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Jutting out from the ruins of Ephesus, an early city dating back to 1500 BCE, is a stone tablet that resembles a grave marker. But it’s not.
This lump of carved rock is a Roman milestone, a critical component of the road system that allowed the Roman Empire to spread its reach to the corners of the ancient world. It’s basically a road sign, but when it was instituted, the milestone was high-tech!
Thousands of years later, Karl Benz invented the car and gave roads a whole new meaning. But what effects has the car really had on society?
Like any new technology, the earliest cars were exclusive. Those who could afford them were few and far between. They were “horseless carriages,” and operating them meant understanding a good deal about the mechanics of the machine itself. There weren’t garages all over the place to help you out with an oil change. In fact, some early cars required top-offs almost daily.
In the period from 1900 to 1920, America went car crazy. The number of vehicles in the country jumped from around 8,000 to 8,000,000, in large part due to the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T. By introducing the production line, Ford was able to price the car so more Americans could afford it, and thus began car culture in America.
As the trendy new technology, cars were cool, but they also brought about some noticeable changes in daily life. The automotive industry created thousands and thousands of jobs, but it also displaced horses and all the infrastructure that came along with them.
The need for parking arose, and architects planning new developments suddenly had to think about adding space for people to leave cars. People abandoned bicycles, which they viewed as children’s toys. The family unit was threatened by individuals’ ability to pick up and leave in a car anytime — even though the average family only had one car, which left everyone else stuck at home.
The 1950s and the Freeway City
As personal cars began to replace light rail and public transport, the post-WWII economy saw a shift in where the economy placed its efforts. Factory workers no longer had to build bomber engines and tanks. Instead, they could focus on goods for the American public — namely, cars.
Pedestrians didn’t have to be concerned with getting trampled by horses, but the threat was replaced with the danger of car accidents. Without seatbelts and modern safety equipment, family cars in the ‘40s and ‘50s relied on massive metal bodies to protect passengers.
During this time, we saw the second major uptick in the number of cars per capita. Instead of one car per family, the norm became one car per driver. Car culture became intertwined with youth culture in the ‘50s, and stylish cars became an icon of freedom and privilege for young people.
Around this same time, America decided to double down on the car as our primary means of transport. In 1956, with the acceptance of the Federal Aid Freeway Act, President Dwight Eisenhower set in motion one of the most significant advances in infrastructure of the 20th century. Eisenhower proposed that in the event of a nuclear attack, “the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.”
We know today, all that would happen is a major traffic jam, but thanks, Ike, good looking out. Los Angeles became the first iteration of the modern freeway city. Its sprawling swaths of elevated asphalt are still impressive to look upon today — despite the gridlock. As in earlier generations, the addition of new roads and faster cars allowed people to build homes and live in more remote areas.
The Modern Era
As of 2017, the American automotive industry employs about 3 million people. As car ownership and even car collection became more regular, the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s represent a golden age of automobiles in the United States and many other parts of the globe.
Our reliance on the car has made our country oil-thirsty, an addiction we first came to grips with during the oil crisis that started in 1973 in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war. Once a prominent producer of oil on the planet, the U.S. began producing less in the decades after WWII, and oil production has only started to increase again in recent years.
The car has continued to be a source of fascination, with countless niche car cultures springing up and hot-rod shops devoted to giving aging enthusiasts the experiences they wanted as kids. As America’s love affair with the car has dragged on, we’ve realized we want SUVs, trucks and crossovers, a transition that started in the ‘90s and is in full bloom now.
These “lifestyle vehicles” offer practicality and stress-free ownership. But to make it to the next generation, they need something more: efficiency.
The Future Is Electric and Automated
If you picked up an edition of Car & Driver or Motor Trend in the ‘90s, you might have happened to see an article about a hydrogen-powered car, or even one propelled by batteries. Ethanol was a favorite alternative fuel and saw some use, but it was never fully adopted. Many of these early prototypes were impossible to manufacture or failed to meet consumer requirements, but today we know electric cars are the first step toward a more sustainable future.
Cars like the Tesla Model S represent a transition to less reliance on fossil fuels and extreme integration of our technology and our vehicles. With multiple companies testing self-driving cars, there is even speculation the transition away from car ownership could free up vast amounts of parking space.
In a world where cars drive themselves, and you don’t need to own one, parking structures would cease to be, garages would be unnecessary and living in the center of town would no longer be a perk. It would be a very different world from the one we know now — almost as big a transition as the change from horse-drawn carriages to cars.
Not only will cars of the future drive themselves, but you’ll be able to work in them while they shuttle you through the morning commute. The garages and parts shops we know now will go out of business, and many popular automotive marques will fall by the wayside, unable to keep up with the automated revolution.
So, it looks like you will be able to have those reports ready by 8 a.m. tomorrow after all, won’t you? You can just take care of the final details on the way to work. Oh, what a long way we’ve come.