|The Automobile Revolution: The Impact of an Industry
Book by Jean-Pierre Bardou, Jean-Jacques Chanaron, Patrick Fridenson, James M. Laux, James M. Laux; University of North Carolina Press, 1982
Revolution? Did the invention of the automobile and its ultimate adoption almost everywhere on the planet produce a truly revolutionary impact? This is for the reader to judge, but the authors believe that it has, and this book offers considerable supporting evidence. The revolutionary effect of developments in technology is nothing new. Consider, for example, gunpowder, the clock, the printing press, and the steam engine. To these famous innovations, the automobile must be added. The French automotive engineer Maurice Norroy describes the revolution it has wrought in a few words: "The history of the automobile more than anything else is the history of a revolution. In only a few years industrial methods were transformed, and along with them the means of communication, and more, the nature of rural and urban life, the way goods are distributed, and the entire economic system."
The genesis of this revolution can be placed in the Gay Nineties, when German and French engineers adapted the internal-combustion engine to road transport. In a few years, they managed to design cars that would run reliably and found a market for them. Then, the Americans, after first concentrating on electric-and steam-powered vehicles, began to produce internal-combustion models based on European designs. Manufacturers who made relatively small and cheap types discovered what appeared to be an unlimited market. To supply it, they introduced new production methods: standardization, intensive mechanization, and the assembly line. Artisanal production gave way to mass production. As Georges Friedmann explained it, "One expression of man's technical genius disappeared over the horizon but another was born before our eyes."
The several ramifications of the mass production of automobiles spelled revolution: 1) lower cost of production and lower prices, which in turn widened the market, a market that soon spread beyond national frontiers all over the world and that would require manufacturers to become multinational enterprises; 2) a sharp increase in labor productivity and higher wages; and 3) a precipitous decline in the need for skilled workers but at the same time a rise in the importance of highly trained engineers and technicians, who would take growing responsibility for planning and managing the production process. Although in America the evolution of mass production and mass marketing of automobiles continued in almost unbroken steps into the 1920s, in Europe the First World War caused a diversion. Most auto firms there shifted to military production, especially of aircraft engines. Even though some of them worked out mass-production methods for their military orders, most fell further behind the Americans in this aspect of industrial technology. But, in the 1920s and the 1930s, mass-production and mass-marketing methods gradually were adopted in Europe, though not to the same extent as on the other side of the Atlantic.
In America, the innovations of the interwar period were less in the realm of technology than in improving the management of the large auto firms. During these years, while huge investments were being made in highways, the automobile, by expanding opportunities for leisure time, strongly influenced social life, ending rural isolation and fostering the beginning of urban congestion. Even at this time, a threat to the cities was perceived. As one farsighted observer remarked: "Already the automobiles are gnawing like termites at the bases of our skyscrapers." By the end of the 1930s, Europe had decided to adopt the automobile as a form of mass transportation and began to build expressways as well as small cars for a mass market. But, before this transition could occur, the Second World War broke out and interrupted the auto industry again. When it ended, Western Europe quickly turned to a policy of mass production and mass marketing, an approach that would spread to Japan in the 1960s, ultimately making that country the world's largest auto producer in 1980, and then to the Third World and the European communist countries in the 1970s.
But, as it did, two problems emerged in the heartland of the automobile, Europe and America, and in Japan as well. The huge numbers of cars in many of the world's cities made them a formidable nuisance, of which traffic accidents were the most urgent aspect. So serious did the automobile's side effects become that it began to appear as if the revolution was beginning to devour its own children. The growing recognition of the social costs of masses of cars would certainly affect research and innovation, but what form would this take? Would short-run marketing considerations continue to play a crucial role, or would manufacturers boldly seek new technical solutions? Secondly, the labor problem became acute. As the process of further and further mechanization required fewer workers to produce a car, those who remained, especially those involved in assembly, found the repetitiveness and boredom of the job more and more distasteful. Would it be possible to incorporate more interest and meaning in the individual's job and yet maintain high productivity? Could the satisfactions of artisanal labor be joined to the low cost of production achieved by intensive mechanization?