high is that this was the size needed at the time to allow military vehicles to pass through. However, this societal investment in road building was largely a response to the tremendous size and potential of the American car and truck fleet.

The Car Became a Rite of Passage

Automobiles became a symbol of personal growth and development, a big step toward adulthood. Teens look forward to receiving a driver's license at the age of sixteen because it is a rite of passage, an opportunity for more freedom. They can now go places and not have to worry about catching a ride with somebody. But, having a license also comes with great responsibilities such as driving safely and following the rules of the road, responsibilities that many sixteen-year-olds are not ready for. Many people are killed every year because of teenage drunk drivers.

In the Sixties, Cars Became a Focus of Creative Energy

The automobile’s first growth phase ended with one car per family, but the second growth phase ended with about one car per person. During the '60s there was a 25 million increase in car registrations (Hess, p. 10).

As automotive engineers had solved the problem of getting from point A to point B, they now focused on other things: prestige, beauty, fun, and safety. During the '60s, people began to take more pride in their vehicles than ever before. Some people wanted the fastest car and some wanted the prettiest, but all drivers had one thing in common: they used their cars for fun and not just as a tool of transportation (Hess, p. 9). People would pile into cars with all their friends and cruise for half of the night because gas was so cheap. Drivers took pride in the size of their engines, which could be tuned to have more power than a modern-day Ferrari.

Car innovators created options in cars that would make the passengers feel more comfortable. A major upgrade to the driving experience was air-conditioning. People could now spend hours in their cars on hot days and not have to worry about the heat. People enjoyed being able to control the temperature of their car with the touch of a button.

A New Focus on Safety

As car use became almost universal, there was a growing recognition that something needed to be done about the toll taken by accidents. Engineers and lawmakers began to focus more on the safety of cars.

Laws were passed requiring people to wear a seat belt. “Safety belts saved more than 12,000 American lives in 2001. Yet, during that same year, nearly two-thirds (60 percent) of passenger vehicle occupants killed in traffic crashes were unrestrained” (The Facts to Buckle up America).

New inventions such as the airbag and in-car sensors protect not only the passengers but whatever or whoever may be near the car on the outside. These inventions all came about because they were demanded by our current car-buying market. As the world becomes a more populated place, parents want safe vehicles to transport their children in.

The Negative Effects of the Transformation Caused by Cars

Early in the 20th century, cars were the cool new thing to have. However, there were negative effects brought on by the introduction of automobiles. Much was gained, obviously, but much was also lost when the mass-produced automobile took over the family, the economy, and the landscape.

Automobiles Weakened Family Ties

Old-fashioned beliefs in family unity were weakened. Anyone could escape from their current surroundings in an automobile and go off on personal endeavors. People in cars became more independent because “individual family members could act upon their own wishes, rather than the dictation of the family as a whole” (Elliot, p. 2).

Negative Effects on Older Modes of Transportation in the '20s

Other modes of transportation had to be pushed aside in order to make room for the more comfortable and convenient automobile. Bicycles, railroads, and horses were energy-efficient transportation modes greatly affected by the automobile’s sudden popularity in the 1920s.

Bicycles had been used since the 1890s as a more efficient means of transport than walking, but their use dropped significantly with the invention of the automobile.

The most widely used method of transportation before the onslaught of automobiles had been the horse and carriage. From 1915 to 1930, the average farm’s horse population decreased by a third (Young, p. 4). A benefit of getting rid of the horse and carriage system was that manure disappeared from the streets. People perceived that the automobile, despite its environmental impact, was making their cities cleaner.

Trains had been used in the 19th century to transport people and cargo long distances across the country. But as soon as automobiles became popular, trains saw a decline in passengers. Railroad companies started to shift their focus from passengers to cargo, where it remains today. Railroad passengers decreased by 40% from 1920 to 1929 (Hess, p. 4). When airplanes came into common use, the railroad passenger business became squeezed from both ends. People began to use planes for longer trips and cars for shorter trips.

Automobiles Became an Expensive Necessity

Currently, cars dominate the transportation of passengers. They have become essential to the functioning of people in everyday life. The average family has at least one car and spends more on transportation than on food (Young, p. 232). The automobile sector accounts for about 8% of the employment in the U.S. according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Sometimes the costs of traveling in one's own vehicle are too great for people that are struggling financially. Many people have to commute long distances to their job every morning, but don’t have enough money to pay for gas.

Society Faces the Environmental Damage Caused by Cars

The burning of fuels creates air pollution. One problem caused by pollution is the damage to human health from the by-products of burning gasoline and diesel; another is global warming, caused in large part by carbon dioxide from the burning of gasoline and diesel.

Being around car and truck exhaust is unhealthy. Many Americans do not experience the horrible health effects of pollution that other poorer countries face in urban environments. Congress passed laws including the Clean Air Act of 1970 that pushed down the legal limits for automobile pollution, but other countries do not have such strict laws. Indian professor R. K. Sinha says, "Studies made in Jaipur, India, indicate that there is a high rate of occurrence of respiratory, digestive, ocular and skin problems amongst the traffic policemen and a significant number of them become victims of lung disorders in the very first few months of their posting to a traffic department." This is because day after day these traffic workers are exposed to the toxic emissions from cars in urban areas.

Just as the shift to mass automobile use was a huge and complex global transformation, people are starting to realize that global warming, a phenomenon caused in large part by carbon dioxide emitted by cars, is an even greater upcoming global transformation to be dreaded.

And leaving it up to the individual what they drive and how much they drive leaves the individual great latitude to create pollution and affect the climate.

In the ’90s, the SUV, or Sport Utility Vehicle, became popular. SUVs allow for more people and belongings to be driven in the same vehicle comfortably. But convenience can come with negative consequences. Larger vehicles typically burn more gas because of their size. Therefore, SUVs create more pollution as well as cost more money to fill up than an ordinary car.

Today, many new types of eco-friendly vehicles are being invented to slow the process of global warming. These cars are able to run on something other than gasoline. Examples of new types of cars are electric, fuel cell, solar-powered, hybrids, and ethanol. More and more people are buying hybrids because they want to save money on gasoline. Hybrids save fuel by using both gasoline and electricity to run the car depending on which is more efficient.

People have realized that using alternative fuels will help to conserve our world’s natural resources and also limit the bad effects on the environment. This realization could help mitigate pollution and global warming. Also, with rising gas prices, even people who don’t care so much about the environment are starting to switch their cars to more efficient types in order to not have to fill up with gas so often.

Reversing the Cars-For-All Trend

In a recent interview, a person said, “I don’t know if I can live in a world with no cars." But increasingly, some people are trying to. With modern advances such as digital television and the internet, people are finding that they do need to leave their homes as often. What’s the point of going to Blockbuster if movies can be rented on demand on your own home television? Some people are able to do all of their shopping, banking, and working on their home computers, which eliminates the automobile from day-to-day usage. Nevertheless, automobiles are still widely used by most people and are very often a necessity.

The Automobile Thoroughly Transformed Society

The automobile affected this country more than any other invention of its time. The invention of the automobile led to other new inventions.

With the coming of each new year, cars are becoming quicker, more luxurious, and more environmentally safe. People can travel faster in automobiles and feel more comfortable at the same time. Anna Kruger predicts that there will be a billion cars on the road by 2025 (p. 252).

Automobiles will continue to be the main source of transportation not only for Americans but for everyone on earth. They will continue to influence every part of our economy. Without automobiles, every aspect of life as we know it would be different.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.