Car Culture Is Getting Even Worse

I wrote an article a few years ago for my blog that I rediscovered the other day. It turns out, nothing ever changes because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the same asinine dynamics of driving in America. For example, “fake engine noise,” which was kind of new five or six years ago, is all too common in 2021. Most people don’t even realize that half of the racket they hear from people speeding their cars and trucks down the street is not even engine noise. To make a long story short, car culture is certainly worse today than it’s ever been.

Take, for example, the contest over at streetsblog (Informing the Movement to Improve Walking, Biking, and Transit) for “America’s Most Toxic Car Ads.” Six years ago, the worst car commercial I’d seen was for the Dodge Charger (which makes total sense, as Charger drivers are the most aggressive offenders).

You can watch it yourself here, but here’s the transcript:

[Menacing male voice] We don’t have to worry about predators like our ancestors did.

No saber tooth tigers stalking from the brush. No dire wolves circling the camp.

There are no more monsters to fear. . . . And so we have to build our own. 

The commercial is a Dodge, in the most dual sense of the word, but the metaphor they use is apt.

On the one hand, cars are increasingly a simple transportation technology. Because, in today’s congested wired cities, many younger people no longer view cars as an intensely personal thing. A lot of folks simply buy cars for practical reasons, or opt instead to rely on transit, technology or their own two legs to get them around. This forces car companies to create their own emotional justification to get people to buy. They must invoke their own monsters, and sell people on driving in a different way. And for many machines, invoking auto desire is a desperate affair, where cars peddle the growl, the image, the sound, the effect it has to have your car or truck disturb others. 

[Not GM, but Imperial.]

Cars as Class Performers

In a sense, this is nothing new. Car makers in general, and General Motors most of all, have long understood that the lure of the automobile goes far beyond simple transportation. The appeal of the automobile is affect: the feel of leather, the roar of an engine, the techno glow of the dash, the curves of the fender.

Here’s an article by sociologist David Gartman called “Three Ages of the Automobile: the Cultural Logics of the Car,” which describes the relationship between GM and (French sociologist Pierre Bourdieus’ theory of) class distinction:

General Motors head Alfred Sloan sensed the emergence of what he called this ‘mass-class market’ in the mid-1920s, arguing that many buyers were now willing to pay a bit more for a car beyond basic transportation. His corporation began to compete with Ford’s Model T by creating mass-produced cars with the superficial style of the luxury classics. One of the most successful of these was the 1927 La Salle, a smaller, cheaper model of the corporation’s luxury car, Cadillac. Unlike the craft-built Cadillac, the La Salle was mass produced to lower its price. But to borrow the prestige of the nameplate, Sloan wanted the car to have the look of handcrafted luxury. To design this ‘imitation Cadillac’, he hired a Hollywood coachbuilder, Harley Earl, who created custom bodies for the movies and their stars. Earl was so successful in capturing the superficial look of unity and integrity for the mass-produced La Salle that he was hired by Sloan to do the same thing for the entire line of GM cars. In 1927 Earl joined General Motors as the head of the new Art and Color Section, later to be renamed Styling. 

[…] The working class also wanted to appear distinctive and superior and, given the chance, imitated the goods of the bourgeoisie to do so. Workers may have initially consumed simple, functional cars because they could afford nothing else, not because they had an ingrained taste for them. The rising incomes of American workers during the 1920s, however, allowed them to abandon these goods and demand cars with style, thus entering the game of distinction for the first time.

A glance at a classic car convention reveals that the “golden age” of the American auto is synonymous with the pioneering GM car/class hierarchy, when the difference between a ’58 and a ’59 Chrysler was both everything and nothing. Today, most of these brands are mothballed; only four remain. (And really, why does Buick exist?)

The symbolism and meaning of the American car has been replaced by functionality — and even there, with the onboard Wi-Fi, the “foot-actuated trunk” and a wide variety of other gimmicks — car companies seem increasingly desperate to generate distinction.

This is where the garbage comes in. 

[Basically truck viagra.]

Deception and Desperation

It turns out that new-car smell is toxic, and even something as simple as the roar of an engine, it turns out, is often amplified, just like the fake bell of the light-rail train. Worst of all was the Volkswagen scandal, where the advance and wonder of German technology was employed not to save humanity, but to deceive it. See also Toyota’s efforts to delay action on climate change until they can get their piece of the pie.

The fraud flies in the face of the techno-environmental narrative, where state-led liberal good governance somehow survives the apocalyptic onslaught of Congressional politics. The story suggests a seamless transition out from the auto age: CAFE standards will rise, cars will shrink, corporations will turn over new Nissan Leafs, and slowly but surely we will evolve from the stink of everyday driving.

CAFE standards from The Economist; I couldn’t find a more up-to-date chart for some reason.

But that’s not the reality in the new car era, where automobiles and hucksterism have long been synonymous, and industry insiders in Minnesota have been working double-time on delaying even the most basic adoption of zero-emissions standards. Instead of Jerry Lundegaard’s “trucoat,” today’s cars are cloaked in lies, from EPA ratings to gas tax politics.

The most disturbing part of the VW story is that this kind of cheating might be commonplace. The second-largest car company is surely not the only one to flout the letter and intention of the law.

This is from The Guardian:

Max Warburton, an analyst at the financial research group Bernstein, said: “There is no way to put an optimistic spin on this – this is really serious.”

A British expert in low-emission vehicles claimed the manipulation of air pollution data could be “very widespread” and that tests in Europe are “much more open to this sort of abuse”.

Greg Archer, a former government adviser and head of clean vehicles at the respected Transport & Environment thinktank, said: “I am not surprised. There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence about carmakers using these defeat devices. All credit to the EPA for investigating and finding the truth.”

Archer, the former managing director of the UK’s Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and non-executive director for the government’s Renewable Fuels Agency, said the scandal could spread into petrol cars and CO2 levels. “It is probably not limited to diesel and not limited to emissions,” he added.

The same kind of asinine revanchism is happening at the consumer level, where so-called “defeat devices” are way more common than any sane person would think. (Seriously, read that article; it’s horrifying.) Polluting is central to the economic networks of the mid-20th century, and freeways, suburbs, gasoline and automobile companies are no strangers to corruption. How can you reconcile the death of fossil fuels with the life of the automobile?

The Volkswagen emissions-dodging vehicle vs. the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

Cars are their own worst monster, and they will dodge on their last legs like a boxer on the ropes until the very end. No, cars will not go gently into that good night. They will lie, cheat and growl their way to the grave.

18 thoughts on “Car Culture Is Getting Even Worse

    1. Trademark

      If fake engine noise can get people to drive electric cars over gas ones I’m all for it. Especially if the decibels are slowly reduced. As long as the noise isn’t too loud.

  1. Monte Castleman

    “Fake engine noise” is piped through internal speakers and should not be audible outside the car, certainly not the extent of being “half the racket you hear from people speeding their cars down the street”. I’d prefer any car I buy not have “fake engine noise” but I don’t see it as a big deal. Certainly not compared to say the selfish jerks that illegally modify their motorcycle exhaust to try to disturb the entire neighborhood when they drive by.

    I’ve also not sure what to make over the ruckus about zero emissions requirements earlier this year?. Is there a market failure where Minnesotans that want to buy an electric car can’t buy one or are we trying to force Minnesotans into cars that they don’t want, don’t fit their space and range needs, aren’t suited for our climate with it’s snow and cold, etc. I’d think if someone wants to buy something manufacturers would be eager to sell it to them, but maybe there’s a nuance or market failure I’m not getting.

    I don’t have a problem with car culture. My things are collecting traffic signals, gardening, photography, and road-geeking. I drive one of the most boring cars out there, a RAV-4. Very practical for this climate and my space needs, but it’s hard to call it exciting. But my friend has a modern Charger, and my neighbor on the other hand is constantly tinkering with his ’68 Chevy. To each their own.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      There’s no way they are just internal. You’ll have to convince me on that one… Why can I hear them when the car goes by?

      1. Megan

        You can’t. The fake noise is exclusive to certain higher end trim levels with the ecoboost motors and is designed for passengers inside the vehicle to hear a classic 5.0 V8 sound. It’s stupid and Ford should never have done it, but the active noise module is inside the dash and routed through the vehicle speakers. There is no wiring going outside the cab of the vehicle. If you’re hearing any noise it’s the engine itself, not the fake noise. And it’s only under engine load, so perhaps you’re hearing the turbos spool and mistaking that for fake noise, but those are very much mechanical.

        As for the rest of the article, it doesn’t really track and is all over the map. Fake noise, diesel-gate, musings about why Buick still exists (hint: old people) while ignoring GM hatcheting Oldsmobile & Pontiac. Not too mention pointing out that car manufacturers do market research and create advertisements to upsell cars?! Really hope the German manufacturers like BMW, Audi, and MB find out, and help us if Honda & Toyota make upscale brands…..oh wait.

    2. Nick

      In addition to in-cabin speakers, carmakers are tuning engine and exhaust acoustics to amplify lower frequencies. These are tones that people associate with more powerful machines and are heard out on the street as the car drives by.

      “Automakers such as Dodge have used enhanced engine noises and exhaust valves inside and outside of the car to help buyers and onlookers identify what they’re seeing — and what they’re listening to — in their muscle car versions of the Dodge Challenger and Charger.”

      “We want the car to sound angry, with a very distinct muscle to it. They know it’s coming without even seeing it.”

      1. Monte Castleman

        Maybe we’re arguing semantics, but to me there’s a difference between “Fake Engine Sounds” (using the in-car speakers to create sounds that do not exist) and making the engine sound different in a real way.

        1. Sheldon Gitis

          I think the issue is motor vehicle noise. I think many, myself included, find motor vehicle noise unpleasant. The fact that auto makers would intentionally design noise amplification into their vehicles, in an effort to appeal to a class of buyers, seems to me truly outrageous. Motor vehicle noise is pollution, and should be treated as such.

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      1. Monte Castleman

        Yes, basically the government told GM that as a condition of accepting bailout money they’d only be allowed to keep Chevy and Cadillac, as the Mainstream / Prestige model that every other car company has settled down in- think Ford / Lincoln, Toyota / Lexus, Honda / Acura, Nissan / Infinity, VW / Audi. No one was sad to see Saturn go, which really hadn’t made a dime it’s entire existence, but GM wanted to keep Pontiac, Buick and, GMC. Ultimately GM was allowed to keep Buick because of how huge they were in China. They were allowed to keep GMC because since they were essentially all rebadged Chevy’s, there was little overhead involved in keeping it, the vehicles could be sold for more, and they could sell GMC vehicles at Cadillac and Buick dealers. Pontiac had a bunch of eager executives who wanted to revive the brand with a lineup of rear-wheel drive performance cars, but the brand was in the dumps due to 15 years of just selling rebadged Chevys, and the feds said “no, that division goes, too long without a profit”.

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