Faster Cars, Hotter Tech, Fewer Drivers

Should government facilitate Americans’ changing relationship with cars?
June 2014
Cadillac's new ELR at the New York International Auto Show. Flickr/Joseph Brent
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

Since the Model-T, Americans have brought cars not only onto their streets, but also into their lives and their homes. Government has been handmaiden to this marriage, building millions of miles of roads, requiring vast seas of parking as a condition of development, and setting up traffic systems like stoplights and left-turn lanes that indicate paved thoroughfares are principally for drivers.

Like all relationships, the one Americans have with their cars evolves. In recent years, it would seem the nation’s long-term romance with the auto is beginning to wane. Stats from a recent U.S. PIRG report say Americans are driving less per capita, particularly young people, who are also getting licensed at a later age. Young people view cars more like refrigerators. That is, like an appliance. They want one, and for it to work reliably, but it’s less a projection of who they are.

Or maybe not. To get a sense of where the car and its potential owner are these days, I stopped in at the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. There, hundreds of cars from dozens of top carmakers were displayed under gleaming lights.

The show -- the first I had ever attended -- was an interesting mix of old and new school. In retro fashion, pretty ladies in tight dresses stood demurely in front of cars, offering the classic combo of hot woman and hot car. Yet behind this classic facade, there clearly was a ferocious evolution and competition going on under the hood of these cars and in their accessory systems.

Electric and hybrid cars were everywhere. One that caught my eye was the new Cadillac ELR, which lists for $75,000. Its leather bucket seat appealingly sucked me into it. Meanwhile, Ford stood out in presenting its Focus electric and Fusion hybrid cars as part of a lifestyle where one is choosing to live more compatibly with nature. Ford has been bold in envisioning its cars as complementing other modes of transportation, such as transit or biking, rather than competing with them.

While some car companies tried to dazzle through leather or lifestyle, others -- realizing that young people are less car crazy and more wild about technology -- are offering advanced digital options: One Audi had no fewer than three tablet-style screens in its back seat, as well as a console worthy of George Jetson.

Stylistically, the cars were disappointing. The much-ballyhooed new Mustang, for example, was too retro in its look to win an award from me. With a few exceptions, if you had taken all the cars there and removed the chrome name plates, it would have been hard to identify or distinguish among them. They fell into general categories, such as sports car or SUV, without clear personalities.

The only real paradigm-breaking concept car I saw was the Toyota FV2, a futuristic pod-looking thing with three wheels and a jet-pilot-style canopy. Most startlingly, it lacked a steering wheel. The driver would supposedly steer by leaning his body one way or the other, like some three-wheeled Segway. Eventually, Toyota says, via its “heart project,” it could link up the car to the driver’s desires, even his or her “mood,” so he or she could merge with the machine, whatever that means. The car would also communicate with other cars around it, via “intelligent transport system technology.” If mood and machine indeed merge, I imagine it could get ugly on the mean commuting streets of New York City or Los Angeles.

Unsurprisingly, I did not find many at the car show who picked up on my theme of changing relationships with cars. Most people I talked to were classic car guys and gals, who loved cars for their own sake and would probably be insulted to hear comparisons with refrigerators. Still, some recognized personal change. “When I was young, I was interested in flashy cars, fast cars,” said Steve Baker, 57, who had come in from New Jersey with his 23-year-old son Shaun. “As you get older, you’re not as interested in those things.”

For government, the question is how and whether to facilitate American’s changing relationship with motorized vehicles.

Government can accelerate trends or slow them down, and each is sometimes an appropriate role. Should cities stream public service announcements into smart cars, and embed toll meters into them? Should they build bike ways, streetcar lines and more sidewalks so Americans, less enamored of cars, have more choices in how they get to places and how they live? Then there’s the looming issue of regulating self-driving cars.

Tellingly, after a few hours, I walked out into Manhattan’s bright sunlight and wondered how I would get to my subway stop, more than a mile away. Then I noticed a New York public bike station. Relieved, I pulled out my annual pass key, checked out a bike and pedaled away. It was as good an image as any for the changing, evolving relationship Americans have with their cars, and with their streets.