views updated May 18 2018



NAICS: 33-6111 Automobile Manufacturing, 33-6112 Light Truck and Utility Vehicle Manufacturing

SIC: 3711 Motor Vehicles and Passenger Cars Bodies

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 33-6111 through 33-61110100 and 33-6112 through 33-61120100


The automobile, which first appeared commercially in the nineteenth century and went on to revolutionize personal transportation during the twentieth century, is evolving through a series of fundamental changes early in the twenty-first century in order to achieve two somewhat incompatible goals. On the one hand, there is a growing mandate among many governments to minimize the automobile's impact on the environment and non-renewable natural resources. On the other hand, it must maintain its utility and affordability if it is to remain attainable by the general public.

Its evolution includes structural changes in two critical areas: (1) the continued blurring of the line between cars and other light-duty vehicles such as pick-up trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles, and (2) a serious effort to eventually replace the internal combustion engine with an alternative powertrain and energy source, possibly the space age version of the fuel cell, in order to minimize or eliminate undesirable exhaust emissions. There has also been an ongoing emphasis on increasing the safety of all light vehicles, triggered in 1965 by Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe At Any Speed.

The blurring of the roles of cars and light trucks is a reminder that the basic definition of an automobile needs to be either broadened or discarded. Typical modes of personal transportation are no longer limited to a "four-wheeled automotive vehicle designed for passenger transportation and commonly propelled by an internal-combustion engine, using a volatile fuel" per Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.

In today's world, personal transportation includes pickup trucks, some capable of carrying up to five passengers, as well as sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and vans, both mini and full sized. Pickups and SUVs also come in compact and full-sized models. Since the story of both cars and light trucks is so interwoven and complex, for the purposes of this essay we will explore the automobile in the broader context of being any light vehicle used for passenger transportation.

As the name implies, a pickup is a small truck with an open cargo-carrying bed. Traditional SUVs function like station wagons with passenger and cargo-carrying capabilities but are built on pickup truck platforms. A new breed of downsized compact SUVs appeared early in the twenty-first century based on car rather truck platforms. These more car-like SUVs are an example of the blurring of lines between cars and trucks and will be covered later in this essay. Full-sized vans include commercial-style passenger vans and van conversions that provide living room comfort for its passengers, while minivans are primarily factory-built smaller versions of van conversion designed for active families with accommodations for both passengers and/or cargo.

Forerunners of the modern automobile actually first appeared in the eighteenth century—notably a steam-powered three-wheeled vehicle invented in France in 1769 by Nicholas Joseph Cugnot—but self-propelled vehicles didn't become commercially viable until the introduction of the internal combustion engine in the nineteenth century. Etienne Lenoir, a Belgian inventor, developed the first internal combustion engine, which he demonstrated in Paris in 1862. Then in 1878, Nicholas Otto, a German inventor, developed a four-stroke coal-gas engine that was quieter and smoother running. In 1885 Germans Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler built the first gasoline-powered vehicles, and in 1889, Frenchman Armand Peugeot built the first automobile for commercial sale. American brothers Charles and Frank Duryea began production in 1896 of the first commercially available gasoline-powered car in the United States.

Prior to the introduction of the internal combustion engine, steam engines and electric motors were used to power the so-called horseless carriage. In fact, by the close of the nineteenth century, some 30 manufacturers in the United States were offering an array of vehicles powered by gasoline, steam or electricity with electric vehicles outselling all other types of cars. Steam engines, however, proved too heavy to be practical for road vehicles, plus they had long start-up times and their need for plenty of water limited their range, so they soon faded from the scene. Electric vehicles of that era also had limited range and were very expensive and slow, which ultimately led to the declining popularity of electrically powered cars.

Early gasoline-powered vehicles also had their drawbacks, including noise, the smell of the fuel, complicated shifting requirements and difficult hand cranking needed to start the engine. Several developments in the early years of the twentieth century propelled the gasoline internal combustion engine to prominence and made possible the personal transportation revolution, most notably the invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912, which eliminated the hand crank and initiated the mass production of the gasoline engine by Henry Ford.

It was the introduction in 1908 of the very affordable Model T by Henry Ford with its $950 price tag that really marked the beginning of the personal transportation revolution. That price dropped as low as $280 when Ford revolutionized automotive production in 1913 with the constantly moving assembly line and $5 per day wages in 1914. These developments made cars affordable for the average person, gave factory workers increased buying power, and triggered the explosive growth of the global automotive industry, which by 2006 was selling nearly 64 million vechicles annually.

The history of pickup trucks generally follows a timeline similar to cars. Gottlieb Daimler, the German automobile pioneer, built the first pickup truck in 1896, a four-horsepower belt-driven vehicle with somewhat limited capability. The first truck company to go into business in the United States, the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company, was opened in Detroit in 1902 by two brothers, Max and Morris Grabowski. The previous year they had designed and built a single-cylinder chain driven dray machine that was basically a motorized version of a horse-drawn wagon. Rapid and the Reliance Motor Company, also of Detroit, which also began building trucks in 1902, were purchased in 1908 and 1909, respectively, by William C. Durant, founder of General Motors Corporation (GMC).

Both Rapid and Reliant trucks were big gas-powered machines designed to replace horse-drawn wagons, so in the early years GMC used electric vehicles for light-duty delivery. However, in 1916 GMC converted everything to gasoline engines. Light-duty Chevrolet trucks appeared on the scene in 1918 and GMC-badged trucks were introduced in 1927, a product that originated with Pontiac but was badged a GMC to avoid the prospect of three General Motors-branded trucks. The other top-selling American pickup truck pioneers, Dodge and Ford, introduced their pickup truck models in 1918 and 1925, respectively.

Compact pickup trucks, which today are among the best-selling vehicles in the world, first appeared in the United States in 1959 when the Nissan Motor Company, a small Japanese manufacturer, exported the Datsun 1000, which had a load capacity of only a quarter-ton and a 1000 cc, 37-horsepower engine. While initial models only sold a few hundred vehicles per year, sales jumped to more than 15,000 in 1965 with the importation of the Datsun 520 pickup. Nissan eventually phased out the Datsun model name and badged all subsequent models as Nissan. Toyota jumped into the compact pickup fray in the U.S. market in 1964 by exporting its Stout, followed in 1969 by the Hi-Lux.

The popularity of the compact pickups caught the attention of the domestic Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) in the United States and they countered in the early years with imports of their own: Chevrolet with the LUV from Isuzu Motors Ltd. in 1972; Ford with the Courier from Mazda at about the same time; and Dodge from Mitsubishi in 1979. These models evolved into the domestically built Chevrolet S-10, Ford Ranger, and the Dodge Dakota, introduced in the mid-1980s as the first mid-size pickup trucks.

Both SUVs and station wagons trace their heritage to the 1920s when cars called depot hacks or suburbans were used to carry passengers and their luggage from train stations. Chevrolet and GMC applied the name to a utility vehicle introduced in 1936 as a passenger-carrying vehicle based on a commercial panel truck. Another early SUV forerunner was the Willy's Jeep Wagon introduced in 1940 as a utility vehicle for the family and eventually redesigned as the Jeep Wagoneer in 1963. The British Land Rover, another icon of the SUV industry, was inspired by the World War II Willy's Jeep and introduced by Rover Company Ltd. at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show.

While SUVs evolved as truck-based vehicles, the classic station wagon is a rear-wheel-drive car with a stretched wheelbase to accommodate a cargo-carrying compartment accessible via a rear tailgate. The first production station wagon was the 1923 wood-bodied Star built by the Star Motor Company, which had been purchased by the Durant Motor Company. Ford made the station wagon affordable to the general public with the introduction of a mass-produced Modal A version in 1929.

Passenger vans have been part of the light vehicle automotive scene since the 1920s but minivans did not emerge until they were introduced in 1983 by Chrysler Corporation, the market leader in full-size vans. The company recognized the desirability of a downsized van that fits in a typical garage and offers all the comforts and handling ease of a station wagon with a lot more room for passengers and cargo. Ford and General Motors followed suit in 1985 with the Aerostar and Astro/Safari, respectively.


The global automotive market has been experiencing weak demand growth in the early years of the twenty-first century, but growth nonetheless. The worldwide market for cars and light trucks increased 3.4 percent from 61.69 million vehicles in 2005 to 63.81 million in 2006, according to J.D. Power Automotive Forecasting.

The U.S. market, which has been under intense competitive pressure from imports, was one of only two major markets to lose ground with sales fading 2.5 percent from 16.95 million in 2005 to 16.52 million in 2006. Japan was the other market experiencing declining demand, falling 2.5 percent from 5.73 million in 2005 to 5.59 million in 2006. The Toyota-Daihatsu manufacturing group, however, is projected to experience the strongest growth for the near future, increasing 3.8 percent from 2004 to 2009 with increased penetration in the North American and European markets, according to Dave Liggett in the Management Briefing global market review of car sales, March, 2005. No other major manufacturer is expected to experience any significant growth, according to the report. In fact, most are predicted to lose market share.

General Motors7,959,8388,338,073
Toyota Motor Corporation7,548,6008,232,100
Fort Motor Company6,636,3296,631,718
Volkswagen AG5,093,1815,219,478
DaimlerChrysler AG4,617,7004,810,000
Hyundai-Kia Automotive3,181,3943,693,277
Nissan Motor Company3,207,2173,508,005
Honda Motor Company3,181,6243,409,991
PSA/Peugeot-Citoen SA3,405,1003,375,500
Renault SA2,471,6762,515,728
Suzuki Motor Corporation1,986,7492,124,584
Fiat S.p.A.2,099,7802,056,600
Mitsubishi Motor Corporation1,413,4031,362,673
BMW Group1,250,3451,323,119
Mazda Motor Corporation1,134,4211,146,145
Isuzu Motor Ltd.566,238626,305
Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.592,676588,331
China FAW Group Corporation519,515464,953
Chongquing Changan Automobile Co.421,438460,074

Western Europe, the largest automotive market in the world, managed to grow slightly during 2006: 0.8 percent from 16.52 million units in 2005 to 16.65 million in 2006. The emerging markets of the world, on the other hand, experienced more robust growth: other European countries were up a combined 8.1 percent; Brazil and Argentina, 13.3 percent, and the other markets of the world, 14.6 percent.

In terms of production, the biggest producers are vehicle manufactures in the Asia-Pacific region, building a total of 24.83 million vehicles in 2005. Japan is the leading producer there, building 9.02 million cars and 1.78 million trucks that year. European manufacturers are the second largest vehicle producers with Germany the leader, producing 5.35 million cars and 407,523 trucks. In North America, the United States is the dominant producer, building more than 12 million cars and trucks in 2005 with General Motors the leader, building 1.15 million cars and 2.15 million trucks.

Worldwide, General Motors and Toyota are the biggest players, each building over 8 million vehicles annually with Toyota vying with GM for the number one spot. Ford is number three worldwide but is losing ground midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century. World rankings, based on global production in 2004 and 2005, are presented in Figure 9. Through the rest of the decade and as the century unfolds further, the rankings of all the manufacturers are very apt to change significantly as emerging players—notably vehicle builders in China and Korea—challenge the traditional leaders.

Truck production and sales figures reflect light, medium, and heavy commercial vehicles and buses.
Global Production RegionCarsTrucksTotal
Central/South America2,276,149776,3643,052,513
Middle East1,441,313564,6632,005,976
North America6,785,5409,589,13016,374,670
Global Sales RegionCarsTrucksTotal
Central/South America2,335,205776,1583,111,363
Middle East2,172,494710,4722,882,966
North America9,541,21311,155,51020,696,723
General Motors includes Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, and Saab.
Ford Motor Company includes Aston Martin, Ford Division, Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar, Volvo, Land Rover, and the data for 2002 and 2002 includes Think.
DaimlerChrysler includes Chrysler Group, Mercedes Benz, and the data for 2003–2005 includes Maybach
Toyota Motor Company includes Lexus, Toyota Division, and in 2003–2005, Scion.
American Honda Motor Company includes Acura and Honda Division.
Nissan Motor Company includes Infiniti and Honda Division.
Hyundai Group includes Hyundai Division and Kia.
Volkswagen of America includes Volkwagen Division and Audi, in 2001 and 2002 Rolls Royce/Bentley, in 2003–2005 Bentley.
BMW Group includes BMW Division, in 2002–2005 Mini, and in 2003–2005 Rolls Royce.
General Motors4,862,6614,820,0174,714,7824,655,4594,454,385
Ford Motor Company3,962,6593,623,2213,477,4443,319,7673,153,875
Toyota Motor Company1,741,2541,756,1271,866,3132,060,0492,260,296
American Honda Motor Company1,207,6391,247,8341,349,8471,394,3981,462,472
Nissan Motor Company703,308739,517794,481985,9881,076,669
Hyundai Group569,962612,464637,692688,670730,863
Volkswagen of America439,683424,397389,544336,422310,915
BMW Group213,127256,622277,035296,531307,402

A comparison of global automotive sales with production in each of the world markets illustrates one of the major problems confronting domestic automakers in Europe and North America, who are being challenged by imports from Asia-Pacific producers, most notably in Japan and Korea. Nearly seven million vehicles built in 2005 in Asia, including more than 933,000 trucks, are exported, primarily to the United States, although 182,000 more trucks were sold in Europe than were built there that year. Figure 10 presents production and sales data for 2005 by region. Note the disparity between domestic production and sales in North America: 2.76 million more cars and 1.57 million more trucks were sold than were built there. Car sales also included exports from Europe, which produced 607,423 more cars than were sold in those countries.

The two largest, most developed automotive markets of the world—the United States and Western Europe—are both extremely competitive markets. In the United States, for example, the traditional Big Three are under unrelenting pressure from a host of new entrants from Asia and Europe, many of whom have established production facilities in North America. General Motors and Ford, number one and two in light vehicle sales, respectively, lost market share consistently through the first five years of the twenty-first century while Toyota, American Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai Group consistently increased market share. Figure 11 presents five years worth of U.S. light vehicle sales figures broken down by leading automobile manufacturers.


There are six automotive production regions in the world: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Central/South America, Europe, Middle East, and North America. The 15 major producers—those building more than one million vehicles annually—are concentrated in three regions: Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America. Since the automotive industry is a truly global enterprise with some 50 vehicle builders scattered throughout the regions of the world, many of the major manufacturers have production facilities in more than one region, often many more, as is the case with General Motors, Toyota, and Ford.

General Motors, for example, has manufacturing operations in 33 countries located in all six regions of the world. It employs about 324,000 people globally, about half in the United States, and had revenues of $192.6 billion in 2005. Toyota has manufacturing operations in some 26 countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific, has some 289,980 employees worldwide, including 38,340 in North America, and revenues of $174.6 billion in 2005. Ford, the third largest automotive producer, operates plants in 23 countries, also located in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. Worldwide employment is about 300,000 and 2005 revenues were $176.9 billion.

The top 15 global manufacturers, including their affiliates and subsidiaries, account for 85 percent of the world vehicle production. These companies and their global affiliate and subsidiary operations are:

  • General Motors, which includes Daewoo (Korea) and Holden (Australia)
  • Toyota Motor Corp., which includes Daihatsu (Japan) and Hino (Japan)
  • Ford Motor Company, which includes Aston Martin (UK), Jaguar (UK), Land Rover (UK) and Volvo Car Corp. (Sweden)
  • Volkswagen AG, which includes Audi (Germany), Bentley (UK), Bugatti (Italy), Lamborghini (Italy), Skoda (Czech Republic) and Seat (Spain)
  • DaimlerChrysler AG, which includes Chrysler Division, Dodge, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz (Germany), Smart (Germany), and Commercial Vehicle Division, EvoBus GmbH (Germany), Freightliner (USA), and Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp. (Japan)
  • Hyundai-Kia Automotive, which includes Hyundai Motor (Korea) and Kia Motors (Korea)
  • Nissan Motor Co. (Japan)
  • Honda Motor Co. (Japan)
  • PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA (France)
  • Renault SA (France), which includes Dacia (Romania) and Renault-Samsung Motors (Korea)
  • Suzuki Motor Corp (Japan), which includes Maruti Udyog Ltd. (India)
  • Fiat S.p.A. (Italy), which includes Fiat Auto (Italy), Ferrari (Italy), Maserati (Italy), and Iveco (Italy)
  • Mitsubishi Motor Corp. (Japan)
  • BMW Group (Germany) which includes Rolls-Royce (UK)
  • Mazda Motor Corp. (Japan)

In North America, General Motors is the leading vehicle builder, producing Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Isuzu, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn vehicles. The corporation operates facilities in 28 states. Ford plants produce Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles. DaimlerChrysler builds Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

DaimlerChrysler, the number five producer worldwide and number three in the United States, operates 33 plants throughout North America, including 24 in 7 of the U.S. states, 5 in Mexico, and 4 in Canada. Globally, the corporation has 382,724 employees in 17 countries in Europe; North and South America; Asia-Pacific, including Australia; Africa; and the Middle East. Revenues in 2005 were $177.36 billion.

The other major vehicle producers in the U.S. include Toyota Motor, which builds Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles at its plants in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada; Georgetown, Kentucky and Princeton, Indiana; and Tijuana, Mexico. Honda produces Acura and Honda vehicles at plants in Alliston, Ontario, Canada; East Liberty and Marysville, Ohio; Lincoln, Alabama; and El Salto Jalisco, Mexico. Nissan operates plants in Canton, Mississippi and Smyrna, Tennessee, in the U.S., and in Aquascalientes, and Cuernavaca, Mexico, producing Nissan-branded vehicles plus providing North American production for Renault in its Mexico plants.

Other companies building vehicles in the United States include: Volkswagen which builds the Beetle, Jetta, and VW medium trucks; BMW which builds the BMW Z4 roadster and X5, Subaru which produces both the Subaru Baja and Legacy, as well as the Isuzu Axiom, Rodeo and B9; Hyundai which makes the Hyundai Sonata; Misubishi which builds the Eclipse, Galant and Endeavor as well as the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus for the Chrysler group of DaimlerChrysler; and AM General which builds the Hummer H1 and Hummer H2 for General Motors.

NUMMI, a joint venture between GM and Toyota in Fremont, California, was established in 1984 to build vehicles for the two automakers. In 2005 this plant produced the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Corolla and Tacoma. The AutoAlliance is a joint venture between Ford and Mazda in Flat Rock, Michigan, building the Ford Mustang and Mazda 6 sedan, hatchback and wagon. CAMI, a joint venture between GM and Suzuki Motor Corporation in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, produces the Chevrolet Equinox, Pontiac Torrent and Suzuki Vitara.


The automobile industry is not only global in the extent to which finished vehicles are distributed for sale worldwide from their point of origin, but many of the materials, parts, assemblies, and systems for the majority of vehicles sold commercially are sourced from throughout the world as well. "More than ever, automakers are drawing on suppliers around the globe, shuttling parts across borders in search of lower prices and higher quality," states the Original Equipment Suppliers Association in a recent report.

For example, the report cites an analysis by the Detroit Free Press, noting that "federal data found that vehicles built by Detroit automakers have steadily increased their proportion of parts form outside the United States and Canada. By the same measure, vehicles built in North America by Japan's largest automakers increasingly use U.S. and Canadian parts."

Mexico, which builds more than one million vehicles annually for U.S., European, and Japanese car companies, is also a major component producer and the largest exporter of car parts to the United States—$22 billion in 2004. Canada accounted for $19 billion worth of parts exported to the United States that year and Japanese suppliers accounted for $14 billion, together these two countries accounted for 72 percent of all parts imported into the United States for use in auto production. While Mexico and Japan accounted for 55 percent of U.S. auto parts imports, over three-quarters of the $44 billion in U.S. auto parts exports were headed for auto plants in those two countries in 2004.

Overall, the United States has a trade imbalance in auto parts. In 2005 the imbalance reached $37 billion with exports of $55 billion and imports of $92 billion, including $46.9 billion from North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) partners Mexico and Canada. Those two countries were also the destination for $42.6 billion in U.S. auto parts exports.

Percent by Company Automobile Manufacturers199520002005
General Motor918781

Independent suppliers account for much of the content in vehicles built in the United States and Europe since the two largest suppliers in the world—Delphi Automotive Systems and Visteon Corporation—were each spun off from their parent companies, General Motors and Ford, respectively, and became independent in 1999 and 2000. They were among 1,500 and 2,000 tier one major system suppliers (suppliers selling components and systems directly to the vehicle builders) serving the industry in 2004, a number expected to eventually shrink to between 500 and 700, of which only about 50 will be system integrators dealing directly with the vehicle manufacturers, according to the Boston Consulting Group. This reflects changes in the role of the major suppliers that are being asked to provide larger and more complete vehicle systems or segments rather than simply supplying hundreds of parts and components.

The leading global suppliers include Delphi, Visteon, Lear Corporation, Johnson Controls, Inc., TRW and Dana Corporation all with world headquarters in the United States. Magna International, Inc. has its headquarters in Canada; Robert Bosch GmbH is based in Germany; Valeo SA in France; and Denso Corporation, Aisin Seiki, Co. Ltd. and Yazaki Corporation, have headquarters in Japan.

In the United States, automotive suppliers employ more workers than any other manufacturing group, directly employing more than three-quarter million and contributing to 4.5 million jobs nation wide, including nearly 2 million of those indirect employees in support industries such as steel, plastic, and technical services. Suppliers' total annual payroll, including benefits, is $253 billion, or an average of $45,790 per worker annually, according to a 2007 report from the Center for Automotive Research.

Japan has traditionally operated under the keiretsu system in which an association of companies is organized that cooperates with and works with each other. In the automotive industries, supplier keiretsu sometimes have several hundred companies associated with a particular vehicle manufacturing company. Usually, these agreements are somewhat exclusive, obliging the two parties, the keiretsu companies and the auto manufacturer, to deal with each other and not others. This, in essence, bars non-members from obtaining supplier arrangements with the vehicle manufacturer. These keiretsu relationships are tending to dissolve as cross sourcing of components among the suppliers increases with industry globalization.

With the global automotive industry producing more than 64 million vehicles each year, it is a major consumer of various grades of steel, which accounts for some 55 percent of an average vehicle's content by weight—over 1,700 lbs. in a mid-size sedan. Other materials consumed include cast iron, averaging more than 400 lbs., primarily for engine and suspension components; plastics and composites, nearly 250 lbs.; aluminum, about 190 lbs.; plus rubber, glass, copper, zinc, other metals, fabrics and various fluids and lubricants. These materials are sourced from all over the world, the location depending on price, availability and accessibility on the part of the provider of parts and/or components supplying the vehicle manufacturer.


Automobile sales traditionally have been handled through franchised independent dealerships in the major markets of the world. These independent dealerships act as the retailing bridge between the vehicle manufacturers and the consumer. In the United States, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) represents some 20,000 franchised new car and truck dealers holding nearly 43,000 separate franchises, both domestic and international (many dealerships represent multiple nameplates, including those from more than one manufacturer). In addition the American International Automobile Dealer Association (AIADA) represents 11,000 international nameplate automobile franchises.

Multiple nameplate representation often covers both domestic and foreign brands. For example, General Motor's automotive brands are Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Holden (Australia), HUMMER, Opel (Germany), Pontiac, Saab (Sweden), Saturn, and Vauxhall (UK). In some countries, the GM Group distribution network also markets vehicles manufactured by GM Daewoo (Korea) and Isuzu, Fuji (Subaru), and Suzuki (Japan).

Since dealerships accept trade-ins as part of most new car sales, the dealerships also offer used cars, although new car sales typically account for more than half of all sales revenue for a dealership. The balance comes from used car sales, repair and service, and aftermarket parts and component sales. Vehicle leasing is also offered by dealerships as a financing option for consumers. In addition to traditional marketing techniques to attract buyers to their showrooms, automobile dealers are increasingly using the Internet to market new and used cars.

New car distribution systems use both truck transports and railroads to transport vehicles to dealerships; offshore exports are handled by ship. In the case of railroads, vehicles are shipped to distribution centers, then delivered to dealerships via truck. Ford, for example, employs an innovative vehicle distribution system with the Norfolk and Western Railroad in which vehicles sourced from Ford's 20 North American assembly plants are routed through a mixing center network and from there to Ford's dealership network. The mixing center network is a hub and spoke distribution system in which vehicles are shipped to one of four strategically located centers serving the U.S. and Canada. At each mixing center, the vehicles are unloaded, sorted and reloaded for delivery to a common destination, reducing time spent waiting at a plant until a railroad car is loaded with that plant's vehicles headed for a common destination.

In addition to new car dealerships, used cars are also sold by independent dealers, ranging from small, one-location stores or lots to large nationwide superstores.


Next to a new home purchase or paying the rent, the personal car or light truck is the most essential expense for most members of the public throughout much of the world, accounting for a large majority of new vehicle sales. In the United States, for example, 25 to 30 percent of all new car sales are sold directly to the end consumers. Fleet sales—government agencies, businesses, and police departments—account for the balance.


In addition to automobiles and light trucks, transportation equipment includes a wide variety of powered vehicles, everything from golf carts, motor scooters, and motor cycles to commercial vans, medium and heavy trucks, recreational vehicles, other commercial vehicles such as buses, and heavy-duty construction equipment.

For the majority of the American public—with the exception of those adventurous enough routinely to hop on a bicycle or motorcycle to commute to work every day—markets adjacent to new automobiles are represented by used, or what are often referred to as previously owned, cars and mass transit. Viewed from the retail level, as shown by Manufacturing & Distribution USA, the used car market in 2007 represented dealer sales of $60.7 billion against new car dealer sales of $775.6 billion. Previously owned cars were thus 7.3 percent of all auto purchases in that year, not counting exchanges, which occurred between individuals. Historical patterns suggest that used cars are more and more of a choice (and perhaps a necessary choice) for a segment of the public. Used cars in 1987 were 3.7 percent of retail auto sales, in 1992 4.6 percent, in 2002 6.9 percent—suggesting that economic pressures may be inducing a growing number of people to select one of the adjacent markets to get their transportation.

Based on data collected by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an element of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), just over 4 percent of all workers make use of mass transit of one kind or another (bus, streetcar, subway, or elevated train) in their daily commute. In 1989 4.9 million workers (4.6% of all commuters) reached the job by mass transit every day. In 2001, 5.6 million (4.7% of workers) were using transit. By 2005 numbers had declined to 5.4 million workers (4.4 % of all those commuting). People using bicycles and motorcycles, incidentally, represented 0.7 percent of commuters in 1989 and 2001 and 0.6 percent in 2005.

In quite a real sense, the growing trend of working from one's personal residence, made possible by the computer and the Internet, represents an interesting adjacent way of avoiding transportation—at least to the place of work. DOT's surveys also capture this phenomenon and show that it is growing. Some 2.7 million people worked at home in 1989 (2.6% of all workers). The numbers have steadily increased since, to 3.4 million in 2001 (2.8%) and 4.1 million in 2005 (3.4%).

Adjacent markets for long distance travel are trips by air, by bus, by train, or by ship. DOT surveys indicate that the automobile (no distinctions made between new and used cars) is the dominant form of transportation for taking trips. In 2001, 89 percent of all trips were made by using personal vehicles; all other forms came in a distant second: 7.4 percent of trips were made by air; 2.1 percent by bus; 0.8 percent by train; 0.1 percent by ship, boat, or ferry; and the remainder were not classified by DOT. These results were somewhat less skewed in favor of autos/pickups if, instead of counting trips, we count person-miles traveled, to use DOT's terminology. Using that category, travel by mode in 2001 shows a different pattern: personal vehicles, 55.9 percent of miles; air travel, 41 percent; bus travel, 2 percent; train travel, 0.8 percent; and water-borne travel, 0.3 percent.


The Research and Development (R&D) efforts of the automotive industry are primarily focused on technologies that will make the automobile as environmentally compatible, as economical to operate, and as safe as possible, goals which in many ways are mutually exclusive. Safety and emission reductions all add cost, while efforts to improve fuel economy by reducing weight can make the vehicle less safe and crash-worthy.

To make vehicles more environmentally compatible, the major emphasis has been on emission reduction, although there is increasing interest in making the vehicle as recyclable as possible. The latter is being improved by using recyclable materials as much as possible and making it easier to disassemble and extract recyclable materials at the end of its useful life.

The primary efforts, however, have been on power-train technology, with the emphasis on cleaning up emissions and reducing fuel costs and consumption. This has included constantly improving the venerable gasoline internal combustion engine so it runs as cleanly as possible without an undue sacrifice of power and performance. But by the end of the twentieth century, it had become apparent that further improvements were providing only marginal emission improvement. Alternative power and fuel sources have been the primary goal ever since.

Ironically, one of those alternative sources is a reintroduction of the electric motor, either as the primary motive force or as part of a hybrid system mated with an internal combustion engine. In hybrid versions, the internal combustion engine may be used in any of three ways: strictly as part of a generating system to charge the batteries; as an auxiliary to the electric motor providing extra power when needed, as well as for recharging the batteries; or as the main motive force while the batteries are used to power all other systems in the vehicle, reducing demands on the internal combustion engine. Hybrids have been a major research effort by virtually all of the major manufacturers for use in both cars and trucks.

Electric vehicles reappeared in the 1990s with conversion vehicles from Ford, General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler and Toyota, plus two cars built from the ground up as electric cars, General Motors' EV1 and Honda's EV Plus. Cost and short range imposed by the limitations of battery technology has kept pure electric vehicles out of the mainstream, although promising developments with advanced lithium ion battery packs and General Motors' development of the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car concept vehicle introduced at the North American International Auto Show in 2007, could bring electric vehicles back into a more prominent position. The Volt uses General Motors' patented E-Flex Propulsion System that consists of an electric drive system, lithium ion battery and an onboard generator powered by a one-liter turbocharged internal combustion engine to keep the batteries charged.

Yet another powertrain technology that dates to the early days of the automobile and has been around ever since may in the end be the technology to trump all the others. That is the lowly diesel, an internal combustion engine used extensively in Europe and Asia in small cars, yet largely looked down upon in the United States because of the perception that it is inherently noisy, dirty, hard to start and expensive to buy, although more fuel efficient and longer-lasting than gasoline engines.

A further plus of the diesel is its ability to operate on non-petroleum based fuels. Diesel owners have the option of using biodiesel, a domestically produced renewable fuel that reduces U.S. oil dependence and contributes to the national economy. The Diesel Technology Forum observes that "American consumers are turning to diesel-powered vehicles to help them save money on fuel costs without having to sacrifice the power and performance drivers have come to expect."

A great deal of R&D effort among diesel engine builders has been focused on addressing the negatives associated with classic diesel engines, including improved engine management systems, common rail fuel systems, direct injection, high pressure injectors, multiple spray patterns, turbocharging, particulate filters and new biomass fuels, according to a May 2004 report in Motor magazine.

Long-term, fuel cells are considered to be the next revolution in automotive powertrains. Fuel Cells 2000, an online fuel cell information resource, defines a fuel cell as "an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as its by-product … the process is clean, quiet and highly efficient—two to three times more efficient than fuel burning." Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are propelled by electric motors, but unlike battery-electric vehicles that use stored electric energy, FVCs create their own. They can be fueled by pure hydrogen gas stored onboard in high-pressure tanks or by hydrogen-rich fuels such as methanol, natural gas or gasoline which are converted by an onboard device called a reformer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Research into the development of viable fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) is being spearheaded in the United States by FreedomCAR, a cooperate effort between the DOE and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR, a consortium of Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler). FreedomCAR was formed to promote research into advanced automotive technologies with the potential of dramatically reducing oil consumption and environmental impacts.

Another organization involved in FCV development is the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) a collaboration of auto companies, fuel cell providers, fuel cell technology companies and government agencies demonstrating fuel cell electric vehicles in California under day-to-day driving conditions. Its goals are to test and demonstrate the viability of FCVs and related technology under real-world conditions.

FCV R&D efforts are directed at reducing the cost of fuel cells, improving their performance, and developing effective and efficient ways to produce and store hydrogen and other fuels, according to the DOE. FreedomCAR and CaFCP were formed to encourage private companies and government agencies to work together to move FCVs toward commercialization.

Fuel cell technology is also being applied to hybrids. Ford has developed a HySeries drive system that is a battery-powered plug-in electric hybrid that also uses an onboard fuel cell to recharge the batteries once the batteries have discharged about 60 percent of their energy, extending the range of the vehicle.


The automotive markets of the world have undergone a number of significant changes throughout the long history of the automobile in styling, technology and consumer tastes. Three dominant trends that are determining its growth and direction in the twenty-first century are:

  • The blurring of the line between cars and trucks as truck-like vehicles become increasingly popular.
  • The drive to make vehicles more environmentally friendly by cleaning their emissions, making them more recyclable and lighter, and eliminating their consumption of non-renewable resources.
  • The desire to make vehicles as safe as possible by improving their crash avoidance capabilities, crash worthiness, and occupant protection.

Within each of these trends, the driving force is the continuing application of advanced technologies, notably the continuing increase of mobile and in-vehicle electronics, expected to rise to $9.6 billion in 2007, an increase of more than 11 percent; automotive-grade semiconductors, experiencing year-on-year growth of 10 percent, reaching $18 billion in 2007; and automotive telematics and navigation, also expected to have strong growth in several world regions, generating about $38.3 billion in revenues by 2011.

As noted, truck production in the United States significantly exceeds car production, the only market in the world where this situation exists. In every other market, truck production is only a fraction of the number of cars built. In Europe, for example, more than six times as many cars as trucks are built. Car and truck sales reflect this same preference. The sale of light trucks to the motoring public has always been strong in North America but is getting ever stronger as more than half the vehicles sold in this market have been light trucks since early in the twenty-first century. This clearly illustrates Americans preference for pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans and van conversions, a trend that is showing signs of taking hold in other markets of the world.

This demand for vehicles that incorporate the comfort and performance of the automobile with the utilitarian benefits of a truck has created a new type of vehicle built from the ground up as a cross between car and truck with unibody construction, relatively high seating positions, two-, four- or all-wheel drive, and capability of carrying up to eight passengers plus reasonable cargo space—the only missing ingredient is an ability to go off-road. This new breed of personal transportation vehicles are known generically as crossovers—built on car chassis with car-like suspension systems and powertrains, yet with the rugged-ness, storage and utilitarian features of SUVs, vans and pickup trucks. The new breed of downsized SUVs mentioned earlier is an example of this trend.

The suburban vehicles of the 1920s and 1930s were the forerunners of this movement, especially as embodied in the early Chevrolet and GMC Suburban models. The modern crossover emerged late in the twentieth century, experiencing quick acceptance among the motoring public in the United States, growing 62 percent from 1999 to 2003 and predicted to continue at a 10 percent rate into the future, according to some forecasters. Among the early competitors in this rapidly growing market were the Acura MC, BMW X5X, Buick Rendezvous, Cadillac SRX, Chrysler Pacifica and PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR, Ford Freestyle, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot and CRV, Infinity FX35, Lexus RX330, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Nissan Murano, Toyota Highlander, VW Touareg, and Volvo XC90.

Although the development of the internal combustion engine was a critical factor in the evolution of the automobile into a commercially viable product, it also sowed the seeds of the major problems associated with the automobile in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: pollution, consumption of a finite resource and, perhaps even more significantly, political issues associated with dependence on imported oil, much of which had to be purchased from unfriendly or unstable foreign governments. These political concerns were especially prevalent in Europe, North America, and Japan, the largest automotive markets in the world.

The diesel engine was invented in the late 1880s by Rudolph Diesel, a German looking for an alternative to steam power. He developed an internal combustion engine based on compression ignition principles capable of running on biomass fuel—peanut oil in initial demonstrations. Early diesels were too large and heavy for use in vehicles and it was not until the 1920s when smaller, lighter versions were introduced for lorries in Europe. Mercedes began using diesels in cars in 1936 and such use in cars has grown ever since. By the early twenty-first century, for example, Europeans were buying diesel-powered cars 35 percent of the time—45 percent if you include light trucks.

The only time drivers in the United States purchased diesel powered cars in any significant number was during the OPEC oil embargo during the nineteen seventies and then only in limited numbers. But advances in diesel engine technology have largely corrected the problems that kept American motorists away. According to the Diesel Technology Forum in a 2005 report, "advanced clean diesel technology offers American consumers a fuel-sipping alternative that does not sacrifice power or performance." Annual registrations of diesel-powered passenger cars in the United States increased 80 percent from 2000 to 2005, growing from 301,000 to nearly 550,000 vehicles, a trend that is expected to continue with diesel sales approximately tripling in the next 10 years, accounting for more than 10 percent of U.S. vehicle sales by 2015.

Vehicles with hybrid powertrains using some combination of an electric motor with a gasoline or diesel engine have been gaining popularity since 1997 when they became commercially available with the introduction in the Japanese market of the Toyota Prius and when Audi began volume production of the A4 Avant-based Duo in Europe (The Duo, which mated a gasoline engine with an electric motor, was not commercially successful so European automakers focused their efforts on advanced diesels).

The first hybrid car to be sold on the mass market in the United States was the two-door Honda Insight, introduced in 1999, followed in 2000 with the importation of the Toyota Prius, the first hybrid four-door sedan to enter the U.S. market. Subsequently, Honda introduced a hybrid version of the Civic in 2002 and Toyota released the Prius II in 2004, the same year Ford introduced the Escape Hybrid, the first American-built commercially available hybrid and the first SUV hybrid, according to the "History of Hybrid Vehicles" from

By 2005 hybrid auto sales had reached approximately 212,000 vehicles, 1.3 percent of all light vehicle sales, according to, By 2012 hybrid sales were forecast to reach 780,000 vehicles, or 4.2 percent market share, according to that report.

The long-term trend toward more environmentally friendly powertrains is expected to lead to fuel cells. General Motors developed the first operational fuel cell-powered vehicle in 1968 but it wasn't until the 1990s that growing environmental and energy use concerns prompted increased industry and government investment in fuel cell research. By the end of that decade, DaimlerChrysler introduced NECAR IV, the first hydrogen fuel cell-powered commercial automobile, according to the World Fuel Cell Council. General Motors also introduced a drivable fuel cell concept, an Opel Zafira minivan, at the Paris Motor Show.

The twenty-first century could see the fuel cell emerging as a major player in automotive powertrains. "Light-duty automotive applications are by far the largest market opportunity available to fuel cell technology," reports the World Fuel Cell Council, "and have been the focus of intense development effort. All major automakers now have fuel cell vehicle programs. Most have either launched prototype cars or announced their intention to do so." Ford, for example, in early 2007 showcased a fuel cell-powered version of its Edge crossover (an SUV built on an automobile platform).

Weight reduction in order to improve fuel economy is the other environmental improvement target. Steel and cast iron have traditionally represented about two-thirds of the total weight of a typical car, weight reduction research has concentrated on lightweight steels, other lightweight metals such as aluminum and magnesium, plastics, carbon fiber, ceramics and other exotic materials.

Vehicle safety, which became a paramount issue following the 1965 publication of Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed, has focused on five areas: crash avoidance, pre-crash preparation, occupant protection, post crash measures, and security. Crash avoidance improvements are technical advances in systems that enhance a driver's ability to maintain control of the vehicle despite adverse driving conditions. These have included blind-spot detection systems, tire-pressure monitors, and enhanced vehicle suspension systems, including electronic stability control systems that use sensors to anticipate impending loss of control by the driver and electronically control brakes, throttle, and steering to help the driver guide the vehicle out of danger.


The auto market can be broken down into a wide variety of segments based on a number of different criteria. Manufacturers analyze these segments very closely when they are designing new cars or planning new promotional campaigns.

A standard breakdown of the market is by the primary motivator involved with a new buyer's decision on which automobile or light truck/SUV to purchase. For many people this decision is made first based upon price range. Consequently, most automakers offer a range of vehicles within broad price ranges so as to offer some variety. There are, of course, automakers who specialize in only the high-end market, like Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, but these are the exception.

New car buyers are also making the decision about what vehicle to purchase based on the functionality of the vehicle and consumers needs and desires. Attempts are made to create a profile of the features desired by the average member of a particular type or group of customers. Are, for example, most minivan buyers residents of the suburbs with school age children? Do these suburbanites wish that they could control the heating and air conditioning by zone so that while traveling in the vehicle alone a driver is able to focus these functions into the front of the vehicle? Knowing the answers to questions like these allows an automaker to both design for the likely buyer and also market their new features to the most receptive audience.

The market segment for which price is of little concern is often a segment for which style and prestige play an important role in their buying decision. Designing for and selling to this segment of the market requires a different approach. It is a smaller segment of the market than the other two discussed but it is a potentially lucrative one as the high-end vehicles provide automakers with a much higher profit margin. They are more expensive vehicles to make and the money involved in building up the brand recognition that must go along with the high-end vehicle is also a costly undertaking.

As the auto market has matured and the penetration rate of automobiles has climbed, so too have the ways in which the market is sliced and diced by analysts to try and find ways to appeal to a particular segment within it.


Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM),

American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA),

Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA),

Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA),

Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA),

National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA),

Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA),

Overseas Automotive Council (OAC),


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see also Auto Parts, Trucks


views updated May 18 2018


No invention has so transformed the landscape of the United States as the automobile, and no other country has so thoroughly adopted the automobile as its favorite means of transportation. Automobiles are used both for pleasure and for commerce and are typically the most valuable type of personal property owned by U.S. citizens. Because autos are expensive to acquire and maintain, heavily taxed, favorite targets of thieves, a major cause of air and noise pollution, and capable of causing tremendous personal injuries and property damage, the body of law surrounding them is quite large. Automobile law covers the four general phases in the life cycle of an automobile: its manufacture, sale, operation, and disposal.

Brief History of the Automobile

The first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine was invented and designed in Germany during the 1880s. In 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and started an era of U.S. leadership in auto production that lasted for most of the twentieth century. In 1908, Ford introduced the highly popular Model T, which by 1913 was being manufactured through assembly line techniques. Innovations by Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers near Detroit, Michigan, made that city the manufacturing center for the U.S. car industry. By the 1920s, General Motors had become the world's largest auto manufacturer, a distinction it still held into 2004. Over time, the auto industry in all countries became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies, and by 1939, the Big Three—Ford, General Motors, and Daimler Chrysler—had 90 percent of the U.S. market. As of 2003, Ford is the world's second-largest auto manufacturer after General Motors Corporation.

What to Do If You Are in an Auto Accident

Sooner or later, you are likely to have an accident. Fortunately, it will probably be a minor collision that damages only the vehicles involved. However, whether you are in a minor or major accident, behaving coolly, calmly, and properly after it occurs could save you a lot of money and trouble.

Some suggestions on what to do if you are in an auto accident:

  1. If possible, move your car to the side of the road or out of the way of traffic.
  2. Turn on your car flashers or set up flares to warn other motorists of the accident.
  3. Do not make any statements concerning who was at fault, or assign blame to anyone involved.
  4. Help any persons who are injured. Most states have laws requiring you to render aid to anyone injured in the accident. Call an ambulance if necessary.
  5. Write down the name, address, license plate number, and driver's license number of the other driver and ask to see his or her vehicle registration certificate and proof of insurance. Write down the insurance company name and policy number of the other driver. If asked, do the same for the other driver. Do not reveal the amount of your insurance coverage.
  6. Write down the names and addresses of all passengers involved and of any witnesses to the accident.
  7. Notify the police, particularly if anyone is hurt or injured at the scene.
  8. Write down the names and badge numbers of any police officers at the scene.
  9. If possible, take a picture of the scene of the accident, including damage to cars and skid marks.
  10. Draw a rough diagram of what happened in the accident, noting road conditions, weather, and lighting.
  11. If you suspect you have any injuries, obtain medical care.
  12. Talk to a lawyer if you intend to file a lawsuit regarding the accident.

All states require those involved in an accident to file a report with the police or bureau of motor vehicles if the accident involves a death, a personal injury, or property damage above a certain amount, such as $500. Some states require that the report be made immediately; others allow five to thirty days. Failure to file a report is a misdemeanor in most states and could result in the suspension of your driver's license.

Some insurance companies provide their policyholders with accident report forms. Such forms make it easier to obtain the necessary information if you are in an accident. If you have them, keep them handy in your vehicle.

In 1929, there were roughly 5 million autos in the United States. All those cars required an infrastructure of roads, and by the end of world war ii, the federal government had begun aggressively to fund highway development. With the intention of improving the nation's ability to defend itself, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 (58 Stat. 838). It authorized construction of a system of multiple-lane, limited-access freeways, officially called the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, designed to connect 90 percent of all U.S. cities of 50,000 or more people. In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act (23U.S.C.A. § 103 [West 1995]) established the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which as of the early 2000s continued to provide 90 percent of the financing for interstate highways. By 1990, the interstate highway system was 99.2 percent complete and had cost $125 billion.

During the 1970s, the U.S. auto industry began to lose ground to Japanese and European automakers, and U.S. citizens relied to an increasing degree on imported autos. Japan, for example, surpassed the United States in auto production in the 1970s. Oil shortages and embargoes during the 1970s caused the price of gasoline to rise and put a premium on smaller autos, most of which were produced by foreign companies. Foreign cars also earned a reputation for higher quality during this period. The share of foreign cars in the U.S. market rose from 7.6 percent in 1960 to 24.9 percent in 1984.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. auto companies were suffering greatly, and the U.S. government bailed out the nearly bankrupt Chrysler Corporation. The U.S. government also negotiated a quota system with Japan that called for limits on Japanese autos imported into the United States, thereby raising the prices of Japanese cars. By the 1990s, the U.S. auto companies had regained much of the ground lost to foreign companies. In the mid-1990s, however, international manufacturing agreements meant that few cars, U.S. or foreign, were made entirely in one country.

Unsafe at Any Speed

For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people." So ralph nader began his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, a landmark in the history of U.S. consumer protection.

Nader's book recounts how U.S. automobile manufacturers resisted attempts to improve auto safety in the 1950s and 1960s. Even when makers of other vehicles such as planes, boats, and trains were forced to adhere to safety regulations, automakers were still largely uncontrolled in the area of safety. "The gap between existing design and attainable safety," Nader wrote, "has widened enormously in the postwar period."

Nader examined how auto companies lobbied against safety regulation and organized public relations campaigns that asserted over and over again that most injuries were the result of driver error. He argued that the best and most cost-effective way to reduce auto injuries is not to try to alter driver behavior—as honorable a goal as that might be—but to require automakers to design cars that better prevent accidents from occurring and better protect passengers if accidents do occur.

In telling his story, Nader cited sobering statistics on traffic injuries and fatalities, including the fact that auto accidents caused the deaths of 47,700 in 1964—

"the extinguishment of about one and three-quarter million years of expected lifetimes," he noted—and one-third of all hospitalizations for injuries and 25 percent of all cases of partial and complete paralysis due to injury. Borrowing the zeal and spirit of the civil rights reform movement and the faith in technology of the space program, Nader looked at traffic fatalities as a public health issue that can be resolved through public action and technological innovation. Quoting Walt Whitman's epigram "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred," Nader asserted that he was attempting to protect the "body rights" of U.S. citizens.

To protect those rights, Nader used his book to call for a number of different strategies to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries: federal safety standards; a federal facility for auto safety research, design, and testing; increased manufacturer research and development for safety technology; improved consumer information with regard to auto safety; better disclosure of auto manufacturers' safety engineering efforts; and the creation of a department of transportation. It is a mark of Nader's foresight and determination that all of those goals were achieved in the decades following the publishing of Unsafe at Any Speed.


Nader, Ralph.


Throughout the twentieth century, automakers were required to conform to ever stricter standards regarding the manufacture of their vehicles. These rules were designed to improve the safety, fuel consumption, and emissions of the auto.

Safety Standards As autos increased in number and became larger and faster, and people traveled more miles a year in them, the number of motor vehicle deaths and injuries rose. By 1965, some 50,000 people were being killed in motor vehicle accidents every year, making automobiles the leading cause of accidental death for all age groups and the overall leading cause of death for the population below age 44. Between 1945 and 1995, 2 million people died and about 200 million were injured in auto accidents—many more than were wounded and injured in all the wars in the nation's history combined.

Beginning in the 1960s, consumer and automobile safety advocates began to press for federal safety standards for the manufacture of automobiles that would reduce such harrowing statistics. The most famous of these advocates was ralph nader, who published a 1965 book on the deficiencies of auto safety, called Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. From 1965 to 1995, more than 50 safety standards were imposed on vehicle manufacturers, regulating the construction of windshields, safety belts, head restraints, brakes, tires, lighting, door strength, roof strength, and bumper strength.

In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Act (15 U.S.C.A. § 1381 note, 1391 et seq. [1995]), which established a new federal regulatory agency, the National Highway Safety Bureau, later renamed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA was given a mandate to establish and enforce rules that would force manufacturers to build vehicles that could better avoid and withstand accidents. It was also given the power to require manufacturers to recall and repair defects in their motor vehicles and the authority to coordinate state programs aimed at improving driver behavior. Also in 1966, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act (23 U.S.C.A. §§ 105, 303 note, et seq. [1995]), which provided for federal guidance and funding to states for the creation of highway safety programs.

As a result of these new laws, 19 federal safety regulations came into effect on January 1, 1968. The regulations specified accident avoidance standards governing such vehicle features as brakes, tires, windshields, lights, and transmission

controls. They also mandated more costly crash-protection standards. These included occupant-protection requirements for seat belts, energy-absorbing steering wheels and bumpers, head restraints, padded instrument panels, and stronger side doors. These auto safety standards significantly reduced traffic fatalities. Between 1968 and 1979, the annual motor vehicle death rate decreased 35.2 percent, from 5.4 to 3.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles.

The seat belt requirement is usually considered the most important and effective safety standard. According to one study, seat belts that attach across both the lap and the shoulder reduce the probability of serious injury in an accident by 64 percent and of fatalities by 32 percent for front-seat occupants. However, because people do not always use restraints that require their active participation, autos began to be required to have passive restraint systems such as automatic seat belts and air bags. Air bags pop out instantly in a crash and form a cushion that prevents the occupants from hitting the windshield or dashboard. These devices can substantially reduce the motor vehicle death rate. Cars made after 1990 must have either automatic seat belts or air bags, for front-seat occupants.

However, many auto safety experts point out that regulations on the manufacture of automobiles can only go so far in reducing injuries. Studies indicate that only 13 percent of auto accidents result from mechanical failure, and of those that do, most are caused by poor maintenance, not inadequate design or construction. Other analysts assert that safety regulations cause a phenomenon known as offsetting behavior. According to this theory, people will drive more dangerously because they know their risk of injury is lower, putting themselves, their passengers, and other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at greater risk and thereby offsetting the gain in safety caused by stricter manufacturing standards.

The NHTSA may also authorize recalls of cars on the road that it deems are safety hazards. In a recall, the federal government mandates that a manufacturer must repair all the vehicles that it has made that have a specific problem.

Between 1976 and 1980, the NHTSA authorized the recall of over 39 million vehicles. Recall is a controversial policy. One problem with it is that, typically, only 50 percent of auto owners respond to recall notices.

No-Fault Automobile Insurance

Ever since the invention of automobiles, there have been automobile accidents. And with those accidents have come legal disputes about who was most at fault in causing them—and who should be forced to pay damages. The U.S. legal and political systems have struggled to determine the best way to handle the large number of legal disputes related to automobile accidents. Although the states vary in their procedures, two basic approaches have evolved. The first and older approach is the traditional liability litigation system, which attempts to determine, usually through jury trials, who is more liable, or more at fault, and must pay damages. The second and more recent approach is no-fault insurance, which simply allows each party to be compensated, regardless of fault, by its own insurance company for accident damages. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and the debate about which is better continues.

The traditional liability litigation system developed out of the English common law. Under this system, anyone who suffers an injury from a wrong or negligent act of another is free to sue the other party for damages. For example, someone who is paralyzed in an automobile accident and becomes confined to a wheelchair may sue the other driver or drivers involved in the accident. Whether or not the injured person receives payment for those damages is largely dependent on a determination of who was more at fault in causing the accident. If, in a court of law, it is determined that the other driver is at fault, then the injured person may collect a large sum from the other driver or, if the other driver has liability insurance, from the other driver's insurance company; if it is determined that the other driver is not at fault, the injured person may not receive any payments beyond those from her or his own insurance company.

This system of resolving disputes is also called the tort litigation process. In relation to automobile accidents, a tort is a civil (as opposed to criminal) wrong that causes an accident—for example, failure to practice caution while driving, thus causing a collision with another car and injuries to its passengers.

As time passed and auto accidents became more frequent, some people began to point out problems in the liability litigation system for resolving accident disputes. They noted that, owing to the complicated nature of many automobile accidents, it often took a great deal of time to determine who was at fault. As a result, many accident victims had to wait a considerable period before they could receive adequate compensation for their injuries. Other victims who may have been unable to work because of injuries, frequently settled for smaller amounts or even waived their right to a trial, in order to receive faster payment from insurance companies. Other critics of the liability litigation process claimed that the awards granted in auto accident cases varied greatly. Some people were overpaid, and others underpaid, for their damages. A better system, critics maintained, would make all drivers share in the cost of accidents. These critics began to press for a no-fault insurance system as an alternative to liability litigation.

As early as 1946, the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada, enacted no-fault auto insurance. Under a no-fault system, those involved in an accident are compensated for their physical injuries up to a certain limit; even the driver who causes the accident is paid for damages. In its purest form, no-fault automobile insurance does not allow those involved in an accident to sue each other, nor can any party recover damages for pain and suffering. However, no-fault plans are often combined with traditional liability systems to allow accident victims to sue when damages exceed a certain threshold. For example, in New York, it is possible to sue to recover for economic damages greater than $50,000 or for pain and suffering because of death or serious injury. No-fault insurance plans are always compulsory, and every driver who wishes to register a vehicle must obtain at least the minimum standard of no-fault insurance.

In the United States, no-fault automobile insurance was first enacted by Massachusetts in 1971 (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 90 § 34A et seq. [West 1995]) in response to public dissatisfaction with long, drawn-out, and expensive court cases for compensation of losses suffered in traffic accidents. In the same year, Congress considered no-fault as a comprehensive national automobile insurance plan, but the proposal never became law. That unsuccessful bill evolved into the National Standards for No-Fault Insurance Plans Act, which would have set federal standards for state no-fault insurance laws. It too did not pass. Opponents of the bill claimed that the states should be allowed to experiment with this new approach before a national plan was adopted. By the mid-1990s, roughly half the states had enacted no-fault insurance plans.

In arguing for no-fault insurance, advocates pointed out a number of advantages, including faster benefits payment and more equal damages awards to accident victims. They claimed that no-fault insurance would reduce the number of traffic-related court cases, thereby freeing up the courts to consider other cases. No-fault, they argued, would also reduce the cost of car insurance premiums as the legal costs associated with settling auto-related cases decreased. Since the establishment of no-fault insurance in many states, no-fault advocates have bolstered their cause even more by pointing to statistics showing that no-fault plans increase the percentage of insurance benefits payments that go to victims rather than to lawyers and court costs. According to those statistics, in states without no-fault insurance, only forty-eight cents of each dollar spent for insurance premiums goes to those injured in accidents, whereas thirty-two cents goes to court costs and lawyers' fees. However, under the no-fault system in force in Michigan, for example, seventy-three cents of each insurance premium dollar goes to accident victims and four cents goes to court costs and lawyers' fees (Carper 1992).

On the other side of the issue, critics make a number of different points against no-fault insurance. Many, including trial lawyers and some consumer advocates, object to no-fault insurance's elimination of or substantial restrictions on the right to sue for damages. Many states, for example, allow injured parties to sue for "pain and suffering" only if they have sustained specific injuries such as dismemberment, disfigurement, or fracture. Often, "soft-tissue" injuries like whiplash are not allowed as adequate grounds for a lawsuit. Critics also maintain that no-fault insurance takes away the incentive to drive safely. Under the system of no-fault insurance, careless, negligent drivers are entitled to the same compensation in an accident as are careful, responsible drivers. In addition, critics of no-fault insurance cite evidence that the system has not reduced insurance premiums. Under no-fault plans, they argue, the number of persons receiving benefits payments has increased, thus offsetting the reduction in legal costs.

It remains to be seen whether no-fault insurance will continue to spread to other states. Nevada and Pennsylvania have tried no-fault insurance plans and repealed them, with Nevada returning to a financial responsibility law and mandatory liability and property damage insurance. California has considered no-fault insurance for many years but has never adopted it. Some states are looking at compromise plans that preserve elements of both the traditional liability litigation system and the no-fault system. These plans, such as the one in New York, compensate all accident victims, regardless of fault, for basic economic losses—including medical and hospital expenses and lost wages or services—and in the process eliminate small cases where litigation is least cost-effective. At the same time, such plans preserve the right to sue for damages in cases of death or serious injury or when damages exceed a certain amount.

In the end, the question of how to handle auto accident disputes will be decided on the basis of which system—liability litigation, no-fault insurance, or a compromise between the two—is deemed better at limiting costs and at the same time preserving the value of fairness that underlies the U.S. system of justice.

further readings

Lascher, Edward L., Jr., and Michael R. Powers, eds. 2001. The Economics and Politics of Choice No-Fault Insurance. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Liao, Y-Ping, and Michelle J. White. 2002."No-Fault for Motor Vehicles: an Economic Analysis." American Law and Economics Review 4 (fall): 258–94.

Mandell, Mark S. 1999. "What's Wrong with Auto No-Fault: S. 625, the Auto-Choice Reform Act." Trial Lawyers Quarterly 29 (winter): 31–42.

Schwartz, Gary T. 2000. "Auto No-Fault and First-Party Insurance: Advantages and Problems." Southern California Law Review 73 (March): 611–75.


Insurance; Tort Law.

Emissions Standards Emissions standards are intended to reduce the amount of pollution coming from a car's exhaust system. Autos are major contributors to air pollution. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have notorious problems with smog, a situation that can cause serious health problems for those with respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Air pollution also damages plants, reduces crop yields, lowers visibility, and causes acid rain. In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments (Pub. L. No. 91-604, 84 Stat. 1676–1713 [42 U.S.C.A. § 7403 et seq. (1995)]), which set an ambitious goal of eliminating, by 1975, 90 to 95 percent of the emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen as measured in 1968 automobiles. Manufacturers did not meet the target date for achieving this goal, and the deadline was extended. Also, the new emissions standards caused problems because they reduced fuel economy and vehicle performance.

Congress modified emissions standards in the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments (42U.S.C.A. § 7401 et seq.) and in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (Pub. L. No. 101-549, 104 Stat. 2399 [42 U.S.C.A. § 7401 et seq. (1995)]). The modified standards, as defined and monitored by the environmental protection agency (EPA), included new requirements for states with low air quality to implement inspection and maintenance programs for all cars. These inspections were designed to ensure that vehicle emissions systems were working properly. In 1992, the EPA implemented strict emissions testing requirements for 18 states and 33 cities with excessive levels of carbon monoxide and ozone.

California has been a leader in setting air quality standards. In 1989, it announced new guidelines that called for the phasing out of gasfueled cars in southern California by the year 2010.

Critics maintain that federal emissions regulations have been too costly and that regulators should focus on reducing the emissions of more significant polluters, such as power plants and factories.

Fuel Efficiency Standards In the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act (Pub. L. No. 94-163, 89 Stat. 871 [codified as amended in scattered sections of 12 U.S.C.A., 15 U.S.C.A., and 42 U.S.C.A.]), Congress created a set of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for new cars manufactured in the United States. The secretary of transportation was empowered with overseeing these standards. The standards mandated that each car manufacturer achieve an average fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for its entire fleet of cars by 1985. Manufacturers that did not achieve these standards were to be fined. In 1980, an additional sales tax at purchase was placed upon "gas guzzlers" (cars that fail to achieve certain levels of fuel economy). The more a car's gas mileage is below a set standard—which was 22.5 mpg in 1986—the greater the tax. For example, a 1986 car that achieved less than 12.5 mpg was charged an additional sales tax of $3,850. Some members of Congress have lobbied for fuel efficiency standards as high as a 40 mpg fleet average for auto manufacturers.

The fleet-average fuel efficiency of cars nearly doubled between 1973 and 1984. However, detractors of fuel efficiency standards maintain that the increase in efficiency was not entirely due to federal standards. They argue that fuel efficiency would have risen without regulation, in response to higher gas prices and consumer demand for more efficient cars.

Import Quotas Faced with increasingly stiff competition from Japan and Europe, U.S. car manufacturers in the early 1980s pressed the federal government to limit the number of foreign cars imported into the United States. The administration of President ronald reagan responded by negotiating quotas, or limits, on Japanese car imports from 1981 to 1985. The Japanese voluntarily continued quotas on their car exports through the late 1980s, and quotas on pickup trucks from Japan remained in effect through the mid-1990s.

Tort Law and Automobile Manufacturing Courts have established that manufacturers may be held liable and sued for property damage and personal suffering caused by the products they have manufactured. Automobile manufacturers, like all manufacturers, are thus subject to product liability law. Anyone who suffers harm, injury, or property damage from an improperly made auto may sue for damages. Actions that involve a breach of the manufacturer's responsibility to provide a reasonably safe vehicle are called torts.

Courts have found that auto manufacturers have a duty to reasonably design their vehicle against foreseeable accidents. The most important legal concept in this area is crashworthiness—a manufacturer's responsibility to make the car reasonably safe in the event of a crash. The standard of crashworthiness makes it possible to hold manufacturers liable for a defect that causes or enhances injuries suffered in a crash, even if that defect did not cause the crash itself. Auto injuries are often the result of a "second collision," when the occupant's body strikes the interior of the car or strikes an exterior object after being thrown from the vehicle. Second collisions can occur when the seat belt fails, for example. Other examples of failures in crash-worthiness include instruments that protrude on a dashboard or a fuel tank that explodes after impact. A landmark case in this area of manufacturer liability is Larsen v. General Motors Corp., 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968), in which an individual was compensated for injuries suffered when his head struck a steering wheel in an accident. In another significant case, Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 119 Cal. App. Ct. 3d 757, 174 Cal. Rptr. 348 (1981), a California jury required Ford Motor Company to pay $125 million in punitive damages (later lowered to $3.5 million) to a teenager who was severely burned in a fire that resulted when his Ford Pinto was rear-ended and the fuel tank exploded.

Automakers may also be held liable for failure to warn of a product's dangerous tendencies. Manufacturers have, for example, been sued for failing to warn drivers that certain vehicles had a tendency to roll over in some conditions.

One of the more high-profile cases involving defects in automobiles and their parts involved Ford Motor Company and the tire manufacturer Bridgestone/Firestone. On May 2, 2000, the NHTSA began an investigation involving Firestone tires. By that time, the agency had received 90 complaints from consumers who had suffered accidents because the tread on the tires of their Ford Explorers had allegedly caused their vehicles to roll over. These accidents had resulted in at least 27 injuries and four deaths. On August 9, 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone announced the recall of 6.5 million tires, many of which were standard equipment on Explorers.

Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone eventually faced more than 1,000 lawsuits in state and federal court. Many of these cases were settled, including several cases that had been followed closely by the national media. In one case, Marisa Rodriguez of Texas suffered permanent paralysis in 1998 when a faulty tire in the Ford Explorer in which she was riding caused the vehicle to roll over. Rodriguez sought damages of $1 billion when she brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, though she eventually settled the case for a reported $6 million.

By 2002, the total number of fatalities had increased to more than 271, with more than 1,000 injuries. By February 2003, several class action and other suits were pending against Bridgestone/Firestone. In 2001, Congress conducted a series of hearings investigating the Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone fiasco. Congress eventually enacted the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation Act, Pub. L. No. 106-414, 114 Stat. 1800 (49U.S.C.A. §§ 30101 et seq.). It provides criminal penalties for misleading the Secretary of Transportation with respect to vehicle and equipment-related safety defects. Although the provisions of the statute do not apply to the Firestone/Ford cases.

Sale, Lease, and Rental

When shopping for a car, consumers generally receive their first information through advertising. States regulate automobile ads in different ways. In some states, an ad must state

the number of advertised vehicles available for sale, the price, the dealer, and the factory-installed options and warranty terms. Car buyers should beware of bait-and-switch advertising, in which a dealer advertises a specific car for sale without the intention of actually selling it. The ad lures the customer into the showroom so that she or he may be persuaded to buy a higher-priced, unadvertised vehicle. When buyers encounter this type of fraud, or any other type of consumer fraud, they should contact the consumer protection division of their state attorney general's office.

The statute of frauds of the uniform commercial code (UCC) governs the sale of autos in every state except Louisiana. According to the UCC, an auto contract must be in writing in order to be considered valid in court. The purchaser and an agent of the seller—an authorized salesperson, supervisor, or manager—must sign the contract. Buyers should read all terms of the contract before signing. The contract should specify whether the car is new or used and include a description of the car, the car's vehicle identification number (VIN) (on the driver's side of the dashboard near the window), details of any trade-in, and the terms of financing, including the annual percentage rate.

In most states, the title for a new or used car passes to the buyer when the seller endorses the certificate of title. If the buyer does not maintain payments according to the finance agreement, the creditor can repossess the car as collateral for the loan. The debtor has the right to buy back the car (redeem the collateral) and can do so by paying the entire balance due plus repossession costs. Eventually, the creditor may sell the car to another party. If the profit from the sale does not satisfy the debt, the debtor is liable for the difference. If the profit from the sale is greater than the debt, the creditor must pay the difference to the debtor. In some states, the creditor is required by the UCC to notify the debtor of the time, place, and manner of any sale of the car.

All used-car dealers must attach a buyer's guide to the side window of any car they are selling. It must state whether the car comes with a warranty; outline the specific coverage of any warranty; recommend that an independent mechanic inspect the car; state that all promises should be put in writing; and provide a list of potential problems with the car. The buyer's guide becomes part of any contract with the seller. The seller must be truthful about the car and should provide the buyer with the car's complete service records and a signed, written statement of the odometer reading and its accuracy. If the car does not perform as promised, a breach of warranty may have occurred. If an individual pays more than $500 for a used car, he or she should have a written contract and a bill of sale. The latter is required in many states to register a car and should include the date of sale; the year, make, and model of the car; the VIN; the odometer reading; the amount paid for the car and what form it took; the buyer's and seller's names, addresses, and phone numbers; and the seller's signature.

The sale of new automobiles is subject to what are popularly called lemon laws. Lemon is the slang term for a car that just does not work right. Lemon laws, in force in all states as of 2003, entitle a car buyer to a replacement car or a refund if the purchased car cannot be satisfactorily repaired by the dealer. States vary in their requirements for determining whether a car is a lemon. Most define a lemon as a vehicle that has been taken in at least four times for the same repair or is out of service for a total of 30 days during the coverage period. The coverage period is usually one year from delivery or the duration of the written warranty, whichever is shorter. The owner must keep careful records of repairs and submit a written notice to the manufacturer stating the problems with the car and an intention to declare it unfit for use. Many states require that the buyer and the manufacturer or dealer submit to private arbitration, a system of negotiating differences out of court. Increasingly, states are passing lemon laws for used as well as new cars.

A popular method of purchasing the use of a car is leasing. Leasing is essentially long-term rental. For persons who drive few miles a year, like to change cars often, or use their cars for business, leasing is an attractive option. A lease contract may or may not include other expenses such as sales tax, license fee, and insurance. In a closed-end, or "walkaway," lease contract, the car is returned at the end of the contract period and the lessee is free to "walk away" regardless of the value of the car. In an open-end lease, the lessee gambles that the car will be worth a stated price at the end of the lease. If the car is worth more than that price, the lessee may owe nothing or may be refunded the difference; if the car is worth less, the lessee will pay some or all of the difference. Payments are usually higher under a closed-end lease than under an open-end lease. Open-end leases more commonly have a purchase option at the end of the lease term.

To lease or rent an auto, an individual must show a valid driver's license and, usually, a major credit card. A rental business may require that a customer have a good driving record and be of a certain age, sometimes 25 years old or older. An auto rental, as opposed to a lease, may be as short as one day. A rental company may offer a collision damage waiver (CDW) option, which provides insurance coverage for damages to the rented car. The CDW option does not cover personal injuries or personal property damage.

Operation and Maintenance

The operation of an automobile on a public street or highway is a privilege that can be regulated by motor vehicle laws. The individual states derive authority to control traffic from their police power, but often they delegate this authority to a local police force. On the national level, Congress is empowered to regulate motor vehicles that are engaged in interstate commerce.

Automobile regulations are provided for the safety and protection of the public. The laws must be reasonable and should not impose an extraordinary burden on the owners or operators. Such laws also provide a means of identifying vehicles involved in an accident or a theft and of raising revenue for the state by fees imposed on the owner or operator.

Registration and Licensing Every state requires the owner of a vehicle to possess two documents: a certificate of ownership, or title, and a certificate of registration. Through registration, the owner's name, the type of vehicle, the vehicle's license plate number, and the VIN are all registered with the state in a central government office. On payment of a fee, a certificate of registration and license plates are given to the owner as evidence of compliance with the law. The operator is required to display the license plates appropriately on the car—one on the back of the vehicle and sometimes one on the front and the back—and have the certificate of registration and license in possession while driving and ready to display when in an accident or requested to do so by a police officer. If a driver moves to another state, she or he must register the vehicle in that state within a certain amount of time, either immediately or within 20 to 30 days.

A driver's license is also mandatory in every state. The age at which a state allows a person to drive varies, though it is usually sixteen. Other qualifications for a driver's license include physical and mental fitness, comprehension of traffic regulations, and ability to operate a vehicle competently. Most states require a person to pass a written examination, an eye test, and a driving test before being issued a license. States generally allow an individual with a learner's permit or temporary license to operate a vehicle when accompanied by a licensed driver. This arrangement enables a person to develop the driving skills needed to qualify for a license. A license can be revoked or suspended when the motorist disregards the safety of people and property, when a physical or mental disability impairs driving ability, or if the motorist fails to accurately disclose information on the license application. When the state revokes a person's license, it permanently denies that person the right to drive; when it suspends a license, it temporarily denies the right to drive.

Because teenaged drivers are more likely to cause traffic accidents, several states have adopted systems of graduated driver licensing (GDL). Under this system, teenaged drivers typically first receive a learner's permit for about six months, during which time all driving must be supervised by an adult. During the next stage, an intermediate level, teen drivers may drive without the supervision of an adult during the daytime but cannot drive at night without an adult until the age of 18, and cannot have more than one teenaged passenger in the car during unsupervised driving times. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a GDL system.

Traffic Laws Dozens of laws are related to the operation of an automobile, a large number of which vary by state. Minor traffic offenses include parking and speeding violations. More serious traffic offenses are reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and driving without a license. Most states require motorists to file reports with the proper authorities when they are involved in accidents.

Speed limits vary by state. In 1973, during the height of the energy crisis, Congress defined a national speed limit of 55 mph in order to reduce gasoline consumption; the 55-mph limit also had the unintended effect of lowering the traffic fatality rate. Since then, most states have returned to an upper limit of 65 mph. Two types of speed limits are imposed: fixed maximum and prima facie. Under fixed maximum limits, it is unlawful to exceed the stated limit anywhere and at any time. Under prima facie limits, it is possible for a driver to prove in certain cases that a speed in excess of the limit was not unsafe and therefore not unlawful, given the condition of the highway, amount of traffic, and other circumstances.

All states require children riding in automobiles to be restrained using safety belts or safety seats. Most states require adults to wear belts as well, though some require belts only for adults in the front seat. Violation of such laws results in a fine. In 1984, New York became the first state to pass a law making seat belts mandatory for adults.

Driving under the Influence Driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs is the major cause of traffic deaths in the United States. Drunk drivers kill an estimated 25,000 people a year. States use different terms to describe driving under the influence of mind-altering chemicals, or what is popularly known as drunk driving. These include driving underthe influence (DUI), operating under the influence (OUI), and driving while intoxicated (DWI). To arrest someone for drunk driving, the state must have proof that the person is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and the person must be in actual physical control of a vehicle and impaired in the ability to operate it safely. Every state has "implied consent" laws that require those with a driver's license to submit to sobriety tests if a police officer suspects they are intoxicated. These tests may include a field sobriety test (a test at the scene, such as walking a straight line), or blood, breath, or urine tests, usually administered at a police station. Refusal to take a sobriety test can result in suspension of the driver's license. Most states have "per se" laws that prohibit persons from driving if they have a blood-alcohol reading above a certain level. Several states have lowered their per se blood-alcohol limits to 0.08 percent. Penalties vary by state but can be particularly severe for repeat offenders, often involving jail sentences and revocation of driving privileges.

dramshop acts make those who sell liquor for consumption on their premises, such as bars and restaurants, liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron's subsequent actions. In some states, individuals injured by a drunk driver have used such laws to sue bars and restaurants that served liquor to the driver. "Social host" statutes make hosts of parties who serve alcohol and other drugs liable for any damages or injuries caused by guests who subsequently drive while under the influence.

Several national organizations have been formed to combat drunk driving. These include mothers against drunk driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). The legal drinking age has been raised to 21 in every state, largely in an attempt to reduce drunk driving. Most states also make it illegal to transport an open alcoholic beverage container in a vehicle. Alcohol-related deaths as a proportion of all traffic deaths decreased from about 56 percent in 1982 to 47 percent in 1991.

Other Crimes Criminals both target and use automobiles in a number of different types of crime. Cars have been a favorite object of theft ever since their invention. As early as 1919, the dyer act, or National Motor Vehicle Theft Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2311 et seq.), imposed harsh sentences on those who transported stolen vehicles across state lines. Car theft remains a serious problem in many areas of the country and is a major contributor to high insurance premiums in many urban areas. In 1994, Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act (18U.S.C.A. § 511 et seq.; 42 U.S.C.A. § 13701 note, § 14171 [West 1995]), which established a program whereby owners can register their cars with the government, provide information on where their vehicles are usually driven, and affix a decal or marker to the cars. Owners who register their cars in the program authorize the police to stop the cars and question the occupants when the vehicles are out of their normal areas of operation.

Autos are also frequently used to commit crimes. Drivers whose negligence causes accidents that result in the death of other human beings may be found guilty of manslaughter (the unlawful killing of another without malice aforethought, that is, without the intention of causing harm through an illegal act), including criminally negligent manslaughter, a crime punishable by imprisonment. Two types of crime that have received a great deal of public attention are drive-by shootings, in which occupants of a vehicle fire guns at pedestrians or at people in other cars, and car-jackings, in which criminals hijack, or take over, cars from their owners or operators, often robbing and sometimes killing the victims in the process. Because of the usually random nature of such crimes, the public has called for severe penalties for them. The violent crime control and law enforcement act of 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796) made killings caused by drive-by shootings or car-jackings punishable by death.

Insurance Most states require the owner to acquire auto insurance or deposit a bond before a vehicle can be properly registered. Insurance provides compensation for innocent people who suffer injuries resulting from the negligent operation of a vehicle. Other states have liability, or financial responsibility, statutes that require a motorist to pay for damages suffered in an accident resulting from his or her negligence and to furnish proof of financial capability to cover damages that he or she may cause in the future. These statutes do not necessarily require vehicle liability insurance.

About half of all states require that licensed drivers carry automobile insurance with liability, medical, and physical damage coverage. Liability insurance protects a vehicle owner against financial responsibility for damages caused by the negligence of the insured or other covered

drivers. It consists of bodily injury, or personal liability protection and property damage protection. Medical payments insurance covers the insured's household for medical and funeral expenses that result from an auto accident. Physical damage insurance consists of collision coverage, which pays for damage to a car resulting from collision, regardless of fault, and comprehensive coverage, which pays for damage from theft, fire, or vandalism. Over 20 states also require that drivers carry coverage to protect against uninsured motorists. Such coverage allows insured drivers to receive payments from their own insurer should they suffer injuries caused by an uninsured driver. Most insurance policies offer a choice of deductible, which is the portion of an insurance claim that the insured must pay. The higher the deductible, the lower the annual insurance premium or payment.

Many states have laws requiring no-fault automobile insurance. Under no-fault insurance, each person's own insurance company pays for injury or damage in an auto accident, up to a certain limit, irrespective of whose fault the accident is. Each person is entitled to payment for loss of wages or salary, not exceeding a certain percentage of the value of such loss or a fixed weekly amount.

No-fault statutes provide that every person who receives personal injury benefits gives up the right to sue for damages. However, a person who is licensed to drive in a state that requires no-fault insurance may sue someone who has caused an accident and who is licensed in another state that does not require no-fault insurance. In some states, a person who has not obtained no-fault auto insurance is personally liable to pay damages. Some states do not abolish liability arising from the ownership, maintenance, or operation of a motor vehicle in certain circumstances, such as those in which the harm was intentionally caused, the injured person has suffered death or serious injuries, or medical expenses exceed a certain limit.

States that do not have compulsory automobile insurance typically have financial responsibility acts. These laws are designed to ensure that negligent drivers who injure others will pay any resulting claims. They require a proof of financial responsibility from drivers involved in an accident. After reporting the accident to a state agency, drivers who do not have adequate insurance coverage must post a cash deposit or equivalent bond of up to $60,000, unless the other driver provides a written release from liability.


The last stage in the life cycle of an automobile is its disposal and recycling. In the United States, between 10 and 12 million cars are disposed of each year. In most cases, the first stage of disposal is handled by a wrecking or salvage yard. Most states require the salvage yard to have the title to an auto before the vehicle can be destroyed and to contact a state agency regarding its destruction. This step helps to prevent the destruction of cars used in crimes. Salvage yards typically must be licensed with a state pollution control agency for hazardous waste disposal. Salvage yards remove parts and items of value that can be recycled from the vehicle, such as batteries and fluids. What is left of the automobile is then sold to a shredder, a business that breaks the car up into small parts and separates the metal from the nonmetal parts. Roughly 25 percent of the auto cannot be recycled and must be disposed of in a landfill. Auto residue to be disposed of in a landfill typically must be tested to see that it meets the standards for disposal of hazardous waste.

further readings

American Automobile Association. 1993. Digest of Motor Laws. Heathrow, Fla.: American Automobile Association.

"Automobiles." 1994. In American Bar Association Family Legal Guide. New York: Random House.

Carper, Donald L., et al. 1995. "Owning and Operating Motor Vehicles." In Understanding the Law. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

Crandall, Robert W., et al. 1986. Regulating the Automobile. Washington, D.C.: Brookings.

Goodman, Richard M. 1983. Automobile Design Liability. 2d ed. Rochester, N.Y.: Lawyers Cooperative.

Haas, Carol. 1991. Your Driving and the Law. Bountiful, Utah: Horizon.

Mashaw, Jerry L., and David L. Harfst. 1990. The Struggle for Auto Safety. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Nader, Ralph. 1965. Unsafe at any Speed. New York: Grossman.

Research Institute of America, Inc. 2000. Tax Consequences of Using Autos for Business. New York: Research Institute of America.

Winston, Clifford, et al. 1987. Blind Intersection? Policy and the Automobile Industry. Washington, D.C.: Brookings.


Alcohol; Automobile Searches; Collision; Consumer Protection; Environmental Law; Highway; Import Quotas; Personal Property; Product Liability; Punitive Damages; Title; Transportation Department.


views updated Jun 11 2018



"From 1885 to 1895, men struggled to make the car go," writes Laurence Pomeroy in the 1956 book From Veteran to Vintage. "From 1896 to 1905 they contrived to make it go properly. Between 1906 and 1915 they succeeded in making it go beautifully" (Karslake and Pomeroy, p. 3).


On the eve of the First World War, the products of the European motor industry had reached a level of mechanical development that would have seemed unthinkable just ten years earlier. "Time was when it was the exception rather than the rule to get home, even on a 20-mile run, without having to do something to the car," commented Henry Sturmey, who had been a key figure both in the birth in 1896 of the British motor industry and editor in 1895 of the country's first motoring magazine, The Autocar. "Today, we have vehicles that will take us 'there and back again' with a certainty and a celerity that can be equaled by no other form of conveyance" (The Motor, 4 April 1911).

But though the design of the motor car had progressed to a point where reliability could—almost—be taken for granted and the basic mechanical layout had been standardized to such an extent that beneath the skin there would be little discernible change between a popular car of 1914 and its 1939 counterpart, manufacturing methods were still by and large a question of assembling cars on the spot with the components being transported manually from other parts of the factory or delivered by outside suppliers. Labor-intensive hand fitting of those components was a virtual given.

The turning point came in 1914, when the Ford factory that had opened in the United Kingdom at Trafford Park in Manchester in October 1911—the first Ford plant to be established outside North America—installed Europe's first moving assembly line a matter of months after the production chains had started rolling in the company's Highland Park, Michigan, factory. At the time, it was perhaps the most dramatic example of technology transfer from the New World to the Old—Ford inaugurated plant tours so that the public could watch this industrial marvel in action, turning out anything up to twenty-one cars an hour from standardized parts that needed no hand fitting. Yet, this production model was virtually ignored by the rest of the automobile industry, which was still reliant on an abundance of cheap skilled labor.

Nowhere was this truer than in France, the dominant nation in Europe's automotive sector; surprisingly, the British Ford plant, with just 1,500 workers, almost immediately overtook France's leading manufacturer, Renault, where some 4,000 workers built 5,500 cars annually, in terms of output. Output in 1912, the first full year of production, was 3,081 Model Ts and passed 6,100 in 1913.

Despite the outbreak of war in August, in 1914 Ford produced 8,300 cars, outselling the combined total of Britain's next five biggest marques, and the assembly lines operated throughout the hostilities, providing 30,000 Model T troop carriers, water carriers, ambulances, and munitions wagons to the Allied forces. Nimble-footed as a goat, simple to drive and maintain, the Model T was an ideal military vehicle; Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence; 1888–1935) declared that the Model T and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost—many of which had cast off the patrician coachwork of peacetime in favor of armored carapaces—were the only two cars suitable for desert warfare.

The Model T also ushered in the concept of a global automobile industry: from 1913, Fords were also being assembled in a little plant in Bordeaux, France, and an office had been set up in Paris to coordinate European sales, with its American manager being paid the colossal salary of 24,000 dollars annually.


Despite the stalemate of the trenches, the First World War was the first motorized war. The internal combustion engine provided power for everything from trench electricity generators to dispatch riders' machines and made possible two major new weapons that changed the nature of warfare—flying machines and tanks.

Moreover, the exposure of a generation of young men, previously unused to motoring, to the cars and motorcycles used for military purposes, fueled an immediate postwar demand for motor vehicles and the creation of companies to meet that demand. In Britain, forty new makes of cars came on the market in 1919–1920, and another forty-six appeared between 1921 and 1925. However, the inevitable slump that hit the market in 1922 saw more than eighty motor manufacturers go out of business during the same period. For the most part, these were small firms that attempted to break into the popular car market, most notably Clyno of Wolverhampton, which reached third spot in the industry before crashing spectacularly in 1929. Paradoxically, it was specialist sports-car makers like Aston-Martin and Bentley, though perennially short of cash, that survived, thanks to backing from moneyed enthusiasts. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the brothers William Edward "Billy" Rootes and Reginald Rootes snapped up the failed Humber, Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam, and Talbot companies to make their Rootes Group a major player in the motor industry.

Though they had lost their lead to Ford, some French motor manufacturers also came out of the war well: in 1918 Renault had 22,500 workers and built 14,500 vehicles, Hispano-Suiza employed the technological lessons it had learned in building aircraft engines in the design of luxury cars, and Louis Delage, ever the opportunist, used a military contract to supply staff cars as the testbed for his postwar model. But the only one to follow the Taylorite (efficiency) principles of Fordism was André-Gustave Citroën, who launched his own marque in 1919, mass-producing a single model in his former munitions factory on the Quai du Javel, Paris.

In 1920 the French government, anxious to stimulate a market hindered by high taxes, created a reduced-rate "cyclecar" tax for two-seated vehicles weighing under 350 kilograms, but the concession was short-lived. France at that time had an estimated 350 manufacturers: only a handful would make it through the decade.

Britain, having erected a tariff wall of 33.3 percent in 1915 with the McKenna Duties to discourage the imported American cars that had gained a foothold while domestic production was suspended during the First World War, sought to tackle what it saw as the enemy within with the introduction of a one pound per horsepower tax in its 1920 Finance Act, which charged the large-engined but very cheap Model T Ford—still regarded as "foreign" even though it was British-built—the same rate as a costly 3-liter Bentley. The result was that Ford quickly lost its market lead in favor of the indigenous Morris marque, established in 1912 in Cowley near Oxford, away from the motor industry's traditional Midlands location but in an agricultural area with abundant cheap labor. Curiously, Morris—who overtook Ford as market leader in 1924—did not introduce a moving assembly line until 1934.

Another successful rival for the Model T—on price, at least—was the diminutive Austin Seven. Against the advice of his board, Sir Herbert Austin (1866–1941) introduced the car in 1922 as a rival for the then-popular motorcycle combination. At the time, Austin's American-style one-model program had stalled, and a plea to Henry Ford to buy his company had fallen on deaf ears.

Ford had other plans for Europe; in 1917 the company had begun work on the first purpose-built Ford factory in the Old World—a tractor plant at Cork in Ireland—signaling the start of a relentless program of installing assembly plants in every major European market, but offering the same product—Ford's Model T "universal car"—regardless of market conditions or fiscal regimes.

General Motors (GM), however, only operated very low-key assembly operations of its United States products in Europe, gaining a stronger toehold during the 1920s with the acquisition of well-established but financially weak companies—Vauxhall in England and Opel in Germany—which enabled the corporation to introduce new models more attuned to European tastes.

Production in Britain and France remained roughly on a par in the 1920s, with Germany and Italy trailing a long way behind. For some years after the war, there was a ban in many countries on buying German-built cars; this, coupled with raging inflation, meant that the German industry remained in a generally backward state. The main development was the amalgamation in 1926 of Germany's two oldest companies to form Daimler-Benz—its vehicles were sold under the Mercedes-Benz name. In Italy a plethora of small manufacturers gave way before the relentless march of Fiat of Turin, whose ambitious founder, Giovanni Agnelli (1866–1945), had hitched his wagon to the rising star of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). This enabled him to suppress potential rivals, most particularly Ford Italiana, whose factory, opened in 1922 in a Trieste warehouse, had quickly secured 75 percent of a market covering thirty-six countries on three continents. When in 1929 Ford sought to expand by taking over Isotta Fraschini of Milan, Agnelli protested to Mussolini, and Ford's Italian venture was stifled.

Before World War I Belgium and Holland had both had small national motor industries mostly serving national needs, but these faded away in the 1920s as imported models encouraged by liberal tax regimes took over their markets.


The European industry took on a new complexion when the manager of Ford's British organization (hereinafter Ford-Britain), Percival Perry, met Henry Ford in Detroit to formulate the "1928 Plan," in which a new Ford Motor Company Limited was incorporated to take over and operate the European assembly plants previously controlled from the United States. Work began in 1929 on a new "Detroit of Europe" factory at Dagenham in Essex, which would be the center of manufacture for Europe, serving assembly plants in Manchester, Cork, Paris, Berlin (replaced by Cologne), Antwerp, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Trieste, Stockholm, Helsinki, Rotterdam, and Constantinople. But the plan was thrown into disarray as depression gripped Europe in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash and it was never fully implemented, as France and Germany implemented laws demanding high local content levels.

Moreover, Dagenham itself was threatened with closure as Ford-Britain plunged deep into debt, weighed down by the five-million-pound cost of the new factory and by disastrous sales of the British-built Model A, which plummeted to just five cars in the last quarter of 1931. Henry Ford himself took charge, and within five months a new small Ford with a 933cc 8-hp engine designed specifically for Europe was developed. It proved an immediate success and gave Ford 19 percent of the British market, lifting the onetime market leader to third place behind Morris and Austin.

While in 1934 Britain and France had roughly the same number of vehicles—about 1.87 million—in use, by the end of 1938 Britain had moved well ahead with an increase in the vehicle park of 670,000, almost 300,000 more than France. And while in 1929 France had been the second largest producer in the world, eight years later output had declined by almost 20 percent. British production had more than doubled over the same period. Just as telling was the decline in French exports: in 1924 French companies had represented some 25 percent of world vehicle exports, a figure that plunged to 5 percent by 1937.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the moribund German industry was revitalized as a showcase for German technology and as a tool to obtain foreign currency through the medium of export sales. Thus, production rose from 92,200 cars in 1933 to 270,000 in 1938. Of the twenty-one companies engaged in vehicle production that year, Opel was Germany's biggest manufacturer with about 40 percent of the car market and 30 percent of light commercials, with Auto-Union in second place with 25 percent, and Ford (hereinafter Ford-Germany) and Daimler-Benz each with 10 percent. The rise in car production was accompanied by the building of a nationwide network of high-speed motor roads, the so-called autobahns. Despite much anticipation and a saving-stamp scheme for prospective customers that would allegedly secure delivery, few examples of the much-vaunted Volkswagen "Peoples' Car" were seen before the outbreak of war in 1939.


While the German industry had been heavily involved in the buildup to war, British companies had erected so-called shadow factories, which could be switched to war matériel production should hostilities break out. And when war was declared, British companies played a vital role. Austin built airplanes, Vauxhall built tanks, and Rolls-Royce built the Merlin aircraft engines that powered the aircraft that won the Battle of Britain in 1940. The following year Ford-Britain opened a new factory near Manchester that built a further 30,000 Rolls-Royce Merlins to the most exacting standards. Ford also supplied 250,000 V8 engines for fighting vehicles, over 13,000 Bren Gun carriers, and large numbers of trucks. However, the Labour government elected in 1945 placed great restrictions on motoring and the motor industry. Apart from strict material rationing, manufacturers were given an export target of 50 percent of production—and many of its vehicles were ill suited to overseas conditions, earning a reputation for unreliability that would persist for many years. In contrast to its British cousin, Ford-Germany built only some 15,000 trucks annually for the German war machine; some were also assembled in Ford's plants in occupied Europe, but these were subject to ingenious sabotage by disaffected workers.

The German occupation of France devastated the French auto industry. The Germans removed much of its machine tools, and bombing seriously damaged the remaining factories. After the Liberation in 1944, Louis Renault, accused of having collaborated with the Germans, died mysteriously in prison, and his company was nationalized. The industry recovered slowly: output in 1946 was less than one-sixth of the 1938 level and did not pass it until 1949. A degree of rationalization took place under the Monnet Plan of 1947, but the industry fell far short of its targets. The head of the National Planning Council, Jean Monnet had proposed production of 396,800 vehicles in 1947; actual production was 137,400.

Badly affected by Allied bombing, the German industry had few plants capable of resuming production after the Nazi surrender and the division of Occupied Germany. The Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) plant at Eisenach in the Russian zone became Eisenacher Motoren Werke (EMW) and was for a while a flagship factory for the Soviets. Of the Daimler-Benz factories, only the Gaggenau truck plant in the French zone was operable, and the badly damaged Volkswagen factory in the British zone only restarted manufacture thanks to the efforts of British Army officer Ivan Hirst. It recovered to such an extent that when Henry Ford II (1917–1987) visited Europe in 1948 he expressed an interest in taking over the business, only to find that its complex ownership made this infeasible. He was unsuccessful, too, in recruiting Volkswagen chief executive Heinz Nordhoff to head Ford's German operations.

Indeed, Ford was to make unsuccessful overtures to most major European motor manufacturers in the years ahead. A proposed merger with Peugeot in 1948 came to nothing, while in the short period between 1958 and 1964 Ford dallied with Lancia, Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union, BMW, Berliet, the Rootes Group, Lotus, and Ferrari, yet failed to consummate a single deal, any one of which could have changed the face of the European motor industry.

The Michelin tire company, which had owned Citroën since 1934, sold the company to Peugeot in 1975, and in 1978 Peugeot acquired Simca (which had itself absorbed Ford's French production arm in 1954) and rebranded it as Talbot—an ancient name with a convoluted history that was also applied to the products of the former British Chrysler that Peugeot had also acquired in the 1978 acquisition.


Partnerships could prove dangerous: in 1952 Britain's two leading companies, the Nuffield Group and Austin, merged to create the British Motor Corporation (BMC), with some 40 percent of the market. The company prospered in the booming 1950s and 1960s, but little was done to reorganize the companies into a cohesive unit. Old rivalries were rampant, and financial procedures were inadequate—typically, management had no idea of how much it cost to produce a car! A downward slide in sales ensued.

In strict contrast was the postwar rise of Ford-Britain, guided by the charismatic Sir Patrick Hennessy, with its strict purchasing and costing disciplines. The contrast between BMC and Ford was never more clearly shown than when BMC launched the advanced front-wheel-drive Mini in 1959; Ford bought one, dismantled it, and costed every part, to find that BMC could not possibly be selling the little car at a profit. But when Ford's managing director confronted his BMC counterpart with a proposal that if the Mini's price were raised to an economic level, then Ford would make a matching price increase on its new Anglia, he was politely brushed off.

BMC's off-the-cuff strategy fatally undermined its profitability. In 1966 it merged with the luxury brand Jaguar as British Motor Holdings, and two years later BMH came together with the Leyland Group—which had taken over the ailing Standard Triumph company in 1961—to form British Leyland (BL). In less than a decade BL—plagued by an appalling strike record—was in desperate financial straits and turned to the government for help. Vast sums of public money were pumped into BL, in which the government's National Enterprise Board now had a 95 percent stake, to little avail.

In 1975 the American Chrysler Corporation, which had taken over Rootes after Ford had turned the company down, threatened to close the loss-making company down unless the government gave financial aid. The government gave in, to the tune of 162.5 million pounds.

Perversely, in view of Henry Ford's vision of the "universal car," Ford-Britain and Ford-Germany had produced completely different models for the same market segments in the years after the war and, indeed, regarded each other as their main rival on the Continent, often with competing dealerships on either side of the same street. It was an insupportable position that ended in 1967, when Henry Ford II set up Ford of Europe as a blanket organization to coordinate development and marketing programs of a single model range. It took far longer for the rival General Motors brands Opel and Vauxhall to coalesce into a single European organization, although common models, differently badged depending on market, had been produced since the mid-1970s.

A new factor in the European marketplace was the arrival of Japanese imports in 1965. The increasing popularity of these models eventually led to the establishment of European production plants, particularly in Britain, where by 2005 Japanese manufacturers were building over 800,000 cars a year.


With the increasing liberalization of European trade in the 1970s, transnational joint ventures brought a new look to the motor industry. The Swedish company Volvo, which acquired the last native Dutch manufacturer Van Doorne's Automobiel Fabriek (DAF) in 1975, joined forces with Peugeot and Renault the same year in a new "Douvrin" V6 engine, which the three makers all fitted in their luxury models.

This was a period of expansion despite a fourfold increase in fuel prices following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. In 1974 Peugeot took over a 30 per cent share in Citroën (and took it over completely in 1976); Volkswagen introduced the front-wheel-drive Golf to succeed the perennial Beetle; and Ford opened new plants in Bordeaux (transmission) and Valencia (cars) as part of a program that would see a new front-wheel-drive "supermini," the Fiesta, launched to face off against cars like the Fiat 127 and give the company a far stronger presence in southern European markets.

When it became clear that the industry was moving into a state of overcapacity, "Project Oyster," a plan to open a new Ford car plant at Sines in Portugal, was shelved in 1983. Instead, Ford began a new round of merger and takeover talks. In 1985 "Project Columbus," a merger proposal with Fiat, foundered at the last minute on the question of who would hold overall control, while Ford bids to acquire the failing Alfa Romeo and Rover (late British Leyland) companies were scuppered by high-level political machinations. Alfa Romeo was acquired instead by Fiat, and BL went first to British Aerospace and then to BMW. Movesto acquire luxury and sports marques were more successful. Ford acquired Aston Martin in 1987, the recently privatized Jaguar company in 1989, Volvo in 1999, and Land Rover in 2000, which together formed the new Premier Automobile Group.

Interestingly, Ford had to choose between Jaguar and the Swedish company Saab and had gone for the British marque largely on sentimental grounds because its vice chairman William Clay Ford had owned Jaguars since his college days. General Motors picked up Saab (which had been the Ford accountants' favorite, but by 2005, when Saab shared the common "Epsilon" chassis platform with the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, it looked as though production of the mainstream Saabs would be transferred from Sweden to the Opel plant in Germany). Jaguar gave Ford much needed class but proved a heavy drain on corporate funds.

That break with traditional national ties was symptomatic of the rapidly changing fortunes of the European industry. By the dawn of the new millennium, the go-it-alone optimism of the mid-1980s had given way to intercompany collaboration—most notably between Fiat and General Motors—and the eastward shift of production to countries like Poland and Hungary in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The family-car segment of the market weakened, while the VW-Audi Group—which already owned the Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (SEAT), a Spanish company from which Fiat had walked away in 1980—acquired the prestigious British brand Bentley in a bidding war that saw its rival BMW take over the Rolls-Royce name, and bought the reborn but struggling Bugatti brand to develop the world's fastest road car as a showcase for its engineering skills.

Long-established Western European plants closed: in 2002 Ford ceased car manufacture at its former flagship Dagenham factory. Only the engine plant remained operative just twenty years after a costly robotization program had transformed production methods and manning levels. And GM stopped making Vauxhall cars in Luton, U.K., its headquarters since 1905. But the most spectacular crash was that of Rover, which had been sold to a management consortium for a nominal ten pounds after BMW had failed to make it profitable (though it retained the Mini brand and its Cowley, Oxford, factory). In 2005 the Rover plant at Longbridge (the old Austin factory, opened in 1905) suspended production, unable to pay its bills because its aging models had failed to meet sales forecasts. Controversially, its assets were acquired by a Chinese group, and some, if not all, production seemed likely to be transferred to Shanghai.

After 120 years since the first Benz car stuttered into life, the European motor industry appears to be in a state of continuous change, with U.K. output, once the Continent's biggest, down to 18 percent of the British market, niche models playing a growing role in sales, Asian brands taking an ever-increasing share of sales, and the world's oldest marque, Mercedes-Benz, forced to revise its future model plans in the face of falling profitability. Past certainties have vanished, and customer requirements have changed radically in an increasingly complicated market. The motorcar now has to offer more than mere transportation, and the European industry is being forced to respond.

See alsoAgnelli, Giovanni; Fordism; Industrial Capitalism; Renault; Taylorism; Volkswagen.


Adeney, Martin. The Motor Makers: The Turbulent History of Britain's Car Industry. London, 1988.

Burgess-Wise, David. Ford at Dagenham: The Rise and Fall of Detroit in Europe. Derby, U.K., 2001.

——. Century in Motion. Oxford, U.K., 2003.

Dumont, Pierre. Peugeot d'Hier et D'Avant-Hier. Paris, 1983.

Georgano, Nick, Nick Baldwin, Anders Clausager, and Jonathan Wood. Britain's Motor Industry—The First Hundred Years. Sparkford, U.K., 1995.

Karslake, Kent, and Laurence Pomeroy. From Veteran to Vintage: A History of Motoring and Motorcars from 1884 to 1914. London, 1956.

Montagu of Beaulieu, Lord, and David Burgess-Wise. Daimler Century: The Full History of Britain's Oldest Car Maker. Sparkford, U.K., 1995.

Seidler, Edouard. The Romance of Renault. Lausanne, Switzerland, 1973.

——. Let's Call It Fiesta: The Auto-Biography of Ford's Project Bobcat. Sparkford, U.K., 1976.

Turner, Graham. The Leyland Papers. London, 1971.

Wood, Jonathan. Wheels of Misfortune: The Rise and Fall of the British Motor Industry. London, 1988.

David Burgess-Wise


views updated May 23 2018



Torque is the application of force where there is rotational motion. The most obvious example of torque in action is the operation of a crescent wrench loosening a lug nut, and a close second is a playground seesaw. But torque is also crucial to the operation of gyroscopes for navigation, and of various motors, both internal-combustion and electrical.


Force, which may be defined as anything that causes an object to move or stop moving, is the linchpin of the three laws of motion formulated by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727.) The first law states that an object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion, unless or until outside forces act upon it. The second law defines force as the product of mass multiplied by acceleration. According to the third law, when one object exerts a force on another, the second object exerts on the first a force equal in magnitude but opposite in direction.

One way to envision the third law is in terms of an active eventfor instance, two balls striking one another. As a result of the impact, each flies backward. Given the fact that the force on each is equal, and that force is the product of mass and acceleration (this is usually rendered with the formula F = ma ), it is possible to make some predictions regarding the properties of mass and acceleration in this interchange. For instance, if the mass of one ball is relatively small compared to that of the other, its acceleration will be correspondingly greater, and it will thus be thrown backward faster.

On the other hand, the third law can be demonstrated when there is no apparent movement, as for instance, when a person is sitting on a chair, and the chair exerts an equal and opposite force upward. In such a situation, when all the forces acting on an object are in balance, that object is said to be in a state of equilibrium.

Physicists often discuss torque within the context of equilibrium, even though an object experiencing net torque is definitely not in equilibrium. In fact, torque provides a convenient means for testing and measuring the degree of rotational or circular acceleration experienced by an object, just as other means can be used to calculate the amount of linear acceleration. In equilibrium, the net sum of all forces acting on an object should be zero; thus in order to meet the standards of equilibrium, the sum of all torques on the object should also be zero.


Seesaws and Wrenches

As for what torque is and how it works, it is best discuss it in relationship to actual objects in the physical world. Two in particular are favorites among physicists discussing torque: a seesaw and a wrench turning a lug nut. Both provide an easy means of illustrating the two ingredients of torque, force and moment arm.

In any object experiencing torque, there is a pivot point, which on the seesaw is the balance-point, and which in the wrench-and-lug nut combination is the lug nut itself. This is the area around which all the forces are directed. In each case, there is also a place where force is being applied. On the seesaw, it is the seats, each holding a child of differing weight. In the realm of physics, weight is actually a variety of force.

Whereas force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, weight is equal to mass multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity. The latter is equal to 32 ft (9.8 m)/sec2. This means that for every second that an object experiencing gravitational force continues to fall, its velocity increases at the rate of 32 ft or 9.8 m per second. Thus, the formula for weight is essentially the same as that for force, with a more specific variety of acceleration substituted for the generalized term in the equation for force.

As for moment arm, this is the distance from the pivot point to the vector on which force is being applied. Moment arm is always perpendicular to the direction of force. Consider a wrench operating on a lug nut. The nut, as noted earlier, is the pivot point, and the moment arm is the distance from the lug nut to the place where the person operating the wrench has applied force. The torque that the lug nut experiences is the product of moment arm multiplied by force.

In English units, torque is measured in pound-feet, whereas the metric unit is Newtonmeters, or N·m. (One newton is the amount of force that, when applied to 1 kg of mass, will give it an acceleration of 1 m/sec2). Hence if a person were to a grip a wrench 9 in (23 cm) from the pivot point, the moment arm would be 0.75 ft (0.23 m.) If the person then applied 50 lb (11.24 N) of force, the lug nut would be experiencing 37.5 pound-feet (2.59 N·m) of torque.

The greater the amount of torque, the greater the tendency of the object to be put into rotation. In the case of a seesaw, its overall design, in particular the fact that it sits on the ground, means that its board can never undergo anything close to 360° rotation; nonetheless, the board does rotate within relatively narrow parameters. The effects of torque can be illustrated by imagining the clockwise rotational behavior of a seesaw viewed from the side, with a child sitting on the left and a teenager on the right.

Suppose the child weighs 50 lb (11.24 N) and sits 3 ft (0.91 m) from the pivot point, giving her side of the seesaw a torque of 150 pound-feet (10.28 N·m). On the other side, her teenage sister weighs 100 lb (22.48 N) and sits 6 ft (1.82 m) from the center, creating a torque of 600 pound-feet (40.91 N·m). As a result of the torque imbalance, the side holding the teenager will rotate clockwise, toward the ground, causing the child's side to also rotate clockwiseoff the ground.

In order for the two to balance one another perfectly, the torque on each side has to be adjusted. One way would be by changing weight, but a more likely remedy is a change in position, and therefore, of moment arm. Since the teenager weighs exactly twice as much as the child, the moment arm on the child's side must be exactly twice as long as that on the teenager's.

Hence, a remedy would be for the two to switch positions with regard to the pivot point. The child would then move out an additional 3 ft (.91 m), to a distance of 6 ft (1.83 m) from the pivot, and the teenager would cut her distance from the pivot point in half, to just 3 ft (.91 m). In fact, however, any solution that gave the child a moment arm twice as long as that of the teenager would work: hence, if the teenager sat 1 ft (.3 m) from the pivot point, the child should be at 2 ft (.61 m) in order to maintain the balance, and so on.

On the other hand, there are many situations in which you may be unable to increase force, but can increase moment arm. Suppose you were trying to disengage a particularly stubborn lug nut, and after applying all your force, it still would not come loose. The solution would be to increase moment arm, either by grasping the wrench further from the pivot point, or by using a longer wrench.

For the same reason, on a door, the knob is placed as far as possible from the hinges. Here the hinge is the pivot point, and the door itself is the moment arm. In some situations of torque, however, moment arm may extend over "empty space," and for this reason, the handle of a wrench is not exactly the same as its moment arm. If one applies force on the wrench at a 90°-angle to the handle, then indeed handle and moment arm are identical; however, if that force were at a 45° angle, then the moment arm would be outside the handle, because moment arm and force are always perpendicular. And if one were to pull the wrench away from the lug nut, then there would be 0° difference between the direction of force and the pivot pointmeaning that moment arm (and hence torque) would also be equal to zero.


A gyroscope consists of a wheel-like disk, called a flywheel, mounted on an axle, which in turn is mounted on a larger ring perpendicular to the plane of the wheel itself. An outer circle on the same plane as the flywheel provides structural stability, and indeed, the gyroscope may include several such concentric rings. Its focal point, however, is the flywheel and the axle. One end of the axle is typically attached to some outside object, while the other end is left free to float.

Once the flywheel is set spinning, gravity has a tendency to pull the unattached end of the axle downward, rotating it on an axis perpendicular to that of the flywheel. This should cause the gyroscope to fall over, but instead it begins to spin a third axis, a horizontal axis perpendicular both to the plane of the flywheel and to the direction of gravity. Thus, it is spinning on three axes, and as a result becomes very stablethat is, very resistant toward outside attempts to upset its balance.

This in turn makes the gyroscope a valued instrument for navigation: due to its high degree of gyroscopic inertia, it resists changes in orientation, and thus can guide a ship toward its destination. Gyroscopes, rather than magnets, are often the key element in a compass. A magnet will point to magnetic north, some distance from "true north" (that is, the North Pole.) But with a gyroscope whose axle has been aligned with true north before the flywheel is set spinning, it is possible to possess a much more accurate directional indicator. For this reason, gyroscopes are used on airplanesparticularly those flying over the polesas well as submarines and even the Space Shuttle.

Torque, along with angular momentum, is the leading factor dictating the motion of a gyroscope. Think of angular momentum as the momentum (mass multiplied by velocity) that a turning object acquires. Due to a principle known as the conservation of angular momentum, a spinning object has a tendency to reach a constant level of angular momentum, and in order to do this, the sum of the external torques acting on the system must be reduced to zero. Thus angular momentum "wants" or "needs" to cancel out torque.

The "right-hand rule" can help you to understand the torque in a system such as the gyroscope. If you extend your right hand, palm downward, your fingers are analogous to the moment arm. Now if you curl your fingers downward, toward the ground, then your fingertips point in the direction of g that is, gravitational force. At that point, your thumb (involuntarily, due to the bone structure of the hand) points in the direction of the torque vector.

When the gyroscope starts to spin, the vectors of angular momentum and torque are at odds with one another. Were this situation to persist, it would destabilize the gyroscope; instead, however, the two come into alignment. Using the right-hand rule, the torque vector on a gyroscope is horizontal in direction, and the vector of angular momentum eventually aligns with it. To achieve this, the gyroscope experiences what is known as gyroscopic precession, pivoting along its support post in an effort to bring angular momentum into alignment with torque. Once this happens, there is no net torque on the system, and the conservation of angular momentum is in effect.

Torque in Complex Machines

Torque is a factor in several complex machines such as the electric motor thatwith variationsruns most household appliances. It is especially important to the operation of automobiles, playing a significant role in the engine and transmission.

An automobile engine produces energy, which the pistons or rotor convert into torque for transmission to the wheels. Though torque is greatest at high speeds, the amount of torque needed to operate a car does not always vary proportionately with speed. At moderate speeds and on level roads, the engine does not need to provide a great deal of torque. But when the car is starting, or climbing a steep hill, it is important that the engine supply enough torque to keep the car running; otherwise it will stall. To allocate torque and speed appropriately, the engine may decrease or increase the number of revolutions per minute to which the rotors are subjected.

Torque comes from the engine, but it has to be supplied to the transmission. In an automatic transmission, there are two principal components: the automatic gearbox and the torque converter. It is the job of the torque converter to transmit power from the flywheel of the engine to the gearbox, and it has to do so as smoothly as possible. The torque converter consists of three elements: an impeller, which is turned by the engine flywheel; a reactor that passes this motion on to a turbine; and the turbine itself, which turns the input shaft on the automatic gearbox. An infusion of oil to the converter assists the impeller and turbine in synchronizing movement, and this alignment of elements in the torque converter creates a smooth relationship between engine and gearbox. This also leads to an increase in the car's overall torquethat is, its turning force.

Torque is also important in the operation of electric motors, found in everything from vacuum cleaners and dishwashers to computer printers and videocassette recorders to subway systems and water-pumping stations. Torque in the context of electricity involves reference to a number of concepts beyond the scope of this discussion: current, conduction, magnetic field, and other topics relevant to electromagnetic force.


Beiser, Arthur. Physics, 5th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

Macaulay, David. The New Way Things Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

"Rotational Motion." Physics Department, University of Guelph (Web site). <> (March 4, 2001).

"Rotational MotionTorque." Lee College (Web site). <> (March 4, 2001).

Schweiger, Peggy E. "Torque" (Web site). <> (March 4, 2001).

"Torque and Rotational Motion" (Web site). <> (March 4, 2001).



A change in velocity over a given time period.


A situation in which the forces acting upon an object are in balance.


The product of mass multiplied by acceleration.


The tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and of an object at rest to remain at rest.


A measure of inertia, indicating the resistance of an object to a change in its motionincluding a change in velocity.


For an object experiencing torque, moment arm is the distance from the pivot or balance point to the vector on which force is being applied. Moment arm is always perpendicular to the direction of force.


The rate at which the position of an object changes over a given period of time.


The product of momentarm multiplied by force.


A quantity that possesses both magnitude and direction. By contrast, a scalar quantity is one that possesses only magnitude, with no specific direction.


The speed of an object in a particular direction.


A measure of the gravitational force on an object; the product of mass multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity.


views updated Jun 11 2018


One of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings is that they have always been mobile. From its origins on the African continent, the human species has traversed the earth and populated every continent but Antarctica. For most of human existence, land travel was entirely dependent on human and animal muscle power. Radical changes came in the nineteenth century with the invention of steam-powered locomotives, and toward the end of the century the first automobiles powered by internal combustion engines were created in several industrially developed countries. By the first decade of the twentieth century automobile ownership was expanding at a rapid rate in the United States, and this pattern was followed in subsequent decades in many other parts of the world.

Cars gave people an unparalleled ability to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and with whom they wanted. In short, they promised freedom. Early motorists eagerly took advantage of this freedom, embarking on long journeys despite miserable road conditions and the uncertain reliability of their vehicles. By the 1920s automobile ownership had been democratized in the United States as manufacturing innovations dramatically lowered purchasing prices, giving rise to an era of mass motorization.

In the early-twenty-first century car ownership has expanded to such an extent that in many industrial nations the ratio of cars to people approaches or even exceeds one to two. Yet universal automobile ownership presents a paradox. Although the great virtue of the automobile lies in the freedom that it confers, the ownership and operation of a car has subjected its users to numerous restrictions. Traffic laws, registration and licensure requirements, vehicle inspections, insurance, and a significant financial burden put a serious crimp on feelings of unrestrained freedom. Individual freedom is also stifled by the sheer proliferation of automobiles; people acquire and use cars to enhance their mobility, but when they do so in large numbers the result is traffic-stopping congestion, and everybody's freedom of movement is diminished accordingly. In sum, the automobile is a prime example of how the aggregated pursuit of individual freedom can produce the opposite result—submission to numerous restraints, immobility, and frustration.

Clearing the Air

Many of the ethical quandaries posed by the automobile can be reduced to an overarching issue: achieving a balance between the individual freedom that comes with operating a car and the needs of society as a whole. The difficulty of doing so is exemplified by the forty-year-old campaign to reduce air pollution. A single car has a negligible effect on air quality, but 100,000 in a limited area can be the source of significant pollution. In recent years there have been substantial gains in air quality due to the application of technological fixes such as computerized engine management systems, reformulated fuels, and catalytic converters. But these never would have been developed and used if each motorist followed only his or her self-interest. Emission-control technologies add substantial costs to the purchase and operation of a vehicle, yet they do nothing to improve air quality if no other cars are similarly equipped. It is therefore necessary for an agency working on behalf of the collectivity, in most cases government at some level, to mandate that cars and the fuel they use produce fewer pollution-forming emissions. As long as everyone is required to meet similar regulations there is little cause for complaint. People may grumble about paying higher prices for cars and fuel, and they may resent the time absorbed by periodic smog checks, but few would want to return to the preregulation era when air pollution caused by uncontrolled vehicle emissions severely diminished the quality of life.

It has been relatively easy to mesh individual with collective interests in combating air pollution because the environmental consequences of operating an automobile are all too apparent to anyone who has to live in a gray-brown haze of smog. This in turn substantially increases public receptivity to the governmental actions taken to reduce emissions. It also helps that the available technological fixes do not require a massive overhaul of the transportation system; all that is needed are some modifications to automobile engines and the fuel they use. The same does not hold true when addressing another inescapable product of vehicle operation: the generation of carbon dioxide (CO2). There are no easily applied technological fixes to reduce CO2 emissions, which are the inevitable product of burning hydrocarbon fuels. The only likely solution entails the abandonment of the internal combustion engine in favor of battery-powered electrics, while hoping that battery performance can eventually be improved. Further in the future lies the possibility that fuel cells will become practical sources of power, but their adoption would necessitate major changes in the infrastructure that supports the automobile and the expenditure of billions of dollars. Moreover obtaining the hydrogen to power the fuels cells is problematic. The most feasible source is petroleum, and the energy costs of the conversion process would require the production and consumption of significantly larger quantities of this diminishing resource.

Even if alternatives to the internal combustion engine become available, the task of getting motorists to accept them remains, because CO2 emissions do not have the immediate, all too apparent effects of ordinary smog. Because CO2 is odorless and colorless, most drivers are unaware of the fact that, on average, they are pumping about a pound of it into the atmosphere for every mile they drive, and that vehicles account for about 30 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States. Yet in the long run these emissions may be more harmful than the smog-forming by-products of internal combustion. If, as many atmospheric scientists believe, CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere is a major cause of global warming, the long-term results of automobile operation could be disastrous. But global warming is still a controversial issue, and if it occurs will take a long time to manifest itself. Consequently it will be far more difficult to mandate the manufacture and operation of totally different kinds of vehicles, or to do away with the private automobile altogether.

Automotive Safety as an Ethical Issue

Setting aside the problem of controlling CO2, the case for asserting the primacy of collective needs over individual freedom seems clear-cut in regard to automotive emissions controls. Somewhat more ambiguous is the issue of making safer cars. One may reasonably begin with the assertion that the most important determinants of the safe operation of vehicles are the actions and skills of their operators. When 30 percent of the more than 42,000 fatalities on U.S. roads in 2003 involved drivers whose blood-alcohol level was over the legal standard for driving under the influence, it is not reasonable to demand that cars should provide perfect protection from the consequences of individual irresponsibility. At the same time, however, some accidents may be unavoidable, and even when driver error is involved, death and injury cannot be considered appropriate penalties for momentary lapses.

For decades automobile manufacturers were convinced that safety features were of scant interest to consumers and they expended little or no effort to improve the ability of automobiles to protect their occupants in the event of an accident. This situation began to change dramatically in the 1960s, when Ralph Nader and other critics attacked the industry's indifference. Automotive safety became a salient cultural and political issue, and a combination of market demands and government regulations prodded manufacturers into making cars that did a much better job of protecting their occupants when accidents occurred.

Of all the safety improvements that ensued, the most important was the fitting of seat belts as standard equipment. Subsequent advances such as shoulder-and-lap belts made these restraints even more effective, but they were of no value when left unused. During the early 1970s only a small minority of U.S. drivers and passengers regularly used seat belts, so for the 1974 model year an effort was made to encourage their use by fitting cars with interlocks that prevented the vehicle from being started if all occupants had not buckled up. Vociferous protests caused Congress to repeal the requirement in short order.

Convinced that the majority of drivers and passengers could not be convinced to use seat belts, the federal government mandated the fitting of passive restraints to new cars. Some of these took the form of motorized harnesses that wound their way over an occupant's upper body, but far more popular was the airbag. By the mid-1990s driver and front-seat passenger airbags were virtually universal fittings on new cars. Airbag technology was predicated on the need to protect an unbelted male weighing 80 kilograms (175 pounds). Providing protection for a person of this size necessitated the design of airbags that inflated in milliseconds and reached speeds of up to 320 kilometers per hour (200 miles per hour), at which point they exerted 500 to 1,180 kilograms (1,100 to 2,600 pounds) of force on the upper body.

It soon became apparent that airbags deploying with this force could be lethal, especially for children and drivers under a certain height who had to sit close to the steering wheel. By mid-2003, 231 people (144 of them infants and children) had been killed by airbag deployments, some of them triggered by collisions occurring at very low speeds. In contrast to these airbag-related fatalities, there was an estimated 14 percent reduction of the risk of being killed in the event of an accident. But this is far less than the 45 percent reduction attributed to the use of seat belts. Used together, airbags and seat belts lower the risk of fatality by 50 percent. It is thus apparent that airbags are a useful supplement to lap-and-shoulder belts, but they are not a substitute. A majority of the driving public seems to have recognized this fact, and approximately 70 percent of drivers now use seat belts, far more than had been deemed possible when passive restraints were first decreed. This has allowed the installation of airbags that inflate with less force. Some cars are being designed with smart airbags that vary the force of deployment according to a number of variables, such as the weight of the driver or passenger. These improvements will make airbag deployment less hazardous, but the risk of some airbag-induced casualties still remains.

Assessing whether or not the lives saved by airbags have outweighed the deaths they cause is no easy task. It can be said with certainty, however, that no medicine with the airbag's ratio of deaths caused to lives saved would ever have been approved by government regulators.

Ethical Perspectives

Although the United States, with its long travel distances and individualist social values, has set a dominant pattern for automobile development and utilization, other countries have sometimes adopted public policies at variance with those of the United States. For example, in part because of smaller streets and roadways, cars in Europe are generally smaller in size than those in the United States. And because automobile ownership was for many decades largely restricted to upper-income individuals, European countries also have generally taxed gasoline at higher rates, with some of the revenues used to subsidize public transportation systems.

The issues engendered by automobile emissions and automotive safety hardly exhaust the ethical concerns posed by the automobile wherever it has taken hold. For example, important issues can be raised about the consequences of the automobile's ravenous consumption of energy. In addition to the environmental problems already mentioned, the massive demand for petroleum-based fuels has affected the distribution of wealth at both a national and international level. In many petroleum-producing countries the bulk of oil revenues has gone to a small segment of the population, contributing to a lopsided distribution of income and wealth, and exacerbating social tensions. For the world as a whole, high energy prices due in part to the ever-increasing demand for automotive fuels have made the efforts of poor countries to modernize their economies more difficult.

In the realm of international relations, important questions can be raised in regard to how foreign policies and military operations have been affected by the need to maintain access to, or even control of, oil supplies, especially in the Middle East. Finally the accelerating use of the world's petroleum supplies and their inevitable depletion should provoke questions regarding what, if anything, is owed to future generations by the present one. In sum, as befits an artifact that has shaped the modern world like few others, the automobile has generated a host of ethical issues that need to be addressed if reasonable and effective public policies are to be developed and implemented.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics;Ford Pinto Case;Pollution;Safety Engineering:Practices;Roads and Highways.


Bryner, Gary C. (1995). Blue Skies, Green Politics: The Clean Air Act of 1990 and Its Implementation. Washington, DC: CQ Press. A narrative and analysis of the governmental processes that resulted in stiffer emissions regulations.

Flink, James J. (1988). The Automobile Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A comprehensive history of the automobile and its consequences.

Illich, Ivan. (1974). Energy and Equity. New York: Harper & Row. A provocative challenge to the dominance of automobile-based transportation and an energy-intensive society in general.

Nader, Ralph. (1972). Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman. The book that launched the crusade for improved automobile safety.

Volti, Rudi. (2003). "Reducing Automotive Emissions in Southern California: The Dance of Public Policies and Technological Fixes." In Inventing for the Environment, ed. Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A discussion of the interrelationship of policy initiatives and technological change.


views updated May 14 2018


The introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile at the end of the nineteenth century provided a mobile platform for sexual adventure and a focal point for the development of a new kind of sex culture. Although courtship already involved forms of transportation—romantic walks, buggy rides, bicycles built for two, and train trips—the automobile offered a new kind of mobility, separation, and privacy to couples who wanted to take romance beyond hand holding, dancing, and perhaps the chaste kiss that once constituted publicly acceptable courtship behaviors. In addition, automobiles are both sexy and symbols of sexuality in the increasingly technological culture of the last hundred years.


It took a few years for the automobile to evolve from a barely motorized buggy owned by a wealthy few to a widely affordable mode of transportation. Although versions of the automobile were introduced in Europe and the United States in the 1890s, it was only through Henry Ford's innovations in mass production that the automobile became widely available to working-class families. The first "surrey" cars in the 1890s lacked tops and had high benchlike seats that were hard and uncomfortable. By adding tops and then windows and heaters, car manufacturers moved toward a more comfortable and impervious interior space with bigger, longer, and more padded seats and upholstered doors. By the 1920s enclosed cars whose interiors could be used as mobile beds were being fitted with running boards and fenders that also served as sites for sexual encounters. Some cars came with matching tents or removable seats that made them ideal for camping, transport of goods and people, or sexual activity. By 1927 more than 15 million Model T Fords had been sold.


As automobiles became more enclosed, blocking passengers from prying eyes and weather, they also become increasingly convenient sites for sexual behavior. As more people could afford to purchase automobiles, cars become increasingly available to younger people as vehicles for dating. Because most young people lived with their parents until marriage, romance was limited to what was publicly permissible. The mobility of the automobile, however, enabled new possibilities for sexual encounters, permitting couples to go where they wanted, providing a new site for sexual encounters away from public places such as the parks, church socials, porches, and living rooms that had previously given courting couples opportunities to get to know one another. Couples could move around together, going from social venues, such as a drive-in restaurant, where they could eat alone together with other automotive couples, to lovers' lanes and other parking spots, where the privacy of darkness and the solitude of the closed car permitted explorations away from the eyes of family members and neighbors.

During the first thirty years of the automobile, roadside culture also evolved to accommodate the automobile and its touring passengers. As automobiles became more numerous and reliable, more people began taking road trips and needed places to stay along the road because a tent was not everyone's idea of desirable accommodations. Roads, which had been poorly built, began to improve to accommodate automobile traffic. Food and lodging industries developed specifically for the needs of the automobile tourist, who often found it inconvenient to park in the environs of midcity hotels. Motor courts and motels emerged along popular automobiling routes and provided another trysting place designed specifically for vehicular access. Although most motor courts provided lodging for travelers, some quickly saw the benefits of hosting the sexually adventurous, renting rooms by the hour and asking few questions.


The increased opportunity for sexual behavior was not without detractors. Lawmakers began defining the kinds of activities permissible in automobiles. Although most lovers' lane activities were tolerated or, at worst, lovers were shooed away by the police, some municipalities passed laws against various degrees of sexual activity in cars, including kissing and masturbating while watching other people have sex in cars. In Clinton, Oklahoma, such self-servicing activities were banned in drive-in movie theaters. Chicago enacted a series of statutes, including one that made the car a "public place," which, taken together, essentially outlawed making love in cars. In Carlsbad, New Mexico, couples having sex in a parked vehicle during lunch hour had to have the curtains drawn. If couples having sex in parked cars in Liberty Corner, New Jersey, accidentally blew the horn, they could be put in jail. In Detroit car sex was banned unless the car was parked on the participants' own property. In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, police officers who suspected that a car's occupants were engaged in sexual activity had to honk their horns three times and wait for two minutes before investigating. What the presence of such laws indicates is the pervasiveness of sex in cars. Those laws testify to the range of social situations sex in cars has produced.


Automobiles and the culture of the road are associated with sexual behaviors in other ways as well. Prostitution has become associated with automobiles as one of the prime sites for business. Prospective clients cruise for prostitutes, and prostitutes use particular roads, intersections, truck stops, and rest areas as places to attract customers. As a strategy for curtailing prostitution, municipalities such as Los Angeles began seizing the automobiles of citizens suspected of soliciting prostitutes.

Hitchhiking also has become associated with sexuality as sexual appeal has become a pretext for hitching a ride—a tendency exploited in films such as It Happened One Night (1934)—and especially as it relates to the opportunity for and risk of potentially dangerous sexual encounters. The phrase "hitchhiking to heaven" refers to male masturbation.

Automobiles not only are sites for sexual activity; they also may produce sexual stimulation. In Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), written during the era of trains, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud noted the way "the shaking produced by driving in carriages and later by railway travel" results in a link "between railway travel and sexuality" produced by the "pleasurable character of the sensations of movement." The same sensation of movement has a sexual connection to the automobile, whose movement and shape, character, and symbolism bespeak sexuality, potency, and allure.

In western culture automobiles long have been thought of as sex symbols both as markers of masculinity and as a marketing strategy. Long, lean, powerful speedy machines became phallic symbols as well as indicators of wealth, style, and sexual prowess. Automobile enthusiasts annually list cars with the greatest sex appeal: Corvettes, Ferraris, Lamborginis, Mustangs, Porsches, and Mazda RX-8's, among others. These cars join more classic expressions of powerful sexiness that often are associated with specifically masculine characters in films, such as James Bond with his Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger (1964). Sports cars in particular, with their streamlined speed, have been associated with virility, as have jalopies, racing cars, and other custom vehicles whose power relates to the mechanical aptitude and bravado of their drivers. Films featuring drag races, such as Rebel without a Cause (1954), Le Mans (1971), and Days of Thunder (1990), show the ways in which cars, speed, and machismo have become linked in western culture.

In addition to the sexiness of automobile design, sex is used as a way to market automobiles. The association of sexy cars with sexually alluring women is presumed to attract male customers. Phallic automobiles are caressed by ultra sexy female car show models, and although they may have all but disappeared from television advertisements, women still figure prominently on automobile-theme calendars. Advertising tactics that emphasize sleek auto body lines, class status, power, and performance produce an association between the phallic, masculine characteristics of the automobile and its prospective owner, as does nomenclature such as the "muscle" car. Muscle cars such as Pontiac GTOs, Mustangs, and Camaros are automobiles that have been modified to gain maximum horsepower from the engine. They appear bulky and rumbling and outperform normal cars. The status of the car becomes that of the owner. Males are assumed to have driving skills that match the capabilities of their vehicles, and expert speedy driving is associated with masculinity.

At the same time, women are assumed to be poor drivers. Whereas in many advertisements the automobile is an outward sign of the owner's masculinity, few cars are marketed to women on the basis of intrinsic sex appeal. Instead, cars are advertised to women on the basis of practicality, ease of use, and safety.

Cars have also become symbols of courtship and romance, especially in popular culture. Car radios were invented in 1929 and were sold separately (the resulting combination of movement and sound produced the brand name Motorola). Even before the combination of the car and the radio, pop music about sex and romance was circulating, from early favorites such as Irving Berlin's "Keep Away from the Fellow Who Owns an Automobile" to the Nylons' "Little Red Corvette" and Queen's "I'm in Love with my Car." Sex has been associated with automobiles in films that include It Happened One Night, the jalopy culture of Rebel without a Cause and American Graffiti (1973), and more recently Crash (2004).


Flink, James J. 1988. The Automobile Age. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953–1974. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. and trans. James Strachchey. London: Hogarth. (Orig. pub. 1905.)

Michael, Robert T.; John H. Gagnon; Edward O. Laumann; and Gina Kolata. 1994. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. New York: Warner Books.

Wolf, Winifred. 1996. Car Mania: A Critical History of Transport. trans. Gus Fagan. London: Pluto Press.

                                                       Judith Roof


views updated Jun 08 2018

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