By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. In case you haven’t heard we, as a nation, are in a headlong rush to leave everything behind. The Best and The Brightest are feverishly working nonstop on transportation conveyances that remove the driver and the driving from the equation. It will be safer. It will be more environmentally friendly. It will mean less congestion. It will mean fewer deaths by human error and/or incompetence. It will mean more freedom for the elderly and the homebound. And it will mean reduced instances of individual car and truck ownership on a grand scale.
Many view this as a transition that is long overdue. Countless studies seem to appear out of nowhere extolling the virtues of our new transportation reality. Well-intentioned theorists envision a nirvana that will finally free us from the tyranny of the automobile. They insist with absolute certainty that with the costs of ownership being severely reduced, if not becoming a thing of the past, we will simply rent the vehicles we need for a defined duration, and the American automotive experience, as we’ve come to know it, will be well and truly over.
The automobile companies – at least the ones with the wherewithal and the vision - are embracing this New Technological Frontier with varying degrees of savvy, on a spectrum marked by, “We Definitely Know What We’re Doing” on the one end, and “We’re Throwing Money at Anyone Talking a Good Game in Hopes That In The End We Bet On The Right Horse” on the other.
This means the odd sight of senior auto executives lined up for painful photo ops with assorted Boffins of The Moment from Silicon Valley whom they barely know, after laying out hundreds of millions of dollars on the come, and then smiling wanly for the cameras as they mutter to themselves, ”I hope to hell this works out.” Or worse.
Why is this happening? Because the very last thing automobile execs want to be perceived as is anachronistic, old-school, head-in-sand operatives that the Shiny Happy Masters of The Universe in Silicon Valley have left in the dust. You can almost hear the battle cries from inside the executive enclaves at these companies, “We have been an integral part of this nation’s transportation solution for over 100 years and make no mistake, we will be an even more important part of the solution for the next 100 years.” Or something like that.
But there’s a large measure of hand-wringing in all of this, too, and that’s because the auto manufacturers hell bent on this quest to be part of the transportation future know damn well that the vehicles they’re designing, engineering and manufacturing right now and for the next 30 years at least will have to be successful enough – and profitable enough - to power the whims and dreams of this New Technological Frontier, which means that these manufacturers will be forced to do a two-step dance to keep the whole thing afloat. This means continuing to crank out compelling cars and trucks that people outside the touchy-feely – and congested – urban centers actually need for their real lives, while the people reveling in the autonomy of it all can be blissfully free of the nastiness of The Way Things Used To Be.
But make no mistake: this is a train wreck that will unfold in fits and starts. Will there be autonomy and touchy-feely ride sharing that suits a certain segment of the populace? Yes. But how much of the public it reaches on a mass scale and how soon that will all come in to play is pure conjecture right now, and I don’t care what the most optimistic of scenarios say. I’m sure in the 2020s the manufacturers and their Silicon Valley partners will point to isolated demonstrations of remarkable wonderfulness, but for the rest of this nation, it’s going to be a giant “we’ll see.”
For some, namely certain politicians in Northern California and in Washington, this fundamental transformation of our transportation model can’t come soon enough. For those people who view the automobile and the automobile industry and everyone and everything associated with it as a national scourge that needs to be eradicated once and for all - it will be Sweet Victory, a fitting denouement for the filthy automobile, a march of progress that will benefit everyone. For these people the historical context of the automobile has been overwrought and overexaggerated from the beginning, and to finally put paid to the notion of the automobile’s wonderfulness is an accomplishment that they will giddily revel in for decades to come, because for them historical perspective is just old stuff about old, irrelevant people.
But for the rest of us, it will mark nothing less than the end of the American experience as we’ve known it. The automobile is so crucially linked to the industrial fabric of this nation that pretending otherwise is simply impossible to do. The reason the Silicon Valley Overlords have come calling to the collective “Detroit” is that this industry and this area have been this country’s center of expertise in manufacturing, materials and advanced technology for well over a century. The automobile industry has stepped up time and time again to support this nation at its darkest times, with the forming of the incredible “Arsenal of Democracy” being just one notable – and remarkable - instance.
But that’s just one dimension of the impact, because the automobile has played such an inexorable role in creating much of the culture of this nation that it is simply incomprehensible to contemplate America, as we know it, without it.
Every dimension of the American experience has been shaped by the automobile - the roads we used to explore the vast expanses of the unbridled majesty of this nation (and ourselves along the way); the music that provided much of the soundtrack for those journeys, the roadside attractions and the road food that went with them; the big cities and little towns along the highways and byways; and on, and on, and on. (Talk to anyone who has visited The Henry Ford museum recently and see what he or she has to say. In so many words it will sound like this: The American experience is the automobile, and the automobile is the American experience.)
The automobile’s influence on this country’s culture is almost incalculable. But then again it’s even more than that. It’s part of this country’s soul, it’s who we are and it’s where we’ve been and it’s where we’ve always wanted to go. It’s the fundamental freedom of movement and unleashing of the spirit, and it’s the mechanical embodiment of our hopes and dreams.
In short, that distinctly American perspective, that wanderlust for seeing and doing and exploring that was fueled and driven by the automobile for over a century, is being buried alive, right before our eyes. So excuse me when I don’t get excited at The Great Enlightenment that’s coming just over the hill.
I’ll leave you with this: Poet, critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, James Agee wrote the following for the September 1934 issue of Fortune:
The characters in our story are five: this American continent; this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and the Great American Roadside. As an American, of course, you know these characters. This continent, an open palm spread frank before the sky against the bulk of the world. This curious people. The automobile you know as well as you know the slouch of the accustomed body at the wheel and the small stench of gas and hot metal. You know the sweat and the steady throes of the motor and the copious and thoughtless silence and the almost lack of hunger and the spreaded swell and swim of the hard highway toward and beneath and behind and gone and the parted roadside swarming past. This great road, too; you know that well. How it is scraggled and twisted along the coast of Maine, high-crowned and weak-shouldered in honor of long winter, how like a blacksnake in the sun it takes the ridges, the green and dim ravines which are the Cumberlands, and lolls loose into the hot Alabama valleys… Oh yes, you know this road… All such things you know… God and the conjunction of confused bloods, history and the bullying of this tough continent to heel, did something to the American people -- worked up in their blood a species of restiveness unlike any that any race before has known. Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it. And there is no better reason. So God made the American restive. The American in turn and in due time got into the automobile and found it good. The automobile became a hypnosis, the opium of the American people...
We move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it.
Truer words were never written.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.