“What a week!” a neighbor once told me. “Yesterday I pulled up at the curb by my favorite restaurant and hit the brake. Only it wasn’t the brake, it was the accelerator, and I shot forward — right through the wall of the kitchen. The owner, who’s a friend of mine, stuck his head out the opening and said, ‘I take it you want this order to go?’”
Some of life’s best and worst moments happen in cars. Contrary to what we see in the movies, not many of us — fewer than eight in 10,000 — are actually born in them. (And that’s a good thing; just ask Jia-Rui Cook who gave birth in the cramped front seat of a Prius.) For the rest of us, vehicles start looming large in our personal narratives the day we come home from the hospital. Like so many of my generation, getting a driver’s license was my most meaningful coming-of-age ritual. Buying my first car made me feel like a real grownup. And as for early romantic adventures — no, I’m sorry, those records are permanently sealed.
A 2019 study showed Americans averaged more than eight hours a week behind the wheel and — here’s the worrying part — 64% actually consider their car a friend. Almost half reported crying when saying goodbye to a vehicle and 15% said they’d rather break a bone in their own body than see their car suffer a breakdown. Two thirds service their car more often than they go to the dentist. Science has a name for this type of obsession: objectophilia. Here in California, it’s so common we scarcely notice it any more.
LA-based automotive journalist Robert Ross says it all started a hundred years ago. “The automobile stood for more than freedom of movement and “Westward Ho!” exploration, of course, and still does. It was never merely a matter of arriving at Point B from Point A — one had to get there in style, whether cruising the boulevard or driving a getaway car… The motorcar has —over the course of a century — become the accessory that defines its driver.”
So how did the cars of earlier eras define us? Going by last weekend’s May Madness Classic Car Show in nearby San Rafael, those vintage vehicles were glorious technicolor statements to the world that we were bold, exciting people ready to go places and look life in the eye.
Nowadays, it’s easy to criticize these old gas guzzlers as the villains that helped destroy the planet. But modern cars have a lot to answer for as well.
“Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership,” says The Atlantic, “there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane.” Vehicle pollution is damaging the environment and accounts for the premature deaths of 53,000 Americans a year. And then there’s the economic cost. “More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline is squandered by the inherent inefficiencies of the modern internal combustion engine.” Morgan Stanley calls it the “world’s most underutilized asset,” because it sits idle 92% of the time.
Dangerous, costly, inefficient ... remind me again why Americans are in love with their cars?
“This ‘love affair’ thesis is,” says historian Peter Norton, “one of the biggest public relations coups of all time. It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
That campaign's voice was (drum roll, please) Groucho Marks, who launched it during a 1961 TV show sponsored by DuPont, which was heavily invested in General Motors. At the time, Americans were in an uproar over the expansive new interstate highway system destroying and disrupting neighborhoods — pushing “white men’s roads thru black men’s homes,” as some put it.
Groucho framed the story more romantically. The driver was the man, the car — he called her “Lizzie” — was the new girl in town, and their “burning love affair” was wedded bliss, albeit with a few challenges. “We don’t always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can’t get along without her. And if that isn’t marriage, I don’t know what is,” said the comedian, who was married and divorced three times.
Groucho’s broadcast “successfully helped seed two ideas that have been entrenched ever since: that we’re bound to cars by something stronger than need, and that people who challenge that bond are just turning up their noses at their fellow Americans,” said the Washington Post. That’s why our cities are friendlier to car traffic than foot traffic. And why, with the help of the auto industry, the new crime of jaywalking was invented, redefining pedestrians, rather than cars, as the menace to society.
Except for dense urban areas like New York City, surviving without a car is really tough. Public transit is woefully inadequate. Studies appear to suggest Americans love automotive travel, but in reality, says historian Peter Norton, we put up with it because we have no other practical choice. “If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed.” Some 69% of Americans say they like to drive, but compared to what? Walking the 25 miles to work?
Driving has lost much of its glamor and excitement. A 2019 survey showed 77% of our cars are white, black, or grey/silver. As one VW exec put it, “If you drove down an American street and looked only at the new vehicles, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re in a black-and-white movie.” Paint colors dimmed in response to the Great Depression and the 1970s fuel shortages, too. In sobering times, flashy cars go out of fashion; nobody wants to stand out.
Rich and I are bucking the trend. Twelve years ago we bought a flaming red second-hand VW, and I’m convinced it's bright enough to be visible from outer space. In crowded parking lots it’s like a homing beacon; to date it’s saved me approximately 279,456 hours of tramping around muttering “Now where did I leave that darn thing?”
Last week, the VW had a tune-up that revealed some worrying developments, and this morning Rich drove it to a specialist for a more extensive, three-day treatment. Unlike those who would rather suffer a broken bone in their own body than see their car undergoing repairs, I’m actually looking forward to the time apart. In Seville I live vehicle-free and find I prefer the slower pace. But in case Rich starts feeling any separation anxiety, I’m keeping this card handy. I’m not sure whether it refers to him or to our ailing car; but then, does it matter?
How are you and your car getting along these days? Let me know in the comments below.
I have a house guest coming soon, so my schedule is uncertain and I may have to skip posting this week.
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It’s official: fully driverless taxis, with no human on board as backup, are hitting the streets. Self-driving fleets have been approved in China and are under consideration in San Francisco and other US cities. So we have to ask ourselves: did the world just get better or worse?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of driverless cars. Who doesn’t find it tedious and annoying to navigate crowded freeways and hunt for urban parking? Much better simply to tell the car where to go and let it find its own way. As for taxis, Uber has automated much of the process already, so shifting gears to fully driverless cabs should be a no brainer, one of the count-your-blessings inventions of the modern era, like cell phones with GPS.
And yet, I keep remembering the old saying, “To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.”
History is littered with the charred remains of small computer errors with big consequences. Take the $8 billion Ariane 5 rocket project. A tiny piece of software that tried to slip a 64-bit number into a 16-bit space caused the unmanned rocket to explode thirty-nine seconds into its initial launch. Oops! Then there was Knight Capital Group, whose new, high-priced trading software ran amok in a thirty-minute buying spree that cost the company $440 million, leading to its demise. But hey, stuff happens. Just ask Chris Reynolds, whose PayPal account was accidentally credited $92,233,720,368,547,800 (that’s $92 quadrillion, in case you’re wondering). Sadly, he didn’t get to keep the money, although PayPal made a nice donation in his name to the charity of his choice, as their way of saying “Thank you for not making this worse by throwing a social media hissy fit.”
Tech glitches are a fact of contemporary life. Which raises the question: could I trust a computer to make sure I get home safely after a night on the town (that would be my night on the town, not the computer’s)? History says, “Yes, probably, at least most of the time.” So maybe the real question is whether I feel lucky when it comes to technology. Right now I‘d have to say not so much, given my latest run-in with the world’s most powerful online retailer, which bungled a simple canned tunafish delivery.
I’ll get to the tuna story in a moment, but in order to fully appreciate it, you'll want the bigger picture of my latest series of shopping debacles.
As my regular readers know, I spend half the year in Seville, where I do all my purchasing in person, on foot, as if it were the nineteenth century. Having returned to my native California for the summer, I am doing my best to keep e-commerce to a minimum. I’m old fashioned enough to want to feel a sweater before I buy it. The packaging waste makes me cringe. And returning unwanted merchandise is the worst, knowing 25% of all newly returned goods wind up in landfills because it’s too expensive to repackage and resell them. Nearly six billion pounds of returned merchandise go into America’s trash heaps every year; I don’t want to add one more sweater or can of tuna to the pile.
So why don’t I just buy what I need at actual stores in California? If only. My attempts at in-person retail shopping have proven dismal and demoralizing.
Look what happened when my old Melita pour-over coffee maker broke, as they tend to do every ten years or so. Could I find another? Nope! I drove to four stores and finally gave up and settled for a Chemex knock-off, a sort of glass beaker with a metal mesh filter. It was a horrible choice. The beaker was so fat it required an awkward two-handed lift. Cleaning the metal mesh wasted amounts of water that were shocking in a state suffering through the worst drought in 1200 years, so I had to add ill-fitting paper filters. I began to loathe the wretched thing and found myself snarling at it every morning. That’s when I realized I either had to replace it or give up drinking coffee altogether. Two weeks ago, I ordered a Melita online. Shortly after it arrived, I drove the despised off-brand coffee maker to Goodwill, trying not to think of how much of our planet’s precious resources had just been squandered.
The Melita purchase left me feeling a bit more kindly towards online retail, so I placed an order for a number of small, difficult-to-find household items plus an eight-pack of tuna to restock our Apocalypse Chow emergency food locker. (Californians are urged to keep two weeks’ supply of food on hand to prepare for the next earthquake, fire, flood, or tsunami.) The online seller offered to deliver the stuff — for free! — by ten o’clock that night. But as a climate-conscious consumer, I opted for consolidated delivery the following Monday with fewer boxes. Monday came and the stuff didn’t. On Tuesday I was notified it had been returned as “undeliverable.” Really? Why? Had my address changed when I wasn’t looking?
I re-ordered, and everything showed up but the tuna. “Supposedly it’s coming soon,” I told Rich at breakfast. “But now the website says that tuna eight-pack takes two months to deliver. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed the apocalypse doesn’t hit while we’re waiting.”
Online or in-person, it seems shoppers just can’t win. Last week at a pharmacy I watched a guy get into a fight with a self-checkout machine. He was frowning at the screen, muttering curses, furiously tapping keys, listening to automated beeps, stomping his feet, and tapping harder (because that always works). Finally he grabbed his purchases and stomped out without paying the $13.26 he owed. That’ll teach the darn machine!
Despite optimistic articles about new stores opening, it’s pretty clear who’s winning the battle between online shopping and brick-and-mortar retail. A giant mall near me is being converted to housing. Sears and JC Penny filed for bankruptcy. Macy’s closed 131 stores. Bed Bath and Beyond shuttered 237 locations. CVS terminated 900. And have you been to a department store lately? Empty shelves, shabby dressing rooms, broken escalators, dispirited staff … it’s like a nature documentary where the hippo gets mired in quicksand while buzzards circle overhead and jackals lick their lips. Everyone knows this won’t end well for the hippo.
In my more optimistic moments, I don’t see this as a battle of human vs. machine but rather our species’ cleverness at sticking robots with the dangerous and boring jobs we don’t want to do, like toll collecting, bomb disposal, coping with rush hour traffic, and tracking down stray cans of tuna. However we feel about automation, machines are clearly going to be taking over more and more of our lives, and we have to make the best of it. “If you can’t change it,” Maya Angelou said, “change your attitude.” So I’m determined to make friends with with the microprocessors in my life, including the new human-free taxis. And if there’s a glitch and I wind up someplace unexpected, I’ll follow this wise advice I found online: “When something goes wrong in your life, just yell ‘Plot Twist’ and move on.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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