Running on Empty: Is our Love Affair with Cars Doomed?

Take that joy ride now... That is if you can find an open road.

On July 18, 2013, Detroit, the Motor City, filed for bankruptcy. Historians may come to associate this date with something greater than the financial misfortune of a decayed city; it may come to mark the end of a century-long American romance with the automobile. The forces that threaten to bring a halt to this long and passionate love affair with the car are cultural, technological and economic. Some have been present for decades, others are new and decidedly global; I believe their collective impact will likely bring the automotive age to an end.

Why have we loved cars? 

We love cars because they turn us on. And it’s a double-fisted turn on - they give us a controlled mixture of pleasure and danger that is nearly irresistible. The 1992 film, “Basic Instinct,” provides a powerful metaphor for this phenomenon in the character of suspected murderess, Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone. The scorching sex scenes that made the film an international sensation are supercharged by the threat that they may climax in violent death. Part of the trappings of Tramell’s wealth and power are a pair of Lotus Esprit sports cars. These machines are the four-wheeled equivalent of her  nearly lethal sexuality.

Arguments that automobiles are purchased for utilitarian purposes  are unable to explain the relentless emphasis car makers have placed on speed and power. Speed translates directly into danger. Because kinetic energy increases with the square of speed, car crashes above 60 mph are usually not survivable, even with air bags. Yet automobile manufacturers routinely engineer their products to exceed 100 mph, a speed guaranteeing death to the driver in the event of a mishap. Indeed, for the last two decades, most of the gains made in internal combustion engine engineering have been applied to increasing “performance” rather than fuel economy. Despite soaring fuel prices and ecological concerns, average engine horsepower has increased 118% since 1980, when the average American car took 13.9 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph. Today, the average 0-60 time is 8.9 seconds. It is exhilarating to be in complete control of a machine that can carry you fast enough to kill you. Like the seductive Catherine Tramell, the auto promises excitement limited only by the red line of death.


Why are we falling out of love with cars?

There are many causes for disenchantment and estrangement from the automobile. Let us begin by considering what I would term “the usual suspects,” three problems that have been evident for many years:

Sprawlconomy - The rise of car culture  paved the way for the explosive expansion of energy-intensive, decentralized suburban development, what James Howard Kunstler has called “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history.” In a vicious cycle, expanding automotive mobility enabled the construction of far-flung, low density housing, which then reinforced demand for more vehicles to enable commuting across the growing distances between home and business sites. The collateral damage caused by this great change in living arrangements was substantial: the commercial and residential cores of most American urban centers were destroyed. But the damage was not only material, the new auto-centric living pattern undermined human interaction, abolished meaningful civic architecture and littered the landscape with banal strip malls, featureless office parks, and ugly parking facilities. In “The Geography of Nowhere,” Kunstler poignantly observes that “we have built a world that is not worth saving.” What landmarks designation organization would vote to preserve a Wal-Mart or a parking garage?

Congestion – As the dream of suburban splendor evaporated, the nightmare of traffic paralysis took hold. Starting with the influential Robert Moses who turned Long Island into the arch-suburb and along with it created the most congested highways in the country, planners repeatedly failed to anticipate the growing problem of traffic congestion, another kind of vicious cycle, in which road construction drew more traffic, creating more traffic jams, resulting in the demand for more road construction.

To this day, the great taboo of automobile advertising is showing the featured automobile in heavy traffic. Instead, the car of our dreams is always shown cruising alone along a splendidly empty road, an increasingly rare phenomenon.

Peak Oil - Despite some energy outlook improvement provided by new natural gas resources in the US, the long-term supply prospects for motor fuels is bleak. Crude oil supplies have been on a plateau for the last five years, despite record prices, and it is likely they will begin an inexorable decline by the end of this decade. The British energy expert, Professor Chris Rhodes, sums up the impact on auto transportation as follows: 

Since we are entirely dependent on crude oil to fuel the world’s transportation, and looking at the amount of oil we are likely to be left with, we may conclude that it will be necessary to curb transportation by about 70% over the next 20 years. This means the loss mainly of personalized transport and it is unfeasible that there will be 34 million electric cars in the U.K. (the current number of oil-fuelled cars) any time soon, and in reality, never. The only sensible means to move people around using electric power is by light rail and tramways, i.e. mass-transit systems.

And now - three recent factors that threaten the great automobile romance; these arise from the cultural repercussions of Internet technology:

Social Networks – George Orwell wrote "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." The impact of social networking on car culture is evident in the masses of drivers looking away from the road at their phones. The cultural phenomenon evident here is a shift in attention from the joys of driving to the joys of   connecting with others virtually in social networks.  Young people don’t need to take a car ride to hang out with friends. Much easier for them to connect online, then arrange in-person meetings. When young people would rather text than drive, there is trouble brewing for the auto industry.

Car Sharing – With the advent of GPS technology and ubiquitous smart phones, it has become practical to rent automobiles on a just-in-time basis in densely populated areas. This relieves the driver of all of the encumbrances of auto ownership while permitting quick access to a car, usually within an easy walk.

As this practice grows, there will be a shift toward viewing the car as a utilitarian object. It is doubtful that a potential car-sharing hourly renter would walk an extra ten blocks to obtain a vehicle with a different color or more horsepower. This is the automobile reduced to transportation commodity, a nightmare for car marketers, and a harbinger of dwindling sales.

Driverless technology – Perhaps the most potent technology-based threat to car culture is the impending arrival of driverless cars. Google has proven their feasibility and California has already authorized  their use on public streets. If the driving experience is separated from the car ride, one’s automobile becomes a mere transportation module. Who cares if the computerized chauffeur can beat the adjacent vehicle to the next red light? One is reading the news, drafting a memo, or chatting with friends and can’t be bothered with looking at the road or the traffic. Again, the auto is threatened with a fall in status from (an object of desire) (exciting fashion merchandise) to dull transportation unit.

Taken together, the six reasons above would be sufficient for a reasonable person to turn away from a love of cars, but this love is like a powerful sexual obsession, and I believe that only overwhelming fear will suffice to finally extinguish it. That fear is now at hand.

In 1982, Jonathan Schell published an epochal book, “The Fate of the Earth,” about the danger of nuclear war. The book explained how a “nuclear winter” could destroy all human life on the planet by disrupting agriculture for decades. Until the publication of this book, it was generally assumed that even a full-blown nuclear war between superpowers would be “survivable” in the sense that some fraction of humanity would avoid destruction and repopulate the planet. Schell’s thesis explained how these weapons could kill us all. The book was a turning point in the history of the anti-nuclear movement, and we owe the subsequent steady diminution of nuclear arsenals to the growing realization of the danger of extinction posed by nuclear winter. It is one thing to put your own life at risk; it is quite another to put all human life at risk, and this is the issue that I believe will finally doom the automotive love affair.

The young future car buyers of the world are slowly awakening to the ominous global consequences of the car culture: the potential for “ecocide,” global ecological disaster resulting from some combination of resource depletion, air pollution, and global warming.

They are coming to understand that our beloved cars are not just dangerous to us as individuals, but collectively dangerous to our species. A world in which the billions of inhabitants of China and India all possess multiple vehicles is a world doomed to destruction. We are willing to risk our own lives to enjoy the thrill of motoring; we are not willing to risk the fate of the Earth.

A New York Times article on BMW,  stated that “Young people are increasingly apathetic about cars, which must compete with mobile phones and video games for their attention and money.” Apparently reports from BMW, Mercedes and Audi all reflect the fact that high-end carmakers are feeling the effect of this.  BMW is intensifying development into a battery powered car with a lightweight carbon-fibered body. But, the article goes on to say:

“Chris Bangle, former chief of design at BMW and now head of his own design firm based in a small town in northern Italy, argues that the industry must worry about the decline in what he calls ‘its lifeblood — customers who grow up caring about cars... Any look into the stats on issuance of drivers licenses and involvement in cars by the youth in U.S.A., Japan, and Europe shows this.’” 

 Whither the automobile? It will never disappear, but it is likely to return to its early status as a scarce luxury product. Sailboats are common in the marinas of the world, but their ownership is limited to dedicated aficionados and the wealthy. In a few decades private automobile ownership will occupy a similar demographic niche. Detroit is being crushed, like a junked car, by inexorable forces which its prized product, the automobile, set in motion. The recognition of inconvenient truths will grow and the craving for cars will wane as increasing numbers of young people fall out of love with the automobile. It will be many more years before we can calculate the damage caused by this ruinous affair.






   James Howard Kunstler's THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE... Recommended reading from Haig. 







  And another of Kunstler's works...








And as long as we're on the topic, have you ever seen the UNRATED Director's Cut of Basic Instinct??? Hmmmm.







Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.