Automobiles have played key roles in numerous movies over the past 50 years, reflecting our love affair with fast, powerful and stylish cars. Top car movies range from 1968’s Bullitt, featuring Steve McQueen and its famous chase scene, to 1973’s American Graffiti, about coming-of-age California teenagers cruising the strip and embracing rock and roll. Cars also play a prominent role in some great comedies, such as 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit and 1985’s Back to the Future.
All these movies highlight the central role automobiles played in America’s culture and economy from the 1960s to the 1980s. And every one of the cars in those movies is driven by a human.
Over those same years the global automobile fleet more than doubled to nearly 450 million vehicles. Today, an estimated one billion cars are roaming the world’s roads and, importantly, burning gasoline and diesel fuel. The demand for fuel has kept the world’s tanker fleet busy, and car-carrier ships, too.
THE GROWTH IN FUEL DEMAND
As the global automobile industry expanded over the years and shipped vehicles to every corner of the globe, fuel demand grew commensurately. In the late 1990s, a paper written by economists at NYU showed that, among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1960, slightly over half of the oil consumed was for non-transportation purposes. By 1973, the year of the first oil crisis, that number had grown to two-thirds of total oil consumption.
The fourfold increase in oil prices triggered by the 1973 crisis was followed six years later by the Iranian crisis, which led to a further doubling of prices. Those two price shocks slammed the growth in non-transportation oil use, which had been riding the wave of oil displacing coal in the industrial and power generation sectors.