Baby, You Can Take Away My Car

1973 Dodge DartThere is a certain greyness to Monday morning, no matter how bright the sunshine nor how blue the skies may be. Upon awaking today, I awkwardly, sleepily made my way to the kitchen and switched on the coffee maker and BBC Radio 4: I caught the tail end of an item which said that the United Auto Workers had reached an agreement with Chrysler, Fiat and the American government, which should save the American auto company from bankruptcy and liquidation.

I know that there are aficionados who will be cock-a-hoop at the thought that the maker of their favourite mode of transport has been saved. My reaction, in contrast, was “Oh”.

My ambivalence comes from the following paradox: I don’t want the people who work at Chrysler to lose their jobs and be pushed to the margins. As someone who has been unemployed and lived on state benefits in the past, I know it’s a miserable experience and one to be avoided if at all possible.

On the other hand, my recollection of the cars they have produced is tainted. My first experience of a Chrysler product came from my grandfather’s 1969 Dodge Dart: every time it started up, it sounded as if it was struggling with an intestinal complaint. Furthermore, my grandfather had to fight a constant battle against rust, in spite of his devoted care and attention; I remember him at the age of seventy-five, bent over yet another dark ochre spot with a can of aquamarine paint, doing his level best to keep together a disintegrating bit of steel.

My impressions of other Chrysler cars are just as negative: I remember K-cars looking like something a child would put together out of cereal boxes perched on wheels. The Chrysler Le Baron Coupe was a symbol of Yuppie tackiness. The Plymouth Duster was the kind of car you gave to a teenager as their first mode of transport, because if it ended up wrapped around a tree or stuck in a ditch somewhere, no one would care. This “tradition” now lives to fight another day; no doubt, the new alliance with Fiat will add Italian flair to this storied history.

But beyond my visceral distaste, I couldn’t help but think about a discussion I had with a colleague the other day. He was telling me that he was interested in writing a PhD thesis about “why certain technologies win”.

“Ah,” I said, “you mean like how VHS beat Betamax?”

He shrugged. “That’s one example, certainly. However, I’d like to find out how we adopted cars as an optimal transport solution.”

I asked him to explain further. He replied, “Well, how did we decide that pushing ourselves around in a heavy metal box full of flammable liquid was a good idea?”

I had to admit that put that way, yes, cars do sound preposterous. We dig up ore from the earth, pull rubber out of chemicals, melt silicon from sand all to assemble a vehicle which most drivers rarely utilise at full efficiency. Admittedly, I am one of those who is guilty of this: my car can hold four people, but most of the time, I am driving alone. The cars ahead and behind me testify to the fact that there are many other people heading the same way at the same time, yet we are all (mostly) alone in our vehicles and all putting out carbon. Yet, we accept this inefficiency as normal.

We also accept as normal that this wasteful mode of transport consistently works out cheaper than more efficient means. In order to use public services to meet my transport needs, I would have to pay bus and rail bills which are more than the fuel and lease costs of my car; for someone on a limited income, switching is not an option. Worse, the journey would take twice as long.

Partially, this is due to the insane policies of the British government; it makes no difference if they are Conservative or Labour, the politicians have consistently refused to look at costs on a cascading basis. Adopting this approach would require them to provide subsidies to rail transport with the full knowledge that the service would not turn a direct profit from passenger numbers. But, and this is a big but, the costs saved on items such as road maintenance and health service cost reductions (due to fewer road accidents), means that the nation turns a profit. What is more, the environmental savings on carbon emissions also help the nation meet its obligations to the planet. However, no British government since Attlee was Prime Minister seems to have operated with this societal calculus in mind. Rather, governments have grown more dependent on our fuel and road taxes as a source of revenue; the car industry is so central to economic life that even the company that inflicted the horror of the Plymouth Duster can go cap in hand to Washington and expect a rain of cash to fall upon them.

That said, the voters have started to object to constant bailouts and as a result, the industry is being forced to downsize. It was announced today that General Motors is to get rid of its Pontiac line of cars and cut jobs by a third. It is my hope that the assembly line workers will be given the opportunity to turn their hand to other things. For example, in February 2008, the German manufacturer Siemens warned the British government that it was having problems meeting the demand for wind turbines. The engineering skills learned on the assembly line surely could be redeployed, with appropriate training, towards meeting this need and that of other green energy products such as solar cells, and tidal power generators.

However, one of the more disturbing motifs of our present economic crisis is the sheer number of references by government and business leaders about “returning to normal”. The implication is that once we get past the turmoil, things will carry on more or less as they did previously: this should be a thoroughly unacceptable way of looking at our present situation, after all, it was the previous state of affairs which led to the current catastrophe. There should be no doubt that we don’t want to re-inflate the housing bubble, which priced homes out of the reach of first time buyers and the poor. There should be no hesitation in eliminating lax rules on lending that only benefit the lender and no let up on those bankers who played fast and loose with their depositors’ money. However, there should also be no doubt that much of the manufacturing model which has sustained us hitherto has run its course. There is nothing normal, natural or inevitable about us transporting ourselves the way we do: in the past, people felt that the horse drawn carriage was going to be around forever, but we changed. It is time to change again, and to do so with the cascading costs in mind. On the day that a government is intelligent enough to do so, I’ll be amongst the first to paraphrase an old Beatles tune by saying, “Baby, you can take away my car.”

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