Student & Teacher Resources

The Automobile and the Environment in American History


I. Questions for Reading

1. Why did many people initially regard the gasoline-powered automobile as no worse, in terms of its impact on health and safety, than other forms of transportation, and in many ways as much more environmentally friendly than the horse?

2. What is the “enigma of automobility” or the “automotive paradox”? What is enigmatic or paradoxical about the automobile’s relationship to the environment?

3. Much of the pollution associated with an automobile is produced in the manufacturing of it, before it is driven a single mile. How so?

4. What other types of engines competed with the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine in the early decades of the auto industry? What were the advantages and disadvantages of each? What factors led to the adoption of the internal combustion engine as the standard? What role did gasoline play in this? Why was the introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline an important innovation?

5. Why did drilling for oil generate so much pollution in the first half of the twentieth century? What factors increased concern about pollution in drilling for, transporting, and refining oil? What role did governments, the oil industry, and citizens’ groups play in reducing pollution?

6. Melosi calls tailpipe emissions “the most significant environmental consequence of oil production.” What are the specific consequences of auto emissions, and why are they so significant?

7. Why did tetraethyl lead, once seen as a solution to some of the problems and limitations of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, come to be seen as a problem itself? What was done about this?

8. How has the auto industry responded to pollution concerns from the time those concerns were first raised in the 1940s?

9. What factors led to the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the U.S. Congress?

10. What effect did the energy crisis of the early 1970s have on improvements in auto emissions?

11. How do automobiles contribute to noise and visual pollution?

12. How did the coming of the automobile affect rural areas? How did the coming of the automobile affect cities? How did cities have to be “retrofitted” to accommodate the automobile?

13. How did the coming of the automobile affect suburbs?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set the minimum average miles-per-gallon an automaker’s entire fleet of cars and light trucks must meet. Originally passed by Congress in 1975, the CAFE standards were designed to reduce energy consumption by increasing fuel economy. Since the 1990 model year, the standard for cars has remained constant at 27.5 mpg. The standard for light trucks has risen from 20.2 mpg in 1992 to 22.2 mpg for 2007. Pickup trucks, SUVs, and large vans, which in general have lower fuel economy levels than light trucks and cars, are excluded from the standards, and automakers have resisted including them. Should these vehicles be included? Should the standards be raised?

2. Environmental and economic concerns are often seen to be at odds—stronger environmental protection means more expensive products, fewer jobs, fewer economic opportunities. How should environmental and economic concerns be balanced? (You might want to consider a particular issue in the news that provides a concrete example.) Are there cases when environmental and economic concerns coincide rather than being at odds?

3. In response to the energy crisis in the 1970s, Congress lowered the national speed limit to 55 mph. During the 1990s it allowed states to raise the speed limit again, and most did so. Since lower speed limits reduce pollution and lead to fewer and less serious accidents in addition to saving gasoline, should Congress re-impose the 55 mph limit? What considerations might be involved in arguing not to lower the speed limit again?

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III. Making Connections

1. What effect did the need for more fuel-efficient, cleaner engines in the 1970s have on the look of cars and the balance of power between engineers and designers that David Gartman charts in “Tough Guys and Pretty Boys”?

2. Melosi discusses the impact of the automobile on rural areas in “The Automobile’s Imprint on the Landscape.” What picture does Margaret Walsh offer of the impact of the automobile on rural women in “Gender and Automobility: The Pioneering and Early Years”?

3. In her discussion of women’s driving habits in the modern era, Margaret Walsh notes that much of the increase in the number of cars on the road and number of miles driven is due to women. How might Walsh defend women from the criticism that they are mainly responsible for increases in auto pollution from 1970 on?

4. Melosi discusses the automobile’s impact on cities both in this essay and in “The Automobile Shapes the City.” He notes that older cities (like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia) had to be “retrofitted” to accommodate the automobile, while newer cities (like Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix) basically developed as “automobile cities.” Based on what Thomas Sugrue says about the development of Detroit, in which of these categories does the Motor City itself best fit?

5. Electric cars, as Melosi notes in “Auto Emissions and Air Pollution,” are again being developed and built. According to Virginia Scharff in “Femininity and the Electric Car,” why did electric cars lose out to gasoline-powered cars in the first place?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Melosi notes that the auto infrastructure “assault[s] the aesthetic sensibilities of many people.” Locate a photograph—or take one yourself—of some aspect of the auto infrastructure and explain if and how it offends your own sense of beauty.

2. Write a paper explaining the role fuel economy would play in your decision if you were to purchase a new car today, and why. Or, explain what role you think fuel economy should have in anyone’s decision of which car to purchase.

3. Melosi notes that both cities and suburbs are built with the car rather than pedestrians in mind. Analyze your school’s campus, your neighborhood, a mall or shopping area that you frequent, a sports or entertainment complex that you go to, or an office complex with which you’re familiar. Is the place you’ve selected built for cars or pedestrians or both? Be specific about the features that make the place car-friendly and/or pedestrian-friendly.

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V. Questions for Research

1. Melosi quotes an early critic who claims that the benefits of the automobile are “individualized for those who can afford them” while the costs are “shared by all, regardless of whether or not they can afford them.” Is this true today?

2. At the end of his discussion of oil spills and their impact, Melosi refers to the 1989 accident in Alaska involving the tanker Exxon Valdez. Investigate the history of this accident and its impact. What were the short- and long-term effects on the local environment? What improvements, if any, did this incident lead to in the construction, operation, and regulation of supertankers?

3. Automakers are currently selling or developing alternatives to the internal combustion engine, such as gas-electric hybrid vehicles, cars with “clean” diesel engines, and cars powered powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The latter in particular is presently being touted as the vehicle of the future, for its only emission product is water. Select one or more of these technologies and investigate it. How does it work? What are its advantages? Its disadvantages and limitations? What effect would the technology have on pollution and energy use? What impact would adoption of the technology have on the existing auto infrastructure and our way of life? What other problems or difficulties might its adoption create?

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For other Resources on Environment see:

The Automobile and the Environment in American History

The Automobile Shapes the City


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