The Decline of Car Culture And The Automotive Singularity

I described recently why American ‘car culture’, long an American staple, is in decline:

The Washington Post had an article about America’s fading car culture. Until the last paragraph of the article (which is usually ignored by most readers), the entire litany of explanations is discussed: economic, a shift towards urbanism, more interest in other technologis, as well as the ‘kids today’ complaint. But there’s a very obvious reason–as an experience, driving sucks:

But I think there’s another important factor: driving isn’t very fun anymore. Admittedly, urban areas and rush hours have never been enjoyable. But, I would argue that ~15-20 years ago, in the suburbs, there was a lot of nice, relatively traffic free driving to be had (again, not during rush hour and so on). When I lived in Connecticut, weekend mornings in the summer (not at the crack of dawn), I used to drive to the shore on the backroads en route to the beach. It was a nice drive. But now most places I drive–and rural areas are an exception–the driving is pretty miserable. Every time I wind up back in Long Island, the traffic seems to have become worse. The DC area has also become more congested for more hours every day. It doesn’t help that road maintenance is in decline too.

So driving just becomes a way to get from point A to point B. If you live in a place where you don’t need to own a car to get to either work or basic necessities (e.g., a grocery store), a car becomes an expensive pain in the ass. Why waste your money, then, on a car?

So I found this description of the “Automotive Singularity”–the pre-driverless car era (“the Autonomotive Singularity”) quite interesting (boldface mine):

The Automotive Singularity (not the Autonomotive Singularity, mind you), was an era approximately 20 years in length that ended around the early 2000s. This era is characterized by “modern analog” cars, whose increasing popularity today is not merely due to nostalgia. It was during this period that vehicular performance and control feedback reached an equilibrium, prior to the widespread adoption of electronic driver aids, safety systems and GPS.

This equilibrium point varied across makes and models. The 1987-89 Porsche 911 is a perfect example of an equilibrium car. Quick, balanced, light, somewhat dangerous at the limit, and unquantifiably more satisfying than most modern vehicles. A modern Camry may be quantitatively superior than that old 911, a Honda minivan may be quicker in a straight line than a Ferrari 328, and yet we yearn for cars whose appeal cannot be measured this way.

But it can be measured. Intellectually. Conceptually.

The Automotive Singularity was the period during which the driver-to-driving relationship was at its analog apex and digital nadir. The maximization of the driver’s connectedness to the act of driving was inversely correlated not only to the level of electronics in-car, but to the volume of data available through increasingly complex displays and handheld devices.

As the price of performance continued to fall, the average car’s capabilities began to greatly exceed that of the average driver, not to mention most road infrastructure. As driver aids, safety systems and electronics became interdependent and ubiquitous, the average driver’s ability to understand and maintain their vehicles evaporated. As traffic and weather data, navigation and iPod/iPhone integration grew ubiquitous, the relationship of driver to driving, of driver to destination, of driver to passenger, of driver to other drivers, were all irrevocably changed.

Isolation as escape. Driving as catharsis. The uncertainty of an ETA. The opportunities inherent to getting lost. The adventure of the road trip. All gone. Not literally, but conceptually. Intellectually. The very freedoms such new technologies grant us also take something away. How can it be otherwise, when most people under 30 don’t understand what it’s like not to have the option of GPS?

Drivers can turn off these devices and regain the freedom to be free, to be independent, to not know, to learn instead of to be told and to lead instead of to be led, but they cannot escape knowing that, at any moment, their isolation is a toggle switch or app away.

The last drivers to understand this have already been born.

And so this era, which I believe will be seen as the Silver Age of the Automobile, came to an end.

I would add to this excellent description an economic slant: there was a time when, if you didn’t have much, you could put everything you owned in your car, drive somewhere, and start over. That phenomenon, which declined on roughly the same time line as the “Silver Age of the Automobile”, is a double whammy: cars just became another way to get some place, not to escape (for good or just momentarily).

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2 Responses to The Decline of Car Culture And The Automotive Singularity

  1. MarkK says:

    Just watched that big Bob Dylan documentary by Paramount. It was passed over as no big deal that he went from Minnesota to New York Hitchhiking with a few bucks and became part of the community in New York right away. Shed his skin. Made up backgrounds.

    I don’t see that culture anywhere today. You could probably still do it if you had a destination
    in mind.

  2. Alex Roy says:

    Thanks for the re-post.

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