A lone car cruises along a sinuous ribbon of road on the edge of a cliff that falls precipitously into the churning ocean below. The sun is setting and upbeat electronic music pulses on the radio. The driver is a young, well-dressed professional with an attractive woman by his side. His face is serious as he drives off into unlimited opportunity, perhaps even immortality.
Cut to the reality: that same driver, now looking tired and ordinary, sitting in traffic in some urban center in a sea of cars that look just like his own, most of them black, white, or grey. Perhaps once a year this driver sees the kind of road pictured in the commercial, but not the exact road, unless he lives in California. Otherwise, he will not be driving on the Amalfi coast, the Great Ocean Road, the fjords of Norway, or the rolling hills of Ireland. Mostly he will drive on freeways, back and forth between his job, house and the store; and in so doing, he will sense, if not come to understand, that in spite of the absurd sums spent on marketing by automobile brands, a car is just a mode of transportation to get you from point A to point B. You could go into a CarMax lot, put on a blindfold, have your significant other spin you around a few times and point to a random car that would serve you needs as well as the next.
The message of car advertising is this: if you drive an expensive car, their expensive car, then you are someone important with somewhere exciting to go, always in good company, with beautiful surroundings, on challenging roads that require the skill of a race car driver and the automotive performance to match, even though you are not Ayrton Senna, and this is not the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Illusion of Choice
Like much else in America, there is too much choice in cars, while that choice is often an illusion, because all cars give us more or less the same thing: an engine, four wheels, some seats, and a box to enclose it. Nevertheless, we have to deal with dozens of car companies coming out with hundreds of different models every year. As is the case with all choice, too much of it can lead to anxiety, stress, doubt and paralysis.
Cars commercials brainwash people into buying cars more frequently than necessary, in order to always have the latest model to impress their peers, and in hopes that it will make them happy, which accelerates the product lifecycle from new car lot to scrapyard. While sometimes there are real, game-changing, useful innovations in an industry, car innovation frequently involves minor design changes which serve as little more than a signal that it is the newest model: a new headlight shape, body design, etc. Or the addition of unnecessary frills: a jack to plug in your phone and sync it to the radio, GPS navigation with an annoying voice that talks to you, video screens so passengers can watch movies, which everyone ultimately copies and become standard, driving the cost of personal transportation ever up, to the delight of carmakers.
Innovation without Evolution
Like many industries, car manufacturers are trying to adapt without changing as they work to move the car from “driver assist” safety features to driverless cars. While there are some innovations that are both welcome and useful, such as cars that are programmed to stop by themselves when they sense an obstruction to avoid an accident, or have rear-view cameras so drivers can more easily see behind them when they are backing up, the proliferation of electronic systems ensure that cars are harder and more expensive to repair. A malfunction in one place can affect the rest of the vehicle, resulting in safety problems and more breakdowns. Also, for those who enjoyed fixing their car on the weekend, they now need a specialist mechanic with diagnostic tools to do the job, lest they mess up everything with a small repair. Whether or not cars end up driving themselves, they are still not the most efficient, economical, or environmentally sustainable transportation solution.
Nevertheless, the automotive industry, including shipping, parts, repair, tires, insurance, etc. remains big business in the United States. It is an industry subsidized by the government, principally by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided and continues to provide the transportation network we need to conduct business by taxing our gas, while also creating the landscape of suburban sprawl and urban gridlock we see today that by design puts the car before people and other forms of transportation, and depends on affordable fossil fuel to keep functioning. Although emissions have been reduced by EPA legislation mandating better fuel economy, and the advent of electric cars, the automobile is still a major contributor to climate change.
Driving is by definition an alienating activity, as it cuts people off from others physically, in that they are locked in a metal box; and emotionally, as people don’t need to depend on anyone else for their mobility. When people get behind the wheel they seem to have a sense of entitlement, believing they have a right to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, regardless of whoever is also using the public highway system at the time. When people are prevented from getting to work, home or the store quickly, they experience road rage, which manifests itself in many forms of antisocial behavior including speeding, tailgating, excessive and unwarranted honking of the horn, shouting, violence, and even murder. I would argue that societies that use more public transportation are more patient, compassionate and civic-minded than their car dependent counterparts.
The True Cost of Driving
While driving has gotten safer as a result of the efforts of Ralph Nader’s automobile safety activism, which resulted in the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act that made seatbelts mandatory, and the recent “driver assist” safety innovation mentioned above, driving is still a dangerous activity. According to the WHO, motor vehicle accidents were seventh in the top ten leading causes of death in the developed world in 2001. The age group most at risk of death by car accident is young people from 24 to 34 years old. Interestingly enough, while a driver’s license used to be a right of passage for teenagers, fewer young Americans these days are interested in getting one. Rather they would prefer to live in walkable, bikeable, city centers with good public transportation options. This is likely a consequence of growing up in suburbs where there was nothing to do, and where it was difficult to get around. It can also be seen as an economic choice. Indeed, when you look at the costs associated with owning a car, including insurance, maintenance and gas, cars can be an expensive and unappealing mode of transport.
An International Perspective
Driving can be different in different countries. For example, in Brazil, the wealthy sometimes drive old, beat-up cars into town to avoid drawing attention to themselves and being kidnapped. Or they have their cars fitted with bulletproof glass to avoid being carjacked. But as is the case for most unequal societies, those Brazilians who can, remove themselves from contact with the general public altogether, by flying in private helicopter from their homes to their downtown São Paolo office towers, not unlike their American counterparts who fly up and down the coast from their Santa Barbara homes to their Los Angeles offices. Meanwhile, other well-to-do Angelinos spend a fortune tricking out their chauffeured vans to make their gridlocked commute and business around town more bearable. In its efforts to follow our lead in car transportation, China has also experienced problems. In one case, road congestion near Beijing resulted in a traffic jam 100 kilometers long that took nine days to clear.
Many Americans living in congested urban centers are tiring of the car and the need to fight traffic to make a living and have a social life. Through services like Zipcar, where you can rent a car for a few hours or a day, or other on-demand shared car services, people are moving away from car ownership. They are also moving to central areas where they have services within walking distance, and people are riding more bikes, and demanding that “Share the Road” ceases to be an empty slogan by legislating against driver road rage against cyclists, through laws such as the Three Feet of Safety Act in California. Meanwhile, the California high-speed rail project is being planned, providing a viable transportation alternative to the car for travel between cities.
The Housing Crisis and Long Commutes
The problem in California in particular, and in major cities throughout the country in general, is that as people move to more central locations, the cost of housing goes up, and people get priced out and are forced to live farther out in the periphery where they need to drive more. Cities in California have had a poor response to this problem, in that they are not building enough housing to meet the increased demand, due to outdated planning law abetted by the resistance of existing homeowners to growth. For example, according to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, Los Angeles needs to build between 70,000 and 110,000 new units a year to meet demand. Consequently, when fewer people (especially the young) want to live in the suburbs, they increasingly have to. It seems that if we are to wean ourselves off car dependence, we need to change planning policy to allow for more mixed use, in-fill development in cities, while increasing densities and building vertical so that we can live closer to where we work, recreate, and socialize. Still, because the car remains essential to getting around most American cities, due to large distances resulting from sprawl, and the lack or poor coverage of public transportation, we will have to put up with car hegemony for a while yet.
In the meantime, we will continue to fast-forward past the irritating and often idiotic car commercials that frequently interrupt our favorite programs: ads where cars do flips off ramps, or have carefully choreographed races through the desert, or accompany extreme sports, while claiming human values such as mastery, talent, or achievement that have nothing to do with a car and require hard work and dedication, not a mode of transportation. We will have to tolerate the insinuation that the car is fun, although most people who have to commute regularly hate driving, even as we suspend believe in reality in order to see the car as an end not just a means to get from point A to point B.
Yes, the world would be a better place without overbearing car commercials personifying the car with every positive human emotion, merit and value, while placing it in a leading role in every exciting and important moment in our lives. The car is the golden calf of our times, something humans worship and show off to one another, in an attempt to assuage those same insecurities that car commercial so readily exploit. Ultimately, I think we would all appreciate it and be better off if carmakers would cut the BS and spare us their relentless, annoying advertising.