Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Car Trouble: 100 Years and Counting

Have you ever had a ride in a light blue car?
Have you ever stopped to think who's the slave and who's the master?
Have you ever had trouble with your automobile?
Have you ever had to push push push push?
Car trouble oh yeah
- "Car Trouble", Adam Ant (from "Dirk Wears White Sox")

The world recently passed the 100th birthday of the Model T - the first mass-produced and successful car. I've been thinking a lot about how quickly the world used up all the gas, and what the car has done to the planet and society.

Depending on how you score and who you believe, the first automobile to run on gasoline (primitive and nasty gasoline at that) appeared in 1875 or 1890, and various European companies were building cars during the last decade of the 19th Century.

By the early 1900s, cars were the fastest-selling transportation. Ford's Model T was the thing that really took off, though (which was a relief, as Ford's previous ventures and efforts had been failures).

Gasoline underwent substantial evolution as well. By the 1920s the world had catalytic "cracking" (which greatly improved distillation yields) and 40-60 octane. Engine technology had advanced and required higher octane and higher quality, which lead to...lead. Leaded gas - gas mixed with tetraethyl lead, some of the most toxic stuff man has ever created intentionally.

By the 1950s, lead levels had increased and octane levels had increased again. Better cracking technology again. In the mid-1970s, just 20 years later, the industry and the world agreed to stop using leaded gas for a variety of reasons (toxicity, the fact that leaded gas destroyed catalytic converters, environmental concerns).

The period from the 1920s to the 1960s also saw massive proliferation and expansion of the gas station. They popped up everywhere, offering more and more services as differentiators. The energy crisis of the 1970s more or less killed momentum here and turned gas stations into the minimal dispensing facilities we know today.

Now it's 2008. There has been minimal consumer-facing innovation in the entire gas-auto ecosystem for the last 20 years, and arguably regression - the biggest-selling American vehicles were basically bimbo trucks - fake off-road "cars" built on profitable but fuel-inefficient truck platforms. Fuel efficiency stagnated.

The world is fast running out of gas, and it's happened relatively quickly. 100 years is not very long.

But it was long enough to define America's cities, its economy, its values (family, environmental, corporate, governing), its architecture, its lifestyle. For most Americans, life without a car isn't just unthinkable, it is impossible. And without cars and trucks (and lately airplanes) today's society would quickly collapse.

Yet it has been so clearly unsustainable for so long. How can the world not be ready to move on?

I am old enough to remember pumps dispensing leaded gas. I remember cars that did not have shoulder seat belts, or had them as add-on/after-market accessories.

I also spent my primary school years during the oil crisis of the 1970s. I remember gas lines, even/odd license plate rationing, and many science classes being told in no uncertain terms that the world was running out of oil, and that was probably good anyhow because cars were poisoning the environment in just about every way one can imagine (it's not just the emissions. Think about the paint, the construction, the batteries - hell, just the tires alone are a nightmare).

My father can remember cars without seatbelts. His generation saw the maturity of the gas-auto ecosystem. That was just 50 years ago.

His father (my grandfather) would remember the first modern gasoline and gas stations, and my great-grandfather would likely have remembered the introduction of the Model T.

And now it's all but gone, in 3 generations. A short period of time in human history, and yet our entire society is dependent on it. Look around you. It's all gasoline, it's all cars and trucks. And it has to stop - there is no choice. It will stop - the gas will run out, and/or the environmental damage will cost too much to continue.

Biofuels aren't the answer. Drilling for more gas and oil isn't the answer. I'm not even sure magic fuel-free cars are the answer, as just having a car-centric society creates so many problems. Carbon emissions need to dramatically decrease. Society has to change.

I think about how much gasoline and the car affected and steered development for 100 years. About how much the Internet has changed society in just 20 years. I have yet to imagine a pleasant post-gasoline society 100 years from now. Or even 20.

It must be possible, right? I suppose (and occasionally fear) I'll be around long enough to see the beginnings of it.

And remember this:
You don't need anything after an ice cream

No comments: