This is the end of the car as we know it, and we feel good (with video)
Bryan Appleyard is the author of a new book titled, The car: the rise and fall of the machine that created the modern world. He was financial news editor and associate arts editor at The Times of London and wrote for New York Times, vanity lounge, The viewerand the new statesman, and has won Writer of the Year at the British Press Awards three times. No slouch when it comes to writing, in other words.
According to the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster,
“More than any other technology, cars have transformed American popular culture. Cars have created vast wealth as well as new dreams of freedom and mobility. They have transformed our sense of distance and made the world infinitely more accessible to our eyes and our imagination. They have inspired cinema, music and literature; they have, through their need for roads, bridges, gas stations, huge factories and global supply chains, redesigned the world. Almost everything we need, want, imagine or yearn for now presupposes the existence of cars in all their limitless power and complex systems of meaning.
“This book celebrates the immense drama and beauty of the car, from the genius embodied in the Ford Model T, from the glory of the shiny red Mercedes Benz S-Class built by the workers for Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison, from Kanye West’s “chopped” Maybach, Major Ivan Hirst’s Volkswagen Beetle salute, Elvis Presley’s 100 Cadillacs, Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and BMC Mini and even that harbinger of the end – the Tesla Model S and its creator Elon Musk.
“As the age of the car as we know it draws to a close, Bryan Appleyard’s brilliantly insightful book tells the story of the rise and fall of the incredible machine that made the modern world what what he is today.”
The car Interview
Recently, Appleyard sat down for an interview with Rebecca Heilweil for Recode. This conversation was reposted by Voice. Here’s what he had to say about the rise and fall of the automotive empire:
Q. When the carriage first arrived, it was in competition with the horse and the carriage. Now it’s basically a computer that has wheels. What’s next for the car?
A. The car started out as a curiosity. People were astonished by it — and were afraid of it — and then little by little it became a plaything for the rich. The turning point was the Ford Model T, which became available to almost everyone. It was sold all over the world. The next step was taken by General Motors and Alfred Sloan, who turned the car into a consumer item. What has happened since is that the car has become almost invisible. It was so much part of the environment, where we assumed a lot of people had cars, that they would drive around with them, and that was it.
I suspect that with the billions and maybe trillions of dollars being invested in self-driving cars in Silicon Valley, cars have essentially moved from Detroit to Silicon Valley. They’ll find something eventually, even if it turns out to be harder than they thought. With the success of ride-sharing companies like Uber, we are moving into a world in which the fun of the car itself and the internal combustion engine are going to be left behind.
Q. Vehicles of the future will be electric, but electric vehicles themselves are just as old as international combustion vehicles. Why didn’t they take off when they were first invented?
A. There was no certainty that the internal combustion engine would win. There were steam cars and steam buses and so forth, and there were electric cars. In 1900, only 20% of the 5,000 cars in the United States were powered by gasoline. The others were electric or steam powered.
One of the characteristics of steam cars is that they are incredibly fast. One in Florida reached 127.7 miles per hour, which was unthinkable at the time. No gas-powered car came close. People were comfortable with steam because they were used to trains.
The electric car was trickier. In terms of marketing, it was marketed to women as it was seen as a simpler car, and women were seen as mere creatures at the time. It was very basic. He flipped a switch and off we went, but they didn’t have the battery technologies we have today, so the range was pretty pathetic.
Q. Your book explains that when the car first appeared it was considered a luxury item. Then it became more common as manufacturing increased and prices fell. How does this story unfold with electric vehicles?
A. The Nissan LEAF was Nissan’s guess of what an electric car should be. The guess was this: it would be a small city car. It was a very successful and very well made car, but it was boring. No one will enjoy driving this LEAF. Elon Musk’s genius was that he saw that what would really launch the electric car was a really fast and exciting car. Musk managed to spot that electric cars shouldn’t be boring and slow – that’s it.
The EV1 that GM produced in the 1990s was a gem. Everyone loved it. It was a fully electric car, easy to drive and perfect for getting around town etc. It was a remarkable achievement, and they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do. And then they changed their minds. They had only leased the cars to people – they hadn’t sold them – so when they ended the leases the owners had to get them back. So the very good electric vehicle that General Motors made before everyone else has just ended. They kind of dropped out of the race, and that was a fatal mistake.
Q. Now that electric vehicles are becoming mainstream, what do you think will happen to all the infrastructure that has been built to meet the needs of internal combustion vehicles?
A. The beauty of the internal combustion engine – this kind of electromechanical internal combustion engine magic – requires ultra-refined engineering. An electric motor is just an electric motor. This will destroy jobs, both in manufacturing and in services, because they don’t need much maintenance. I suspect removing the essence of the image will also fundamentally change things. It will change the way the industry works, but it will also change the way the customer works.
Q. As you said, the auto industry is moving from Detroit to Silicon Valley and taking jobs with it. What are the consequences ?
A. Silicon Valley has taken over now. So why are they doing this? They do this to capture another source of information, namely where you drive, how you drive, what you do while driving. Everyone is saying right now, though, that they’re not going to make the self-driving car. But they will get there, and the question then becomes: how much do you care about your car? How hard are you driving? People will care for a very long time, but will the next generation?
Meanwhile, these ridesharing services are transforming the world. For the first time, in both Britain and America, applications for driving licenses from young people are down. They do not care. They don’t want a car. They don’t see the point of the expense, so they just flag down rides all the time or rent a car for a day.
Q In the future, will we own the cars we drive?
A. If I buy this iPhone, its software is not mine. The software is controlled by the cloud. Just like with Tesla, Elon wants to pick the right thing and drop it into your car without you knowing anything about software. There is a problem: modern machines are in themselves useless. They must be connected. There is no point in having a computer that is not connected now. This connection is not yours – you do not control it. Cars will be like this.
Q. Is this the end of the car, or at least the car as we know it?
A. The horse is a magnificent thing and has lasted five or six thousand years as a trade animal. The car is the same thing. It was a wonderful, extraordinary thing. Now we find faults with it. They have changed the world more fundamentally than any other technology. Physically, they changed the world.
We yearn for something new but fear change. It is an enigma that defines human existence. It took several thousand years for the internal combustion engine to replace farm animals, but just over a decade for the smartphone to disrupt the age of technology. The fact that so many young people are deciding not to get a driver’s license could be a harbinger of the collapse of the passenger car era.
Imagine how this could impact society. In some cities, car parking spaces take up huge chunks of valuable real estate that could be used for higher purposes. Emissions from manufacturing cars are significant, even if those cars are battery powered. Doing less could be good for the environment.
The only constant in life is change. Those who are able to recognize change first will thrive. Those who do not face the prospect of bankruptcy. Bryan Appleyard says this is the end of the car as we know it. If he’s right, a lot of smart people are wrong. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride from here to the future.
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