The car culture is getting worse
I wrote an article for my blog a few years ago that I recently rediscovered. It turns out that nothing never changes because I’ve been thinking a lot about the same stupid dynamic of driving in America lately. For example, the “wrong engine sound” that was new five or six years ago will be all too common in 2021. Most people don’t even realize that they hear half the noise they hear from people racing down the streets in their cars and trucks. Street isn’t even engine noise. In short, car culture is certainly worse today than ever.
Take, for example, the competition on streetblog (Informing the Movement to Improve Walking, Biking, and Transit) for “America’s Most Toxic Car Ads”. Six years ago, the worst car advert I’d ever seen was for the Dodge Charger (which makes perfect sense since Charger drivers are the most aggressive offenders).
You can check it out for yourself here, but here is the transcript:
[Menacing male voice] We don’t have to worry about predators like our ancestors did.
No saber-toothed tigers sneaking out of the brush. No bad wolves are circling the camp.
There are no more monsters to fear. . . . And so we have to build our own.
The commercial is a dodge in every sense of the word, but the metaphor they use is appropriate.
On the one hand, cars are increasingly a simple transportation technology. Because in today’s congested cities, many younger people no longer see cars as a very personal thing. Many people buy cars simply for convenience, or instead opt for transportation, technology, or their own two legs to get around. This forces auto companies to create their own emotional justification to get people to buy. They have to summon their own monsters and sell driving to people in other ways. And for many machines, conjuring car requests is a desperate affair, with cars peddling the growl, image, sound, and effect your car or truck must have to disturb others.
Cars as service providers
In a way, this is nothing new. Automakers in general, and General Motors in particular, have long understood that the lure of the automobile goes far beyond simple transportation. The attraction of the automobile is affect: the feel of leather, the roar of an engine, the techno-sheen of the dashboard, the curves of the fender.
Here is an article by sociologist David Gartman, titled “Three Ages of the Automobile: the Cultural Logics of the Car,” which describes the relationship between GM and (the theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieus) class differences:
General Motors boss Alfred Sloan sensed the rise of what he called this “mass market” in the mid-1920s and argued that many buyers were now willing to pay a little more for a car that went beyond simply transporting it. His company began to compete with Ford’s Model T by producing mass-produced cars with the superficial style of luxury classics. One of the most successful of these was the 1927 La Salle, a smaller, cheaper model of the company’s luxury car, Cadillac. Unlike the artisanal Cadillac, the La Salle was mass-produced to lower its price. But to borrow the prestige of the nameplate, Sloan wanted the car to have the look of handcrafted luxury. To design this “Cadillac imitation”, he hired a Hollywood bodybuilder, Harley Earl, who made bespoke bodies for the films and their stars. Earl was so successful at capturing the superficial look of unity and integrity for the mass-produced La Salle that he was hired by Sloan to do the same for the entire GM car line. In 1927, Earl joined General Motors as head of the new Art and Color Section, later renamed Styling.
[…] The working class, too, wanted to appear distinctive and superior, and when it was able to do so, mimicked the goods of the bourgeoisie. Workers may have consumed simple, functional cars in the beginning because they couldn’t afford anything else, not because they had ingrained tastes for them. However, the rising incomes of American workers in the 1920s enabled them to abandon those goods and demand cars in style, and thus stepping into the game of discrimination for the first time.
A look at a classic car conference reveals that the “golden age” of the American automobile is synonymous with the groundbreaking GM car / class hierarchy, when the difference between a ’58 and a ’59 Chrysler was all and nothing. Today most of these brands are mothballed; only four remain. (And really, why does Buick exist?)
The symbolism and meaning of the American car has been replaced by functionality – and even there, with the onboard WLAN, the “foot-operated trunk” and a host of other gimmicks, car companies seem more and more desperate to distinguish themselves.
This is where the garbage goes in.
Delusion and despair
It turns out that the smell of new cars is poisonous, and even something as simple as the roar of a locomotive is often amplified, as is the fake light rail bell. Worst of all, the Volkswagen scandal, in which the advances and wonders of German technology were not used to save humanity, but rather to deceive them. See also Toyota’s efforts to delay action on climate change until they get their piece of the pie.
The fraud contradicts the techno-ecological narrative in which state-run liberal good governance somehow survives the apocalyptic onslaught of congressional politics. History points to a seamless transition from the auto age: CAFE standards will rise, cars will shrink, corporations will launch new Nissan Leafs and slowly but surely we will evolve from the smell of everyday driving.
But that’s not the reality in the new auto era, where automobiles and odds and ends have long been synonymous and industry insiders in Minnesota have worked twice to delay even the most basic adoption of zero-emission standards. In place of Jerry Lundegaard’s “Trucoat,” today’s cars are disguised in lies, from EPA ratings to gasoline tax policies.
The most disturbing part of VW history is that this type of scam could be commonplace. The second largest auto company is certainly not the only one to disregard the wording and intent of the law.
This is from The Guardian:
Max Warburton, an analyst at Bernstein’s financial research group, said, “You can’t be optimistic about this – it’s really serious.”
A UK expert on low-emission vehicles claimed that air pollution data manipulation could be “very widespread” and that testing in Europe was “much more open to this type of abuse”.
Greg Archer, former government advisor and clean vehicle manager at the prestigious Transport & Environment think tank, said, “I’m not surprised. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that automobile manufacturers use these shutdown devices. All credit to the EPA for investigating and finding the truth. “
Archer, the former executive director of Britain’s Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and non-executive director of the government’s Renewable Fuels Agency, said the scandal could spread to gasoline cars and carbon emissions. “It’s probably not limited to diesel and not limited to emissions,” he added.
The same kind of idiotic revanchism takes place at the consumer level, where so-called “disconnect devices” are far more common than any sane person would think. (Seriously, read this article; it’s appalling.) Pollution is central to mid-20th century business networks, and corruption is no stranger to highways, suburbs, gasoline and automotive companies. How can the death of fossil fuels be reconciled with the life of the automobile?
Cars are their own worst monster, and they will dodge on their last legs like a boxer on the ropes until the end. No, cars won’t go smoothly into that good night. They will lie, cheat and growl to the grave.