Influence of Automobiles on the Environment

Oliver Steinglass


Human transportation has always had an impact on the environment, with cars having arguably the largest impact. According to Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner transportation immediately prior to the development of cars was entirely depended on horses and horse-drawn carriages. By the end of the 19th century, New York had around two-hundred-thousand horses roaming the streets. Each horse created around thirty-five pounds of feces per day. The introduction of cars was expected to provide a much cleaner solution to transportation; however, this was a misconception. In reality, according to Brandon Keim, writer for Nautilis, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were actually the age of street cars. These street cars were either electric or horse-powered. Only a couple of very rich drivers used cars as a means of personal transportation. Around this time sewer systems were being developed to clean up the streets. In order to install these systems the streets were being torn up and replaced by asphalt. The new streets allowed automobiles to compete with street cars run on rails and usually pulled along by horses. There was limited competition between the two, and as cars started filling up the newly paved streets, the increased congestion and slower traffic resulted in diminished usage of street cars as a mode of transportation. This decreased demand for streetcars coupled with governments interfering in the market in order to prevent a monopoly from forming, eventually led to automobile manufacturing companies purchasing streetcar companies. The removal of the main competitor to automobiles was the foundation for the automobile dominance we see today. According to historians Wells and Norton “the march of progress is neither straight nor technologically pre-ordained.” This quote applies heavily to the emergence of automobiles as a mode of transportation. Automobiles were not the ‘environmental savior’ that some believed they were, and their rise was aided by government investment in roads, sanitation, and other forms of infrastructure.

Automobile Production

By the time the automobile was established as the primary mode of transportation, it had already gained many critics. These critics blamed it for many urban problems such as pollution, energy exploitation, and congestion. Automobile production is not unlike the production of most mass-produced goods. It utilizes a large variety and quantity of resources; it requires a massive amount of human labour and creates vast amounts of waste. By the 1920s a small handful of large companies were producing 98% of all automobiles. Historian Mark Foster claimed that one third of environmental damage created by automobiles was produced before they were sold and driven. Foster predicted that the production of one car resulted in 29 tonnes of waste and 1,229 cubic yards of polluted air. Extracting iron ore, copper, lead, and other materials in order to produce steel, aluminum, plastic, and other products necessary for producing automobiles consumed limited resources, used large amounts of energy, and had serious environmental repercussions. Vehicle assembly plants themselves are huge pollutants. In the early 1990s there were 20 engine plants, 40 assembly plants, hundreds of metal stamping facilities, and thousands of suppliers around the United States. These various plants release sulphuric acid and other smoke-stack emissions into the air. At this time the EPA listed truck and car assembly plants among the top 20 in the country for pollutants.

The Combustion Engine

However, the production process is not the main source of pollution created by automobiles. After several years of experimentation with electric powered cars, in 1903 Henry Ford founded a motor company creating automobiles with internal combustion engines. Soon after these cars were put on the market, the internal combustion engine became the standard for all automobiles. As internal combustion engines became more readily available and desirable, demand for gasoline grew. This increased demand led to heavy growth in the petroleum industry. Gas consumption grew from 3 billion gallons to 15 billion gallons from 1919 to 1929, it increased again to 46.5 billion gallons in 1955 and 135 billion gallons in 2002. By 1973 transportation was responsible for over half all consumption of petroleum, by 1990 it was responsible for 64%. Today cars are responsible for almost 90% of energy consumed for travel in the United States. Demand for petroleum for cars led to much higher demand for oil.


In the early 1900’s the processes for extracting oil were incredibly wasteful, this was mostly because of the poor drilling techniques being used at the time. However some behaviors, such as releasing oil geysers to impress potential investors did not help matters. Early 20th century oil conservation laws tried to help prevent such large wastes of oil. However, in congress, any efforts to pass legislation were blocked by oil-producing companies until 1924 when the Oil Pollution Act was passed. Population growth, urbanization, and industrialization, coupled with a higher demand for fresh water led to more laws preventing contamination of fresh water supplies. Oil spills such as Santa Barbara in 1969 led to the rise of new environmental concerns.


Other than the rise of demand for gas, the consumption of the gas by the cars themselves provided another environmental threat: emissions. Prior to the industrial revolution the levels of toxic chemicals in the air were low. After WWII and the rise in the popularization of cars air pollution spread to many major cities. In the 1940s citizens of Los Angeles began complaining about yellow-brown smog, composed of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides. Because LA was one of the first cities to experience the impacts of air pollution they were also one of the first cities to raise public concern of car emissions. In 1947 coal and fuel oil was banned from industrial purposes, however smog continued to rise. By investigating the cause of smog even further, scientists in LA discovered the main sources of smog were engine exhaust, engine ventilation, the carburetor and the fuel tank. These investigations directly led to the creation of technologies that controlled emissions. Over the next few decades laws were written with the aim of limiting emissions. In 1990 the Clean Air Amendments set strict standards for emissions. This new policy led to more interest in alternatives to the internal combustion engine such as electric powered vehicles or even hybrids.


Through the investigation of cars there is a direct connection between technology and the environment, but also to human nature. It is human nature to develop further. This urge to improve led to the invention and introduction of cars into society. This new technology had many detrimental effects on the environment. Some of these effects were first hand such as production and emissions, but some were from a rise in demand for oil and other key car components. At some point these disadvantages became too extreme to ignore and humans were forced to develop the technology even further, this time taking into account the environmental impact.

Works Cited