Brian Merchant argues that cars, or driving, is dying in part because of communities that allow people to move about without their own cars and he also clues into social networking like Facebook. The argument being that “we” wanted cars so that “we” could connect and talk to others and now “we” don’t need cars for this because of Facebook and the like.
Thus kids are less interested in cars and driving, and the rest of the world is starting to follow suit in that thinking too.
And so cars are dead, long live cars.
I don’t entirely disagree with the notion that the automobile is losing its prestige in America, but I think there is something more to consider/blame than just urban planning and social networking.
Merchant is mostly looking at cars only as a means to an end: Owning and driving a car is for transportation and nothing else.
That’s a rather short-sighted view because driving a car is an experience. Or rather it used to be. Now the driving experience is consumed by:
- GPS systems instructing you.
- Phones ringing.
- DVD players rolling.
- iPods jamming.
- 18 cup-holders.
- McDonald’s double cheeseburgers.1
Driving, even when I was a kid, was a challenge. Your car gave you feedback, you felt the road, you got lost, you were on your own. Traction control wasn’t standard, GPS was just becoming available, and few people had cell phones.
Modern cars have effectively eliminated all of these challenges in one fell swoop. Phones never allow you to get lost or disconnected. Entertainment systems never let your mind relax. Modern suspension, steering, tires, and engines remove the sound and feeling of the car — and people rarely lose control.
You never get lost driving any more, and you never actually do the driving — you just control a thing which happens to be propelling itself down the road. This is what we now call driving.
Now the driver is so disconnected from the experience of driving, that they are more of an operator. That is: driving is not a skill anymore, as much as a mechanical thing that anyone can be taught.
I think this is important to note when talking about driving and cars in America. We used to be a society that loved to drive, not for the utility of transportation, but because we loved the feel and experience that driving gave us.
Right or wrong, technology has slowly eaten away at that experience and taken all of the challenges out of it. And while that has made driving safer and no doubt more reliable — it has also made driving a whole lot less interesting.
I’ve mentioned before that our family car is a Dodge Journey. Which is neither a great car, nor a bad car. It’s just a car. I drove it as our only car for 6 months and it was boring. I didn’t like driving any more, it was just a necessity.
So when we needed to get a second car for me to drive for work I immediately started looking at the oldest cars possible that I thought my wife would sign off on. I was close to acquiring a 1988 BMW M5 — a sedan that might just be one of the most interesting and pure driver’s cars out there. So simple in its beauty and operation that a BMW guy can’t help but lust for it.
Instead I settled on a 2002 BMW M5 because I knew I would get far less grief from my wife should it run into a mechanical problem. The E39 M5 is really the last true driver’s M5 in this man’s opinion. While the newer M5’s are simply amazing cars, they also do a lot of things for you.2 With one button in the E39 I can effectively take away the modern safety controls and try my best to harness 400HP on the wet roads of Washington — not safe, but making your palms sweat a bit is living.
I love driving again.
I don’t think driving is dying among today’s youth because of suburban planning or Facebook — I think it’s dying because we as a society have effectively neutered the visceral experience of driving.
We’ve made driving too easy and too automatic.
There’s no risk, no drama, just the boring result of arriving at your destination on time.
While the decline in driving is undoubtedly good for the environment, it’s also sad to watch something that so defines your country become a misunderstood hobbyist activity.