The car is scheduled to die in 2030. This is the opening sentence of Bryan Appleyard's book The Car, and it is certainly an attention grabber. Appleyard is referring to the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, but of course, our vehicles will live on as electric and autonomous cars instead.
Appleyard, an award-winning British journalist, writes in the acknowledgements that he was encouraged by his wife to write about something he was genuinely interested in. And his love of the subject is infectious. Cars opened the world to us, they changed the way we see things and pushed the limits of our imagination, and could be said to have generated suburbia and even the modern teenager. Their influence has been so profound, he writes, that it has become as invisible to us as oxygen.
The book is divided into two sections: Makers and Breakers. The first part is a romp through the colorful characters, mavericks and pioneers such as Henry Ford who created the modern automobile and then brought it to the mass market.
Full confession: I am not a petrol head — you don't need to be to enjoy this book — and a lot of this was new to me. I did not know, for instance, that the word dashboard comes from the board in carriages designed to protect passengers from the "dash", or horse's muck. I also did not know that Bertha Ringer, wife of Karl Benz, effectively invented the brake pad in 1888 when she took her husband's early car prototype for a drive. She brought a piece of leather from a shoemaker and attached it to the wooden blocks that served as brakes to keep going.
Throughout, Appleyard links these moments to bigger, cultural shifts, from the explosion of consumerism in the 20th century, intrinsically linked to the car, to the hippie counterculture encapsulated in the painted VW Microbus known as the Woodstock Bus. The car has played a crucial role in so much of popular culture. Bruce Springsteen's music, Elvis' fleet of 100 Cadillacs and Kanye West's "chopped" Maybach all get mentions. For me, the peak of this was Martha Reeves and the Vandellas performing Nowhere to Run in Ford's Mustang plant in Detroit. It is a celebration of the assembly line that defined the America of those times: confident, joyful and defined by speed.
If any one object defines the 20th century, it is the automobile.
One of the interesting things about The Car is how it links these early innovators with the tech disruptors of today such as Elon Musk. People stared at cars when they first arrived on our streets. They yelled “get a horse!" but today we would not be without them. Perhaps the same will be true of self-driving cars.
Appleyard charts the rise of electric vehicles (EVs). The arrival of the Tesla Model S changed the existing perception that EVs had to be small and ordinary, and many models today are nods to design classics of the past. This suggests continuity rather than complete throwing out of the past.
The writer clearly has a romantic attachment to the car as a symbol of freedom and expresses some regret at the backlash it has received in the second section, Breakers. The link between emissions and climate change, plus the huge number of fatal car crashes, has led to a bit of a reckoning. He joins the dots between the changes that happened to our society with the arrival of the automobile and today's tech-enabled transformation. But Appleyard sounds a note of warning that some of our agency could be lost once cars are fully autonomous and controlled by the cloud rather than humans. Smart cities will be centrally planned and controlled, and every journey logged. This does not sound like freedom. “For all its crimes, [the car] was — and still, for the moment, is — a marvelous thing," he writes.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the first consumer vehicle to attain Level 3 of autonomous driving.
Yet in a world where there are 1.35 million deaths per year according to the World Health Organization from road traffic accidents, why not embrace the chance to improve? Technology is already making progress toward Vision Zero. Appleyard evocatively describes how the car conquered the wilderness, but it can be said that digital maps continue that process. They allow us to understand the world better and make it better through that knowledge. The messy world of oil and metal and ICE cars with their 20,000 parts is being replaced by software and technology. Rather than a loss, this is just another, different opportunity for human inventiveness, creativity and problem-solving. There are ways of gathering data responsibly while protecting privacy. Humans can remain in the driving seat if we do it right.
He is correct about one thing: how the future pans out depends on the choices we make. For me, that makes this just as exciting a time to be alive as any of the others so vividly brought to life in this book.
The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World by Bryan Appleyard is published by Orion.
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