The invention of the automobile at the end of the last century proved to be the great liberator of the developed world in this one.
People were given the freedom to move over greater distances, to chase better employment, to live where they wanted. Since its inception, a means of transport previously unknown by humanity has evolved from the horseless carriage to the Mercedes-Benz S-class.
But what will be its legacy in the next millennium?
Most scientists agree that the days of the gasoline engine are numbered. Latest predictions for the availability of fossil fuels are 40 years for petroleum products and 60 years for natural gas, assuming present consumption levels.
Even before reserves are exhausted, what damage will have been done to the planet? And does the automotive industry deserve to shoulder the entire blame? It is an easy target for environmentalists and governments.
As an industry, it must satisfy an ever-burgeoning need for personal mobility while recognizing that many car owners are, indeed, environmentalists.
Look at what the auto industry has done to improve emissions and the amount of money it is spending to research alternative means of propulsion.
Next year, buyers in several markets will have the choice of two gasoline-electric hybrids, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, as well as the new Ford Th!nk electric vehicle. Fuel cell cars - considered, along with hydrogen, the best way forward - will be with us by around 2005.
The auto industry has done much to clean up its act, both in terms of the product and the factories that make it. Car and component plants in some developing markets are state of the art in terms of the environment, in sharp contrast to other industries that pump noxious gases into the atmosphere.
Seldom is this recognized, or even supported, by governments or many industries that earn a good amount of their income from the auto industry.
It is disappointing that the automotive industry is continuously portrayed as the bad guy. The progress made in the past few years is enormous, particularly in regard to emissions. Four out of every five BMW engine engineers, for example, are devoted to emissions reduction.
Twenty years ago, cars produced more than 15 times as much pollution as they do today. Huge investments of time and money have transformed the gasoline and particularly the diesel engine; diesels account for 14.3 percent of the world's engines, although penetration varies from 28.2 percent in Europe to a mere 2.2 percent in North America.
In particular, the issue of sulphur in gasoline is scandalous. Engines in Europe and North America would be cleaner still if the oil companies would put more resources behind reducing sulphur. Look at Japan, where ultrarefined fuel is required, to see that it's possible.
Where is the governmental pressure on fuel companies? Governments are quick to point accusing fingers at the automotive industry, but what are they doing to encourage a sustainable form of clean personal transport?