Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Homogenization of the Car

If you want to know why the world’s cars are so bland, boring and identically dull, look no further than the regulations cluttering up the world’s biggest car market—the U.S.—where all the world’s car stylists now go to die.

The Homogenization of the Car
by Jeffrey Tucker

imageThe antique car, specially ordered for the occasion, was waiting for the bride and groom to take them to the party after the wedding. I was among the guests who were more enraptured by the car than by the main event. Absolutely stunning.

It was a Studebaker. At best I can tell, it was a 1940 Commander convertible. I had to look it up: This company was born in 1852 and died in 1967, and produced some of the most visually gorgeous cars in its day. It even made an electric car in 1902! Wartime controls shrunk its margins and led to an industry consolidation that killed the company.  On this Saturday afternoon, this car was still fabulous, after all these years. We stood in a parking lot packed with new models. No one cared about them. We were all obsessing about this old Studebaker. It is rightly named: It commands attention. The shape makes it a work of art. The hood looks like nothing made today. The red leather interior is luxurious.

We stood there in total admiration. We wondered about the gas mileage. It can’t be more than today’s gigantic “light trucks,” but we all agreed that paying more to drive something that cool would be worth it.

Yet it’s not a choice. No manufacturer anywhere in the world can make a car like this anymore. Step back from the situation and think about it. In the 1930s, phones were awful, and you were lucky to have one at all. No one today would give up a smartphone for one of those old things. Same with shoes, computers, televisions, ovens, and so much more. No one wants to go back.

With cars, it’s a different matter. Our sense of nostalgia is growing, not receding. But we don’t even have the choice to go back. There will be no more pretty cars. The US government and its tens of thousands of micromanaging regulations on motor vehicles will not allow it.

The day before the wedding, I was at the grocery store and saw another amazing car, this one a tiny sports model with roll bars. It just took my breath away, and I’m not even much of a car person. I usually don’t care what I drive. But this one was just too great not to elicit a sense of awe.

I asked the owner where he bought it, what model, what make, etc. This car challenged my impression that all new cars look the same. He said that he built it in his garage. He got the kit from Factory Five Racing.

“You have to build your own car in a garage because no maker is able to sell something like that?”

“You got it.”

These car kits are a way of “breaking bad” in an era of total government control of the physical world. They are a workaround. The law permits hobbyists and antique collectors and used car owners to drive these pretty cars around. But it doesn’t allow carmakers to sell road-legal cars that look just like these.

The old expression goes “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” There’s only one problem: It should not be true in a developed economy. We should be able to take advantage of the division of labor. We shouldn’t have to build our own cars any more than we should have to weave our own clothes. But that is exactly where the regulations have taken us.

Did you ever wonder how car companies can make stunningly great cars that they call “concept cars,” but these cars are somehow never available to you and me? I’ve always been puzzled about this. I figured it was just because the concept cars were too expensive to make. That’s not it. It’s that the regs don’t allow them to exist as retail items.

It hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been a bit at a time, taking place over four decades in the name of safety and the environment. The whole thing began in 1966 with creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency and dozens of others. Every regulator wanted a piece of the car.

Each new regulation seems like it makes sense in some way. Who doesn’t want to be safer and who doesn’t want to save gas?

But these mandates are imposed without any real sense of the cost and benefits, and they come about without a thought as to what they do to the design of a car. And once the regs appear on the books, they never go away. They are stickier than code on a patented piece of software.

Now the endgame has arrived. Try as they might, manufacturers have a terrible time distinguishing their cars from each other’s. Car homogenization has become something of an Internet meme. It turns out that all new cars more or less look alike. I had begun to notice this over the last 12 months and I thought I was just imagining things. But people playing with Photoshop have found that you can mix and match car grills and make a BMW look just like a Kia and a Hyundai look just like a Honda. It’s all one car.

Truly, this cries out for explanation. So I was happy to see a video made by CNET that gives five reasons: mandates for big fronts to protect pedestrians, mandates that require low tops for fuel economy, a big rear to balance out the big fronts, tiny windows resulting from safety regulations that end up actually making the car less safe, and high belt lines due to the other regs. In other words, hysterical concern for safety and the environment has wrecked the entire car aesthetic.

Never mind that safety and the environment create contradictory results. The more gas you save, the lighter the car and the more likely it is to kill you in a crash. Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regs have certainly killed many people. Similarly, the more safe it is, the more gas it uses, as a general principle. Meanwhile, the gas itself is being ruined with corn additives that shorten the life of the engine.

These regulations are responsible for the disappearance of the station wagon and the domination of the car market by huge vehicles that can be classified as trucks, which are regulated according to a different standard. That’s right: Regulations designed to encourage fuel economy have done exactly the opposite by pushing people out of cars and into SUVs — which just so happens to be exactly what the big three manufacturers want. It is not surprising that the most consistent voices against CAFE standards have come from abroad, not from Detroit.

No one set out to wreck the diversity, functioning, and beauty of our cars. But that is precisely what has happened, as the political and bureaucratic elites have asserted their own value systems over the values of both producers and consumers. They are the masters and we are the slaves, and we are to accept our lot in life.

Consider the point about pedestrians. How many lives has a high front end really saved? No one knows. But the regulation itself seems to rule out the possibility that drivers and pedestrians can work out problems for themselves, without regulatory intervention. In other words, we are being treated like children. Wait, not even that. We are being treated as if we have no brains at all.

The situation is very serious. Some 30 years ago, futurists imagined that cars of the future would be stunning and beautiful and would bring total joy to driving. Consider, for example, this E-Type Jaguar below, arguably the most beautiful car ever made, killed overnight by US safety regulations.* Or the Triumph TR7 that was once said to be the “car of the future.” That future has been entirely wrecked.

imageRegulators made it the car of the past, a dashed dream that had to die to make way for the weird, homogenized stuff we are permitted to buy today.

Americans used to take pride in our cars and laugh at the horrible cars produced under socialism in, for example, East Germany. The Trabant will go down in history as one of the worst cars ever. But as we look back at it, at least you could see out the windows and at least the plan seemed to put the interests of the actual driver above Mother Nature and the non-drivers. The socialist central planners had a bit more sense than the American regulators.

In the end, if the goal is to protect the peds and the Earth, you can do no better than mass transit and the bicycle. We all know that this is what they are after. Last year, the Obama administration announced new fuel economy standards to be obeyed by 2025 that no gas-alone car in existence can comply with. These standards will vastly raise the price of the car and force into existence a world in which cars are all electric or plug-in hybrids. (Read the gory details here.)

Everyone rightly condemns bailouts and cronyism that sustain unsustainable industries. But here is the truth. If the corporate fat cats in the car industry and the unions that dominate them didn’t have political pull, the abolition of the car would probably be an already accomplished fate. As it is, the car is allowed. But it is not allowed to develop, not allowed to take a shape that consumers would like, and not allowed to function like an actual economic good.

The car was the foundation of the second industrial revolution. Encroaching government is robbing it of its future. We once dreamed of a flying car. The regulators are putting us in the position of just dreaming about returning to the glory days of the 1970s. That’s just pathetic.

Sincerely,
Jeffrey Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo and It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him:tucker@lfb.org | Facebook | Twitter

* US safety regulations introduced in 1974 meant cars needed to be able to drive head-on into brick walls without sustaining a prescribed amount of damage. Jaguar engineers argued their car was designed to drive around brick walls, not into them. The argument cut no mustard, the E-Type was withdrawn from sale, and the XJS hurriedly introduced.

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