Chapter 7: At the Turn of a New Century, 1990-

In the years after 1990 up to the present, the United States’ automotive industry did not see much in the way of intensive or radical technological advancements. Much of the change in the industry was the result of the fine-tuning of pre-existing technologies, such as safety and control systems. While this time period did give rise to the popularity of the SUV, this seems to be the only big change of the modern car industry.

One of the major advances of the automobile post-1990 was the improvement of the efficiency and emissions of engines. Smog was becoming a serious problem in major cities, particularly and most noticeably in Los Angeles. Soon the connection was made between automobile emissions and the collection of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. As a result of this, the US Government passed the Clean Air Act, which resulted in every new automobile to be outfitted with catalytic converters to the exhaust, in order to clean up emissions. This piece of technology has done great things for the environment and cleaned up air pollution around the country.

Another impressive development within automobiles was the introduction of the variable valve timing and lift. This technology allows the engine to easily adapt to changing speeds and leads to increased efficiency, which is in turn good for the environment and the vehicle’s performance.

Along with advancements in engine technology, the auto industry experienced a change in the safety features of automobiles. While seatbelts had long been required in cars, another important aspect of the safety restraint system, the airbag, came into prominence. While some view the airbag as controversial and potentially lethal, with modern advancements and proper usage, the airbag was found to be a lifesaver, and was eventually a required part of every new car. Handling also received an upgrade post-1990. Car manufacturers eventually began to use stability control systems, which, coupled with better tires, are more capable of keeping traction with the road, particularly on steep turns. Antilock braking systems were also developed in this modern period, allowing the brakes to adapt to the situation and avoid lockups. This allows cars to stop quickly, and removes the necessity to pump the brakes in an emergency situation.

Along with the SUV, the pickup truck became a major player in the auto industry post-1990, even for casual consumers. Pickup trucks eventually became one the the largest selling vehicles in the nation, and continue their dominance in present times. However, it is now widely known that trucks and SUVs traveling at high speeds on the road lead to more deaths via rollovers, as well as more deaths as a result of a truck hitting a smaller car. By this reason, pickup trucks are one of the deadliest vehicles on the road.

A recent development that claims its origins at the very beginning of the auto industry is the heavy use of acquisitions and mergers throughout the industry. However, in recent  times, these mergers have taken a more global scale. For example, Daimler-Benz acquired Chrysler, and Ford acquired a controlling interest in Mazda, to go along with their ownership of Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin, and Land Rover. General Motors came to acquire sizable shares in Isuzu and Subaru, Fiat, Daewoo, and Saab. Large motor corporations began to extend their reach into new markets.

Another recent development has been the emerging market of the third world. China and India have become huge markets for automobile industry, as incomes continue to rise in these countries, making widespread car ownership possible. By expanding car ownership in India and China, the world can double the number of cars it has.

The last part of the chapter talked about the hypothetical future of the car. Though major advancements have been made in the way of electric and hybrid cars, pollution is becoming a major concern with building levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributing to fears of global warming. With markets such as India and China opening up, what can be done to combat rising pollution levels? Some claim that the answer is found in public transportation, although the very few successes in public transportation have largely been subsidized by the government.

In summary, advancements in the auto industry in the post-1990 world have been centered around safety standards and computerized systems. Although government mandates have been behind most of these changes, what other reasons would car companies choose to move their product in this direction? What are the economic benefits to improving these systems in their product? Are such advancements worth the costs that they produce? What are some of the ways in which the industry would start to look past the internal combustion and look into alternative energy as a feasible power plant for the automobile? What is the future of the auto industry?

– Zachary Durkin

2 comments to Chapter 7: At the Turn of a New Century, 1990-

  • mayolj16

    I think that the questions you raise at the end of your post are very interesting; I feel that now, some of the safety innovations introduced into the industry are also used for marketing since people seem to e more concerned about car accidents. Volvo claims to be the safest car producer in the market, and certainly they do not do it just because they care about their customers, but because they use car safety as a feature to give their cars a competitive advantage. With good advertising, it is possible for firms like Volvo to charge extra for the safety features of the car, making these advancements worth the extra cost of production.

  • Query: Safety has been forced by regulation / legislation, not just in the US but also in the EU and other markets. At what point is additional safety not worth the cost? People say they want safer cars, but when they are faced with action, are consumers willing to pay more for safety – if you offer something as an option, what is the uptake?
    Query: What is the impact of CAFE (and similar legislation in the EU and Japan)? Does it change what consumers purchase, and if so how? Another version of the same question: how much are consumers willing to pay for improved fuel efficiency? Are they “rational” in such choices (price differential vs operating costs)?

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