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Car Culture

BP, Toyota, and the Illusion of the Car System Tech

9:23 AM PDT on August 5, 2010

Last Christmas, an Oregon couple driving with their baby in the
backseat followed erroneous GPS instructions and got stranded on
wilderness roads in a Cascades snowstorm. Twelve hours later, they had
given up hope and taped a farewell video. While a rescue party
fortunately was able to save them, they no doubt wished they hadn’t
allowed their belief in modern electronics to override their own clear
eyes and good instincts.

deepwater_explosion.jpgprius_crash.jpgIt
will take more than tech fixes to put an end to catastrophic oil spills
and reverse the mounting death toll wrought by motorized traffic on the
world's streets.

Their misplaced faith is hardly
exceptional. If there is one true religion in the United States, it
worships at the altar of Technology. Christian or Jew, Muslim or
atheist, we accept this doctrine: that technology provides the main path
to improving our lives and that if it occasionally fails, even
catastrophically, all it will take is another technology to make everything better.

How else to explain two case studies in modern hubris that now appear to be reaching their denouements: The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and Toyota’s sudden acceleration debacle.

It is our belief in technology that has for years reassured us, along
with oil industry advertising and the promises of the U.S. Minerals
Management Service, that drilling offshore -- way offshore -- could be
done safely while we kept on refilling our tanks. It has reassured us,
along with car company marketing and green lights from the NHTSA, that
our cars -- increasingly electronically complex -- would keep our
families safe while we put ever more miles on the odometer.

The automobile, not the computer or smart phone, is still the
technological icon we venerate with the greatest fervor. The car is the
most important, most expensive piece of technology most of us own. It is
the technology of the past century, and neither BP nor Toyota would be as large or as powerful without our genuflections.

Simply walk into one of our houses of worship, an auto showroom, on any
Sunday. Or drop some coins in the basket and enter one of the cathedrals
that are the Detroit, New York, or Los Angeles auto shows. Congregants
are gathered around the gleaming new vehicles, snapping cell phone pics
of spectacular concept cars and passing on the good news.

Of course, the automakers and petroleum companies don’t see this as
their first mission, operating as they do on cost containment and profit
maximization, not cutting edge technology as an end in itself. But
their customer base has been convinced that each time they buy a new
car, they are buying the future, secure in the knowledge that the
world’s smartest geologists and engineers are helping fuel their
experience. Never mind that the new tech they’re spending on is largely
media and telecom gadgetry, not the electric or more environmentally
sustainable power technologies that headline auto shows or attract tens
of thousands of Facebook followers, like the not-yet-for-sale Nissan Leaf.
(In fact, less than one percent of all new vehicles bought worldwide
over the next five years are estimated to be electric or
electric-hybrid).

Our responses to BP and Toyota’s epic failures expose the danger in our
faith. Deep anxiety aroused by death and destruction in the Gulf and on
the interstates is calmed by the belief that technology will save us --
if not now, soon. After all, the promise of technology is in the better
life to come. A failsafe brake override resolves Toyota’s problem,
reassuring us that there can be such a thing as a safe car. An
engineered capping and better blowout preventers promise to restore
confidence in our ability to tap into fossil fuels wherever they may be.

We haven’t quite realized that the faith in technology to save us from
the problems that technology has created was sold to us by people with a
deep interest in this outcome. Fortunes hinge on our capacity to treat
each of these disasters as an isolated “accident,” soon and easily
solved. Don’t worry. Go back to driving -- maybe some other vehicle make
for a few years, stopping at a gas station under another sign for a
while -- but get back to driving into the bright, new and improved car
future. Even as we clearly head for the cliff of environmental ruin.

BP and Toyota also share a public perception as “foreign,” to the good
fortune of American multinationals like ExxonMobil and Ford. BP may have
recently made poorer choices than other oil companies, but serious
threats to our way of life are endemic to the practice of drilling
(especially in the peak-oil period, as hydrocarbons become increasingly
hard to access, and iffy techno-fixes are developed to get us to the
dwindling supplies). Toyota may have produced too many cars too fast,
but 1.2 million people are killed globally each year in car crashes, a death toll that’s unlikely to be affected by whether vehicles are fueled by gas, electricity, or hydrogen.

Simply put, technological progress alone is not a strategy for a
sustainable future. The capping of the Deepwater Horizon and the
imminent passage of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act will leave intact the
technological faith that led to the initial devastation. America is in
dire need of behavioral and political change in areas ranging from
public leadership to corporate responsibility to the individual choice
to drive less. Only a hard turn can avert the head-on collision between
America’s love of technology and our quality of life.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, and Catherine
Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute at Brown University,
are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).

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