In Bryan Appleyard’s sweeping history of the automobile, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World, he quotes a likely-apocryphal line from Henry Ford that is too good not to include. A journalist interviewing the aged industrialist “suggested that perhaps his views were now out of step with the modern age. ‘Young man,’ Ford replied, ‘I invented the modern age.’”
Appleyard agrees with the idea behind the joke: Modern life was built around the car as much as the car was built to navigate modern life. He tries to tell the story of how the car defined a society for a century by showing us portraits of the people who made cars. First we meet the tinkerers at the end of the 1800s who rearranged existing inventions, like bicycles and rubber tires, into the right formula to create the car as we understand it. They did this partly to make a plaything for the rich and idle but more importantly to solve an environmental problem caused by the number of horses that had started to live in industrial-age cities. We then meet the tinkerers and racers whose many early American car companies were eventually consolidated into the Big Three Detroit car firms: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Then there’s Bertha Benz, the woman who mounted the first road trip in 1888, Mercédès Jellinek, the daughter of an early car pioneer and the eponym of the Mercedes, and all sorts of interesting other characters who played a role in getting us from steam engines to today. We see how the rise of fascism and Nazism created affordable people’s-cars, and how war changed the roadscape in the middle of the twentieth century — ironically, tyrannies helped to democratize driving. We see how in the decades after the war, American car making became decadent while Japanese car firms became the biggest and arguably best in the world, while the Europeans mastered luxury and speed.
Appleyard is a British journalist and writer of books on the way scientific advancements affect the soul of modern society, and he has written this book at the time he has and in the way he has not just as a compendium of interesting car-related stories, but to make an argument. He contends that whatever the modern age of the car was, and however we should think about it, it is now over. It’s time to look back at the story of the car because we are facing a future that will be without cars, an automotive postmodernity.
Anti-car sentiment, even visceral car revulsion, has become fashionable for the urban and educated. For example, Jacob Bacharach, a novelist and New Republic contributor, recently tweeted that “the automobile is the drug at the very root of American rage and cultural dissolution” and that “driving is a synthetic opioid whose users’ rewired minds mistake dependence for freedom and physical and psychological misery for pleasure.” This feeling is overrepresented among those who staff London newspapers and New York magazines. Is Appleyard’s sense that the car’s day is done just groupthink, then, a journalistic cliché?
The Car successfully relates a large story of the past in a short space, but in trying to write the story of the future, of the car’s looming fall, Appleyard goes too far. We end up, despite some interesting stories about the history of car engineering and driving and business, with a book that’s too clever for its own good.
In the book’s opening pages, we hear about philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, about “surveillance capitalism,” and that “liberal democracy is in decline.” We get mentions of Karl Marx and Claude Monet and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I am a vintage car buff with a degree in philosophy who often heads out to the bookstore with the best of intentions to buy a novel and returns instead with a cultural history. So if anyone is primed to like this shtick, it is your reviewer. It’s not impossible to pull something like it off, in principle. But life is in the execution, and the execution is lacking here.
There are two primary reasons why. First, the book is flabby. The length, at some 280 pages, keeps it breezy. Yet while it is short and structured in a comprehensible way, The Car is intellectually flabby. It contains minor and major errors throughout. At one point, we learn about the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1967, though these events famously took place in ’68.
It also contains thoughts on political economy that are admirably impossible to classify left or right. However, they are also, not so admirably, complete nonsense.
Capitalism and communism are both anti- or super-human ideas. The first denies human agency by subjugation to the market; in the second the human agent is drowned in the collective and in the supposedly inevitable tide of history. This means, paradoxically, that it is pointless being either a capitalist or a communist, since the systems are conceived as facts of nature; one might as well be a plantist or an animalist.
I for one would happily call myself an animalist if made to choose. A humanist, even. Asides like this, which come dangerously close to observing nothing deeper than that under both capitalism and communism many people work in factories, seriously detract from the reader’s ability to enjoy the book. Unfortunately, they abound.
Appleyard’s explanation of recent history suffers from the fact that he thinks the backlash to cars that will lead to their demise is more important and powerful than it is. It certainly has a powerful constituency, but Ralph Nader kvetching about the Chevy Corvair in 1965 will never be as important to the story of the automobile as the genius of Soichiro Honda. From the book, you might glean the reverse. This is because Appleyard repeatedly overvalues events that make the internal-combustion car industry look bad and doomed.
He describes how after the 2008 financial collapse, GM was “nationalised” when the U.S. government bought most of its shares, and Chrysler was bought by Fiat and the United Auto Workers union. “The absolutist free-market ideology of neo-liberalism seldom survives first contact with reality…. These two great emblems of American capitalism were just not very good at capitalism,” he observes, possibly dryly. Exactly which absolutist ideologues went and read Milton Friedman’s 1951 essay “Neo-liberalism and Its Prospects,” from which the usage of that now-meaningless term mostly derives, and then tried to apply it to the post-2008 bailouts is a question about which your guess is as good as mine. Anyway, only a few pages later Appleyard gushes over Tesla for having “rounded a financial corner in 2010,” when it got a large loan from the Department of Energy. (Both GM and Tesla have paid back the taxpayer in full and with interest.)
The exultant, double-standardized treatment of Tesla brings us to the second and bigger failing of The Car: Appleyard’s treatment of the supposed looming fall of the human-piloted car running on an internal combustion engine (ICE). “By 2030 the death sentence will have been passed on ICE cars. Their crimes will be judged to outweigh their delights,” he writes, in a black-and-white statement.
His prediction that we are currently in the last few years of explosion-powered cars is not based on any actual argument but simply repeats what seems to me to be the fashionable opinion of degree-holding urban Westerners right now. Partly he is already right, of course. Norway has planned to ban sales of most new gas cars by as soon as 2025. The European Union has bans beginning in 2035. India has set the target at 2040. At home, California has banned ICE car sales after 2035.
Let’s be very clear: There are going to be and there should be more electric cars produced and bought every year for the foreseeable future. But making a straight-line prediction going out into the future is virtually always a mistake, including when it comes to technology. And it is a rather salient hint as to the politics of these bans that they are all made for years to come, not the present.
States and countries that think of themselves as progressive talk a big game on climate issues, but they are still just expensively exporting rather than actually eliminating the dirty work that makes modern life so comfortable and convenient. “California is going first on electric vehicles, but I don’t think I will live to see the first lithium mine in California,” I recently heard an environmental lawyer joke. This suggests that painful changes are not as likely to come as Appleyard thinks, at least not globally and not quickly.
China is “the leading market for electric cars,” he writes, with “more than half of all the EVs sold in the world.” But the reason for this is not market forces — it is state policies. To get a license to buy a gas car in China means entering an expensive lottery with almost 1000-to-1 odds, as Appleyard notes. By contrast, an electric car purchase can be slow, but at least it is a sure thing and doesn’t come with a huge lottery fee. Chinese success with electric car uptake is happening only under duress from government policies that citizens free to challenge their governments would not accept. And because many Chinese car-buyers are getting their first-ever car, they aren’t spoiled by the prior experience with gas cars that make people in the West resent the switch to EVs, with common limitations like their lack of long range and quick refills.
There is also the fact that creating batteries for electric cars is as much an extractive industry as is pumping fossil fuels. “Batteries containing cobalt reduce overheating in electric cars and extend their range, but the metal has become known as ‘the blood diamond of batteries’ because of its high price and the perilous conditions in Congo, the largest producer of cobalt in the world,” a 2021 New York Times piece explained. And a blog post on the website of the Wilson Center, a center-left think tank, notes that “of the 255,000 Congolese mining for cobalt, 40,000 are children, some as young as six years. Much of the work is informal small-scale mining in which laborers earn less than $2 per day while using their own tools, primarily their hands.”
Maybe there will be a day when creating an electric car does not involve the exploitation and poisoning of children in countries where neodymium and cobalt mines are found. But today it is just a problem that we talk about less than we talk about fracking at London and LA dinner parties. I’m not just being snide about the possibilities of technological solutions: Huge reserves of cobalt, nickel, and other metals necessary for batteries rest unburied on the ocean floor, and unmanned submarines could hoover them up like a golf ball machine at a driving range in quantities that could supply a world’s worth of electric car batteries, though environmental groups have opposed permitting the practice, which has advanced slowly on an exploratory basis.
Zooming out and thinking more humbly, it is worth remembering that almost all existing and planned electric vehicle development has been done in some centrally planned or subsidized way. It’s not at all clear that California can actually create enough new energy by 2035 to power all those electric cars it is insisting its citizens buy, because California makes it legally almost impossible to site new energy plants. Beyond that, there are just a lot of other open questions. Climate scientists have over the past few years found conflicting results about whether hydroelectric power, theoretically a carbon-neutral renewable, is actually good for the climate. Artificial lakes can produce algae and bacteria that release large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. How much this contributes to climate change compared to car tailpipes remains an open question. More important for the electric vehicle market is how the technology for making cheap electric cars and cheap power comes along. A Tesla is still almost as expensive as a Corvette, even after your fellow taxpayers chip in. China is powering all those EV charges with coal plants for a reason: cost.
As a writer on science and the philosophy of science, these are the types of things that Appleyard should be attuned to. In some cases he is, though only briefly. He does point out how coal-heavy China is. And he has a solid section on the way European governments helped to create the conditions for Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” emissions scandal, specifically by narrow-sightedly focusing on global greenhouse gases over other, equally valid concerns. In brief, policymakers in Europe learned that diesels, which burn hotter than gas engines, have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and they stopped asking questions right there. But as I wrote several years ago in The Atlantic, for the same exact reason — that they burn hotter — diesel engines in millions of extra passenger cars in dense European cities were also deadlier. Hotter engines burning diesel, a less-refined fuel, also spew more cancer-causing particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Eventually, the same policymakers pushing diesels turned against them. And they are the ones forcing Volkswagen and others to go all-in on electrics now.
It would be wise to extrapolate from the earlier example. Centrally planned policies aimed at shaping consumer behavior often have unintended consequences that create backlashes. And when those backlashes are even bigger and more dire than whatever initial problem well-meaning politicians and bureaucrats set out to solve by ordering the rest of us around and limiting our freedom, democracy is there to reassert the good sense of the people. A curious writer looking at the bans on gas cars over the next two decades might ask how they will play out with a public that may not actually like the reality of the experiment being conducted on it.
Appleyard, to his credit, does seem to actually like cars and to read the automotive press. He watches car shows and reads car websites, though he is at pains to describe the British show Top Gear in outsiders’ terms despite its status as a global smash hit, perhaps because its original host, Jeremy Clarkson, is also a columnist at Appleyard’s own main perch, The Sunday Times. But perhaps it is because he has not really internalized that ordinary people deeply love cars and driving. He has some interesting aesthetic opinions, though like many well-educated, upper-class Brits of his generation, he has an inferiority complex about America that masquerades as a superiority complex, which causes him to have some silly opinions on the New World. “With a few exceptions, I dislike driving American cars,” he begins one chapter. Then he launches into praise of Buicks. Fine, whatever. But there’s a four-plus-page attack on the tailfin as a design fad that just cannot stand. They may be gaudy and pointless and absurd, but that’s what is so glamorous and fun about it all over here. I suppose it’s hard to see for someone from somewhere so dreary.
Appleyard also seems to have a healthy reflexive distrust of technology, though he is esoteric about it. His discussion of self-driving cars suggests, without exactly stating it, that we are living in the denouement of a story of practical human freedom, something that is about to be taken away. “This will not be freedom; these will not be cars,” he writes in considering the world he predicts is inevitable, of computerized electric self-driving cars in communication with the cloud. Today, when Iran or Canada or what-have-you does not like mass dissent, it can shut down the Internet or the banking system in some area or for some specific people. In a future world of networked self-driving cars, it can take away citizens’ physical mobility during a moment of public protest. That’s a sinister prospect, and it’s admirable to find Appleyard reckoning with it in his epilogue. He claims to have written a book whose intention “has been to celebrate the internal-combustion, human-controlled car. For all its crimes it was — and still, for the moment, is — a marvellous thing.”
It is a shame he did not write the whole book like the epilogue, instead of taking for granted the fashionable opinion of the sorts of people who hang around with writers in cities, as though it has any relation to the likely political and technological reality of the coming decades. That might have led him to explore the ways by which reports of “the fall of the machine that made the modern world” have been greatly exaggerated.