How Cars Represent The Stagnancy of Culture’s Conquest

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Environmental piece regarding the state and pleasure of automobiles

“Cars mean more to these kids than architecture did in Europe’s great formal century, say 1750 to 1850. They are freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour, everything.” — Tom Wolfe, 1963


I have always been a fan of cars, at age 25 still have several on my bedroom wall, and I am quite fond of my humble 0.9t Dacia Sandero. Yet the true cost of producing these toy rocket ships with obsessive technology still hangs in my mind as the undertones of a devout environmentalist who is also a petrolhead.

Of course there are greater sources of pollution from minimally regulated industry, agribusiness, warfare, global shipping transportation and such, but as artefacts of human design processes, cars play a major part in all of those greater sources of pollution. Not to mention human cost, which ought also to be considered as emotional pollution. They are telling of our approach to consumer products through globalisation with their appeal to individuality, and the human mindset that produces them.

There are more new cars being built today than there ever have been. The modified car scene is now bigger than it ever has been. There are more model niches, more quirky designs, more niches within niches and more market for them than ever before.

Each modern car uses elements from almost the entire pallet of raw materials available on the planet — if not the car itself, then many of the robots which build them. Platinum goes into catalytic converters. Sulphur is used to vulcanise rubber. Cobalt is in electronics, and small amounts of various obscure elements are required for the bewildering array of sensors that completes a modern engine. Cars have a role in possibly every sector of human expression — or if not exactly a car, then some kind of relatable internal-combustion driven transport.

Commercial vehicles and vans count because they are fairly similar. Indeed, with the focus on infrastructure turned away from potentially electrified rail freight transport (particularly in the UK), the trucking industry forms the backbone of overland logistical solutions. When sat in traffic it’s worth a little wonder to how different driving might be if most truck loads were transported by rail and distributed more locally…

The way cars transformed society increasingly is taken for granted now. Being able to transport ones’ self, family and goods, without the need for expensive impractical horses, is as much a revolution in itself as the invention of the railway, or personal computer. The car has enabled urbanisation, abolished distance for many businesses, allowed more remote living, advanced robots and production technology, whilst returning profit to the manufacturers for a good century now.

But as self-driving cars become the next vogue for the industry in 50 years, what modes of human expression will be changed in these many layered machines? Is automation purely so that the roads can become more congested without increasing accidents? Certainly the technical innovations in cars seems to point towards this, with crash testing categories changing to be as stringent as technology allows.

And yet, as the designer of the original Mini Alec Issigonis once said: “I design my cars with such good brakes, such good steering, that if anyone has an accident in one it’s their own fault.” Obviously this cannot be entirely true, since accidents can be caused by other road users. However, by and large it holds some truth, since preventing an accident completely is surely favourable to preventing the severity of a potential accident.

Goodyear are now working on spherical tyres that hang in a magnetic field which forms the suspension. Though a computer may be able to get any trajectory to a vehicle so equipped, the thing that would be missing for me is the experience of utilising a machine as a tool, in the craft of driving: reactive and mechanically connected to physical space. For that reason, I don’t think track driving will disappear without a fight, though everyday driving may be set to perish.

In one form or another, the many expressive customisation and artful crafts which arise of cars may stick around too, since the way people relate to cars isn’t entirely rational. Not to the extent that ownership of firearms is irrational for people wanting a non-malicious world, but along the same lines. Both are tools which can be noisy, lethal, filthy, and arouse some giddy sense of testosterone-like menace in such fanatically inclined men and women.

The internal combustion engine lends itself well to tinkering for the hands-on, its faculties for increased performance basically dependant only on optimum fluid dynamics and electricity. Perhaps with bio-fuel this can be preserved in an ecologically sound way, so that the unmistakable raucousness of mechanical violence can continue converting to kinetic energy. As long as fuel has more energy density than batteries, the future could still be burning, as so much of the past was around log fires.

Though much is made of manufacturer’s efforts to produce environmentally sound vehicles (even if it means cheating the pollution tests…), performance remains important. This neurotic desire to go even faster and see the environment dwindle in the rear view mirrors a fraction of a second quicker is endemic to progress.

The new Bugatti has slightly bigger numbers than the last new Bugatti what they did. The base-model Porsche 911s are as fast now as some of the super high-performance variants were some 25 years ago, but the brand remains largely the same, and the flagship product sells on its facsimile to an older design. The core product that sells the most is of course the Cayenne, which sells as a scaled-up facsimile of the values in the older design, but without most of the integrity. This repeats itself: BMW once advertised not 10 years ago that they would never make a FWD car, and yet now there is the 2-series minivan.

Even so, that the Mustang is now finally fitted with a four-cylinder engine shows that the fundamental design of an established model of car can be changed — even if the rest of it is as tastefully complicated and over-engineered as contemporary design process can allow. It’s not just the high-end cars that see improvements. Minor facelifts accentuate the efforts of most manufacturers to maintain a consistent product that arrives in different seasonal variations to keep the finance flowing from willing punters.

Fanaticism mixes with nostalgia to produce factions of fans that enjoy the way one manufacturer produces design solutions to another, if not an outright brand worship. This remains an expression of how particular cars invoke feeling, and despite its perceived value in advertising, organic driving feel continues to become eclipsed by gadgets and autonomous assistance. Even the humble Vauxhall Corsa can now be specified with a parking assist feature, while the Astra gets massaging seats! Don’t you already want to trade your shoebox in for a newer one right now…?

For the simple joys of driving feel, a mechanical device remains superior, the more mechanical the better. It needn’t be a go-kart. This is why the classic car scene still goes well, with many classic models being restored to correct originality, but probably the most admirable projects built to go impossibly quicker than they did.

Many models are becoming extinct altogether, it is only the tireless efforts of enthusiasts which keep them running, along the same vein of preservation that steam engine enthusiasts share. It’s important to note that classic cars preserve a piece of history: with every car ever made there is usually a strange and terrific history about how it was designed, with a myriad of choices that were made in long-forgotten design studios, probably over innumerable cigarettes.

As a portrait of contemporary design processes, there are echoes of Dickensian mills and old lace machines with the painful horrors of the initial steam industrial revolution. Car factories themselves are much less dangerous now thanks to health and safety and robotic production techniques.

It is the various parts of the world where are sourced raw minerals like cobalt, sulfur, rubber, gold, mercury, oil, besides others, that currently face the most dismal exploitation. That is a symptom of post-colonialist capitalism which urgently needs global attention by reinvention of industry for the improvement of justice and dignity in all people’s lives — it won’t be done through charity alone.

The core truth of car factions is that it really doesn’t matter what you drive. The joy of driving is so universal, so ingrained in our experience, that whether you choose a Romanian, French, American,  Korean, German or Japanese machine, ultimately makes no difference. You have formed a bond with a thing that accomplishes driving, and everyone lives with what they have, or even better still they make the best of it with resourceful upgrades, driving skill, elbow grease, and other such stuff!

In recent years, it has become more profitable to share components and platforms across different car makers, as design criteria becomes standardised at ever-diminishing returns for pollution and safety. It’s almost like they are built to go out of fashion so that they can be redesigned, rebuilt, rebadged and re-released without contributing to the endearing charm of driving — which is primarily a mechanical interface.

Longevity used to be a byword in vehicle advertising. These days it is the length of service intervals which are presumed to contribute reliability to a car. Most remain fashionably over-capable in everyday use, and it seems gradually even less mechanical innovation separates common body styles than the branding and image of most manufacturers.

This is destroying the integrity of engineering, whose goal ought to be attaining the most competent, sustainable, beneficial and longest lasting design. After 100,000 miles, people presume many cars are as good as dead. In fact, they are now suitable for much more than that, and it used to be much less.

Perhaps in the same way the electric lightbulb was industrialised as a consumable object, cars have also become this way due to the same market forces. Throwaway culture has an effect on the environment, but it’s also the unnecessary construction and refining of things initially conceived as deliberately unrefined which most drains the resources of the world.

Aside from the planned obsolescence of consumer electronics, nothing else illustrates this better than the motorcar. The alchemical industrial makeup of the automobile needs urgent rethinking from its heart to its shoes.

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