The Golden Age of automobiles


LONDON -- Take a Honda Civic, shrink it a bit and give it a tougher, simpler suspension. Then take out the air-bags, anti-lock brakes, heaters and rear-window defrosters, but add an extra air-conditioning vent in the back seat. And what do you get?

You get the Honda City -- which is not, Honda's publicity people insist, an "Asia car."

But it is built in Thailand, and it is priced to sell to the emerging middle classes of the booming Asian markets. Don't call it an "Asia Car" or they will think they are being short-changed, but that's what it is.

And everybody's getting in on the act: Fiat's producing the Palio, Ford is bringing out the KA, and all three South Koran car makers are working on stripped-down but good-looking models to sell all around what used to the Third World.

First the good news. The global explosion in the car population has slowed down. From 1896 to 1990, the number of cars in the world grew at an average of 8 percent a year. Since 1950 it rose from just 50 million to almost half a billion. But now all the old industrial markets are nearing saturation level, and through the '90s growth is expected to average less than one percent a year.

The bad news, from the environmental perspective, is that this is just the lull before the real storm. Western Europe, North America and Japan may be sated, but now it is the turn of the billions in the newly industrializing countries. All over Asia and Latin America, huge new production capacity is going in.

Everybody's doing it

The output of cars in India will more than double by 2000. The four largest car-makers in Brazil -- Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen and Fiat -- are all doubling their investment, and new manufacturers are crowding in. By 2010 China will be the world's third-largest car market, according to the State Information Center, with demand running at between 5.5 million and 6.5 million cars a year.

Unless there is some drastic shift in public taste and values, we are heading for a world of one billion cars -- and not too long afterward, a world of 2 billion cars or more. Automobiles are still the most desirable single consumer article in the world, even in congested Asian cities like Bangkok, where the traffic often moves slower than walking speed. When people get the money, they will buy the cars -- even if the heavens fall.

Will the heavens fall? And if they start to fall, what will we do about it?

A couple of yars ago, the Environmental and Forecasting Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, calculated the lifetime environmental impact of a modern medium-size car -- not a '60s gas-guzzling monster, but a '90s car that uses unleaded fuel, gets 24 miles to the gallon and has a catalytic converter.

Pollution, waste and CO2

The numbers were impressive. Manufacturing such a car and driving it for 10 years will dump 59.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leave 26.5 metric tons of waste to be disposed of somewhere, and produce nearly 2.5 million cubic yards of polluted air. Now multiply those figures by one or two billion, and you have some idea of the scale of the problem we will face in coming years.

All this doesn't count the direct human cost of driving cars. In Germany, the Heidelberg Institute calculated, every 1,000 cars built are responsible for 2.2 deaths, 10 handicapped people and more than 125 serious injuries. And that's in Germany, where the fatality rate is only 1 per 100 million miles driven. In Spain, it's 10 times as much. In Ethiopia, there is one death a year for each 63 cars.

The Third World's turn

Yet people will have their cars, and it is the Third World's turn. The newly affluent consumers of Asia and Latin America have every bit as much right to pollute the planet as their cousins in the older industrialized countries. Indeed, no force on earth will dissuade them from doing so -- at least, not unless the sacrifices are shared equally by new consumers and old alike.

Cars can be made less polluting, of course. Areas like the Los Angeles basin would already be death-traps if increased fuel efficiency and catalytic converters had not canceled out the environmental impact of doubling the local car population since the 1960s.

The global problem is that the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by industrial societies are creating the conditions for catastrophic changes in the world's climate. Cars are the fastest-growing part of that problem. As their numbers mount, either they will have to become radicaly less polluting, or we will have to restrict their numbers by global agreement.

Quantum improvements in car performance are not unimaginable. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think-tank near Aspen, Colorado, claims that it is now possible to build a "hyper-car," using ultra-light carbon-fiber construction and the latest in hybrid-electric propulsion, that would improve fuel efficiency between 400 and 1,000 percent without paying major penalties in power, reliability or affordability.

Maybe so, but all the new production capacity going in now will turn out millions upon millions of quite conventional cars. And at some point in the next 10 or 15 years, when the first major climate-related calamity hits, we will all find ourselves negotiating limits on how many of those cars the planet can afford.

It will be a very interesting negotiation, with major new economic powers like India, China, Indonesia and Brazil refusing to curb their own consumers' lust for cars so long as per-capita car ownership in the older industrialized countries is still far higher. Rationing of car-ownership permits will be a distinct possibility, with the permits allocated either by competitive bidding (as is already the case in Singapore) or by pure lottery.

Our love affair with the car is nowhere near its end, but in times to come we will look back on this era as the golden age of the automobile.

Gwynne Dyer is a free-lance columnist.

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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