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Volti 6: Second Thoughts 1965-1990

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By 1965 the auto industry had reached its highest levels of success in its history. The market was very profitable, the cars were the most impressive they had ever been, and the amount of people driving cars had increased exponentially.

In the mid-1960s questions began to arise about the detrimental affects of cars. This included lower quality air, the high death tolls, and the possibility of not having gas.

A book by Ralph Nader titled, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, sparked many concerns in the general public about the safety of cars. The automobile industries however paid little attention to the critics because they knew from previous attempts by Henry Ford that “safety doesn’t sell.” The industry also feared government oversight. They assumed that adding additional safety features to their cars would lead to this.

The federal government would soon get involved with the auto industry despite efforts to keep them out. In 1964, the Generals Services Administration (GSA) was introduced to establish safety standards for cars. By 1966, the government created the Department of Transportation and soon after came the National Highway and Traffic Administration. Criteria for brakes, lights, and tires were soon announced and a seat belt became a required feature on every car after 1968.

Other improvements on cars became mandatory with the institution of the Clean Air Act in 1970. A study done in 1950 proved that automobiles were a large contributor to the photochemical smog that was appearing in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Companies were forced to clean up the emissions of their cars. This would prove to be a very difficult task. It was quite a hassle for the companies to adjust their engines, as it was tons of effort that often resulted in different issues. Such as other chemicals being released that may have been worse. The expensive results were also not pleasing to consumers. The cars weren’t as smooth, they needed more gas, and they would many times stall, surge, or diesel.

Another issue would soon come to the surface as a result of an international crisis. Gasoline was no longer an easily accessible commodity. After America’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) didn’t supply the U.S. with oil. Consequently, gas was difficult to acquire and the government got involved with the design of vehicles. Miles per gallon had to reach a certain standard and speed limits were reduced. The thought of recreated the steam powered car was not out of the question.

The gas would eventually be imported again from the Middle East, but the affects from the shortage of gasoline were long lasting. More Americans became interested in smaller cars with better gas mileage. This combined with the treatment of workers lead to Japan taking control of the auto industry.  One strategy that helped Japanese car companies like Honda become a prominent force in the industry was the influence from the Japanese government. Instead of having multiple car companies the Japanese government strongly suggested mergers of smaller companies. Ultimately Japan’s superior strategies would gain them the lead in the global auto industry.

Questions for discussion:

What were the reasons for new safety regulations?

What if steam-powered engines resurfaced in the 1970s as a result of a low abundance of gasoline?


  1. Peter Wittwer
    Peter Wittwer

    I think the most important issue from 1965-1990 was the U.S. automobile industry’s failure to compete with foreign competition. Chapter 5 talks about how difficult it was for the Big 3 U.S. car companies to transition to building smaller cars. Foreign car companies such as Japanese car manufacturers and European manufacturers (mainly Volkswagen) produced much more reliable, fuel efficient cars due to their governments not subsidizing oil. The collapse of the Big 3 oligopoly in the U.S. automobile industry is shown by the rise to prominence of foreign car manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Toyota, and Honda. The struggle of U.S. car companies is shown by Chrysler declaring bankruptcy as well as companies such as Ford and GM struggling to maintain control over the domestic automobile industry. The American consumer began to favor smaller cars because they were cheaper to run. There were two oil crises as well as a huge problem with photochemical smog from 1965-1990. The American consumer became more conscious of the environment and started to purchase more fuel efficient foreign cars, which were cheaper to power, environmentally friendly, and more reliable than American small cars.

    April 23, 2014
  2. mayolj16

    I think the answer for the first question is easy, as discussed in class, externalities were the main reason for the new safety regulations. Some of these negative externalities are health issues due to contamination, lower IQs in schools because of the increase in lead (from the gasoline), and casualties from car accidents.
    As for the second question, it would have been really hard for the steam engine to make it back to the car market because of the drawbacks that we already analyzed in class of low autonomy, it takes a while to warm up before starting to work, low efficiency, and it still needs some sort of fuel to create the steam. Going back to that engine would mean going back to a more primitive method.

    April 24, 2014
    • Jier Qiu
      Jier Qiu

      I think the answer for the second question is worth discussing. The reappearance of eletric cars, e.g. Tesla Motors, makes me think about the possibility of a comeback of steam-powered vehicles. Most of the eletrical power stations still use steam power as the final process to power the turbine and alternators. Obviously steam engines can burn well with any gas or liquid fuel so I do think it is theoretically possible to use them in modern auto industry. The problem has been, however, the lack of efficiency compared to internal combustion engines back in the day. This is also one of the reasons why the latter one replaced steam engine. Another important problem is the mega-profitable oil industry, which is also a barrier for Tesla to enter the market. I think steam-powered engine also creates less pollution but I am not sure. However, if the oil price keeps rising it would be inevitable to look at this alternative in the future.

      April 25, 2014
  3. As per Jier, companies have played with turbines. Lots of problems with torque, startup and emissions – all used gas (eg as in a jet engine) rather than a boiler, which generates weight…to my knowledge no one is working on this, the industry concluded it’s a dead end.

    May 6, 2014

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