Few inventions in modern times have had as much impact on human life and on the global environment as the automobile. Automobiles and trucks have had a strong influence on the history, economy, and social life of much of the world.
Entire societies, especially those of the industrialized countries, have been restructured around the power of rapid, long-distance movement that the automobile confers on individuals and around the flexible distribution patterns made possible by trucks. Automobiles have given great freedom of movement to their owners, but encourage sprawl (i.e., straggling, low-density urban development). Sprawl degrades landscapes and produces traffic congestion that tends to immobilize the automobiles that make sprawl itself possible. Furthermore, the dependence on petroleum fuel of automobiles and trucks, and thus of the economies based on these machines, imposes strong patterns on global politics, moving industrial societies such as the United States (which consumes approximately 25% of the world's oil production) to be deeply concerned with the power struggles of the Persian Gulf, where approximately 70% of the world's oil reserves are located.
The automobile is also a significant health hazard, both directly and indirectly. According to the United Nations, over a million people (both vehicle occupants and pedestrians) die every year on the world's roads; the United States alone loses over 40,000 lives annually to car crashes. Meanwhile, automobile exhausts are the largest single source of air pollution (in the United States). Air pollution from the manufacture and operation of automobiles contributes importantly to crop damage, acid rain, destruction of the ozone layer, lung disease, and early death by a variety of health problems. Sixteen percent of the world's annual greenhouse-gas production comes from automobiles; greenhouse gasses contribute to global climate change, which may disrupt food production and flood coasts and low islands worldwide.
The first automobiles, constructed in the late nineteenth century, were essentially horse-drawn carriages with the horses removed and engines installed. After more than a century of development, the modern automobile is a sophisticated system. It combines fuel efficiency and speed to offer the mobility and flexibility of use demanded by an enormous variety of lifestyles and industries. Automobiles affect every aspect of society, from the design of our cities, to police, ambulance, fire, and utility services, to such personal uses as vacation travel, dining, and shopping. Mass production techniques, first developed for the automobile in the early twentieth century, have been adapted for use in nearly every industry, providing for the efficient and inexpensive production of products.
Trucks, especially 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks, have become the major form of transporting goods across the country, allowing, for example, produce to be quickly transported to markets while still fresh. The use of automotive technology—tractors, combines, pickers, sprayers, and other self-propelled machines—in agriculture has enabled farmers to increase the quantity, quality, and variety of our foods, albeit at the price of increased soil erosion rates, agricultural dependence on petroleum-derived fuels and fertilizers, and increased runoff pollution. Meanwhile, dozens of industries depend, directly or indirectly, on the automobile. These industries include producers of steel and other metals, plastics, rubber, glass, fabrics, petroleum products, and electronic components.
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