Rest Assured that Car Culture Will Not Go Gently to the Grave

This car commercial caught my eye this weekend. Here’s the transcript:
[Menacing male voice.] We don’t have to worry about predators like our ancestors did.

No saber tooth tigers stalking from the brush. No dire wolves circling the camp.

There are no more monsters to fear... And so we have to build our own.

The commercial is a Dodge, and I mean that in the most dual sense of the word.

Yet the metaphor is apt, as cars are increasingly becoming a simple transportation technology. In today’s congested wired cities, many younger people no longer view cars as an intensely personal thing. Most simply buy cars because “they work” (hello Honda Fit!) and not for nostalgic or Freudian reasons. The affect of the automobile is evacuating.

And this places car companies in a situation where they have to create their own justification, invoke their own monsters. They have to sell people on driving as excess. And for many machines, invoking auto desire is a desperate affair. They can’t peddle the growl.

Cars as Class Performance

[Not GM, but Imperial.]
In a sense, this is nothing new.

Car makers in general, and General Motors most of all, have long understood that the lure of the automobile goes far beyond simple transportation. The appeal of the automobile is affect: the feel of leather, the growl of an engine, the techno glow of the dash, the curves of the fender.

Here’s an article by sociologist David Gartman called "Three Ages of the Automobile: the Cultural Logics of the Car," which describes the relationship between GM and (French sociologist Pierre Bourdieus’ theory of) class distinction:
General Motors head Alfred Sloan sensed the emergence of what he called this ‘mass-class market’ in the mid-1920s, arguing that many buyers were now willing to pay a bit more for a car beyond basic transportation. His corporation began to compete with Ford’s Model T by creating mass-produced cars with the superficial style of the luxury classics. One of the most successful of these was the 1927 La Salle, a smaller, cheaper model of the corporation’s luxury car, Cadillac. Unlike the craft-built 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 ‘imitation Cadillac’, he hired a Hollywood coachbuilder, Harley Earl, who created custom bodies for the movies and their stars. Earl was so successful in capturing the superficial look of unity and integrity for the mass-produced La Salle that he was hired by Sloan to do the same thing for the entire line of GM cars. In 1927 Earl joined General Motors as the head of the new Art and Color Section, later to be renamed Styling.
[…] The working class also wanted to appear distinctive and superior and, given the chance, imitated the goods of the bourgeoisie to do so. Workers may have initially consumed simple, functional cars because they could afford nothing else, not because they had an ingrained taste for them. The rising incomes of American workers during the 1920s, however, allowed them to abandon these goods and demand cars with style, thus entering the game of distinction for the first time.
A glance at a classic car convention reveals that the “golden age” of the American auto is synonymous with the pioneering GM car/class hierarchy, when the difference between a ’58 and a ’59 Chrysler was both everything and nothing. But today, the brands are mothballed; only four remain. (And really, how much longer can Buick last?) The symbolism and meaning of the American car has been replaced by functionality — and even there, with the on-board wi-fi, the “foot-actuated trunk”, and a wide variety of other gimmicks — car companies seem increasingly desperate to generate distinction.

Face it: cars are elaborate expensive toasters.

Deception and Desperation
[Truck Viagra.]
And in this vacuous space, lies have been breeding. The new car smell is toxic, and even something as simple as the roar of an engine turns out to be amplified and recorded, just like the bell of a light rail train. Worst of all is the Volkswagen scandal, where the advance and wonder of German technology is employed not to save humanity, but to deceive it.

The fraud flies in the face of the techno-environmental narrative, where state-led liberal good governance somehow survives the apocalyptic onslaught of Congressional politics. The story suggests a seamless transition out from the auto age: CAFE standards will rise, cars will shrink, corporations will turn over new Nissan Leafs, and slowly but surely we will evolve from the stink of everyday driving.

[CAFE plans.]

But that’s not the reality on the new car lots of the ring road, where automobiles and hucksterism have long been synonymous. Instead of Jerry Lundegaard’s “trucoat”, today’s cars are cloaked in lies, from EPA ratings to gas tax politics.

The most disturbing part of the VW story is that this kind of cheating might be commonplace. The second-largest car company is surely not the only one to flout the letter and intention of the law.

This is from The Guardian:

Max Warburton, an analyst at the financial research group Bernstein, said: “There is no way to put an optimistic spin on this – this is really serious.”

A British expert in low-emission vehicles claimed the manipulation of air pollution data could be “very widespread” and that tests in Europe are “much more open to this sort of abuse”.

Greg Archer, a former government adviser and head of clean vehicles at the respected Transport & Environment thinktank, said: “I am not surprised. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence about carmakers using these defeat devices. All credit to the EPA for investigating and finding the truth.”

Archer, the former managing director of the UK’s Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and non-executive director for the government’s Renewable Fuels Agency, said the scandal could spread into petrol cars and CO2 levels. “It is probably not limited to diesel and not limited to emissions,” he added.

Car culture is so central to the economic networks of the mid-20th century, the freeways, suburbs, gasoline, and automobile companies that are no stranger to corruption. How can you reconcile the death of fossil fuels 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 very end. No, cars will not go gently into that good night. They will lie, cheat, and growl their way to the grave.

[The emissions Volkswagen and the Back to the Future DeLorean.]

1 comment:

Carl said...

That's "Lundegaard" and "Trucoat."