The Reckless History of the Automobile

The Reckless History of the Automobile

The Reckless History of the Automobile

In The Car, Bryan Appleyard sets out to celebrate the freedom these vehicles granted. But what if they were a dangerous technology from the start?


As automakers roll out a greater variety of electric models and governments increase support to encourage drivers to make the shift to battery power, the days of the internal-combustion vehicle appear to be numbered. Presumably, most people would see that shift as a positive development to address climate change, as long as electric vehicles come down in price. But not so for Bryan Appleyard.

In his book The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World, Appleyard takes readers through the history of the automobile from the perspective of a car enthusiast. According to him, we may be just a few years away from a situation in which owning a car could be as “eccentric as owning a train or a bus. Or perhaps it will simply be illegal.” His definition of the car is a narrow one: a human-driven vehicle with an internal-combustion engine, uniquely imbued by human innovation with the power to grant “generalised political and social freedom” to the public, to the degree that its drawbacks may not be enough to merit getting rid of it.

After laying out the basics of his argument, Appleyard weaves a history of the rise of the automobile through the stories of the Great Men (and occasional notable woman) of automotive history. Henry Ford, General Motors’ Alfred P. Sloan Jr., early pioneer Karl Benz, and various fascists are just some of the characters that pop up in these chapters tracking the automobile’s development—from its early designs and eventual mass production to its shifting forms over the decades right up to the car we know today. It’s a history with insightful points, including how important the bicycle was in laying the foundation for the later explosion of automobility. But it’s also one that is presented in such a way as to glorify the object of the car and the often powerful people associated with bringing it into existence. Meanwhile, the expansion of car ownership is taken to be a natural development, with the opposition to its rollout and the extent of the actions by the auto industry and governments to force it onto the public downplayed in the interests of keeping the narrative simple: The car is freedom, and it proliferates because it is desired by the people.

Appleyard doesn’t fully ignore the power and politics behind the automobile. From the Nazis’ drive to build the Autobahn and the “people’s car” to the marketing strategies of the major US automakers, some aspects of that history are presented in his book. But he never quite addresses the inconsistency of acknowledging those actions and what they imply about the corporate and political motivations behind the automobile with the narrative he’s pushing—one echoing the public relations campaigns of automakers—that the car embodies our highest values. That assertion becomes even more difficult to maintain in the second half of the book, when Appleyard introduces some of the drawbacks of our age of cars to his story. From the threat of climate change to the safety crisis on our roads, these problems are acknowledged, but Appleyard also takes to questioning them in often very troubling ways lest they compromise our commitment to the automobile.

Cars are a clear threat to public safety, and they have been since they hit the roads over a century ago. Appleyard does dedicate some space to discussing Ralph Nader’s landmark 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, which effectively forced federal safety standards to be established for automobiles. But even as he notes the contribution of Nader’s work, he pokes holes in it to downplay its importance. Appleyard claims that Nader’s book “launched a backlash against the car that is with us to this day,” as if opposition to the automobile hasn’t existed since it first started taking over our streets. The long fight against the car does not get placed alongside the supposedly heroic actions of Henry Ford to push them onto the public. As Peter Norton writes in his study Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, there was widespread opposition to cars in North American cities in the first several decades of the 20th century, as they began killing pedestrians in ever-larger numbers and people organized to stop them. Among the tactics used, people would hold large funeral parades for the automobile’s victims, ring the bells of churches and fire halls to mark road deaths, and draw up propaganda that went so far as to label cars “the modern Moloch”—a god that requires child sacrifice.

While Appleyard does admit the threats to personal safety presented by the automobile—nearly 4 million deaths since it first hit the streets of the United States, and a rising annual death toll—he actively (and quite disturbingly) downplays them. In citing some of these statistics, including the 1.35 million people who are killed globally by cars each year, Appleyard makes the questionable claim that “just as many people would have died from accidents and disease if we had stuck with horses”—as if anyone were arguing for such an alternative—and that since car deaths make up just 2.25 percent of the 60 million people who die every year, they’re not a big deal. “Stuff happens,” he writes. “People die.” Protecting the car is more important than its victims.

Why is that the case? For Appleyard, the car “emancipated the masses far more effectively than any political ideology,” and the fact that it “did so at a cost should not obliterate the importance of that freedom.” It’s a freedom that encompasses “the right to go or be anywhere, to move, to drive,” but there’s a big problem with this presentation of the supposed liberation offered by the automobile. Reading what Appleyard writes about driving, one might imagine that every trip is the equivalent of hitting the open road of less-traveled intercity freeways in the American heartland, a pleasurable experience that he says is “reflected in the tactile, sensuous and dynamic delights celebrated in contemporary car advertising.” Yet, in reality, I’m not sure any reasonable driver would say that car ads are reflective of anyone’s actual driving experience.

The auto industry has worked for decades to build the narrative of the car as a form of freedom, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. In 2019, the average US commuter lost 2.5 days of their life stuck in traffic, and in Los Angeles, probably the city most identified with the automobile, it was nearly five days. That’s the experience of most drivers, and it’s certainly not what I would call “freedom.” On top of that, car ownership comes with massive costs. The American Automobile Association estimated that the cost of new car ownership exceeds $10,000 a year for the average driver when the cost of car payments, insurance, gas, and other expenses are added together—and that’s not to mention the collective bill we all pay for the sprawling and crumbling infrastructure to accommodate all our vehicles.

The movement away from human-driven, internal-combustion vehicles is supposedly a threat to the dubious freedom that the car provides. As Appleyard writes, this freedom “might be lost if the new vehicles and smart cities become, as now seems likely, tools of surveillance capitalism or autocratic surveillance states.” While he attempts to frame his argument as a virtuous one, he neglects to tell his readers about the way that cars have already been used as tools of oppression. As Sarah A. Seo outlines in Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, the growth of the automobile’s use was directly linked to the expansion of police powers and the size of police forces, to such a degree that “judges tended to side with order and security and conclude that zealous and intrusive police action for the sake of the public welfare was reasonable and did not compromise the values of a democratic society.” The legal framework and policing practices developed in tandem with the automobile are part of what allows police to terrorize minorities and marginalized people today.

Apparently, we should be scared of the way that autonomous (i.e., computer-driven) vehicles can enhance the punitive and watchful eye of the police and the surveillance state, while ignoring how much the car has already expanded those powers, and how the digital technologies embedded in the types of cars that Appleyard prefers—internal-combustion vehicles with human drivers—already produce reams of data that are being sold to anyone who wants to buy them. But more than that, Appleyard doesn’t seem up-to-date on the state of those technologies. He writes that “the real problem of developing an [autonomous vehicle] is not software, it is philosophy,” making a tired reference to the trolley problem. Yet that’s not true: Software is the core of the issue, particularly the fact that it’s been much harder to develop than companies expected. Appleyard suggests that “level five” autonomy is coming—the version of autonomous driving where the computer can handle any situation thrown at it—but there’s a growing recognition within the industry (as long as you’re not listening to Elon Musk) that level five may never arrive and that some human input will always be needed.

This is not to argue in favor of autonomous mobility, or even necessarily the vision of electric mobility we’re being sold. Appleyard presents the Tesla Model S as proof that electric vehicles will soon take over, but Tesla’s vision for the electric car—a sports car or large SUV with many hundreds of miles of range—has a lot of problems too. The batteries for such vehicles require a huge mining footprint that will have significant environmental and human consequences if we simply replace every car on the road today with an electric equivalent, and the escalating size of the vehicles we drive is making our streets far more dangerous. Meanwhile, ride-hailing services make mobility less efficient by increasing traffic congestion, and autonomous driving technology won’t be a magical fix.

In setting up a dichotomy between human-driven, internal-combustion cars and a future of computer-driven, battery-powered ones, Appleyard distracts attention from the fact that there’s another option open to us, one that doesn’t maintain the supremacy of individual vehicles. There’s a growing appetite in cities to reduce the space given over to cars altogether in favor of pedestrians and cyclists, paired with significant investments in a more reliable public transit system that allows more people to ditch their cars, the traffic, the expense, the climate burden, and the danger that comes with automobility. If there is anything we can learn from the history of the automobile, it’s that its epoch should come to an end. The car was never the object of human freedom that was sold to us, but we have the chance to reimagine human mobility in a collective way to finally deliver on that promise.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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