Bryan Appleyard is the author of a new book entitled, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World. He was the financial news editor and deputy arts editor at The Times of London and has written for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Spectator, and the New Statesman, and won the Feature Writer of the Year three times at the British Press Awards. No slouch when it comes to writing, in other words.
According to the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster,
“More than any other technology, cars have transformed American popular culture. Cars have created vast wealth as well as novel dreams of freedom and mobility. They have transformed our sense of distance and made the world infinitely more available to our eyes and our imaginations. They have inspired cinema, music and literature; they have, by their need for roads, bridges, filling stations, huge factories and global supply chains, re-engineered the world. Almost everything we now need, want, imagine or aspire to assumes the existence of cars in all their limitless power and their complex systems of meanings.
“This book celebrates the immense drama and beauty of the car, of the genius embodied in the Ford Model T, of the glory of the brilliant-red Mercedes Benz S-Class made by workers for Nelson Mandela on his release from prison, of Kanye West’s ‘chopped’ Maybach, of the salvation of the Volkswagen Beetle by Major Ivan Hirst, of Elvis Presley’s 100 Cadillacs, of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and the BMC Mini and even of that harbinger of the end—the Tesla Model S and its creator Elon Musk.
“As the age of the car as we know it comes to an end, Bryan Appleyard’s brilliantly insightful book tells the story of the rise and fall of the incredible machine that made the modern world what it is today.”
The Car Interview
Recently, Appleyard sat down for an interview with Rebecca Heilweil for Recode. That conversation has been re-published by Vox. Here is what he had to say about the rise and fall of the automotive empire:
Q. When the car first arrived, it was competing with the horse and carriage. Now, it’s essentially a computer that happens to have wheels. What’s next for the car?
A. The car began as a curiosity. People were astonished by it — and afraid of it — and then it gradually became a rich man’s plaything. The turning point was the Ford Model T, which became available to almost everybody. It was sold around the world. The next step was taken by General Motors and Alfred Sloan, who turned the car into a consumer object. What’s happened since is that the car just became almost not noticeable. It just became so part of the environment, where we just assumed lots of people had cars, they would get around in them, and that was that.
I suspect that with the billions and possibly trillions of dollars going into self-driving cars in Silicon Valley, cars have basically moved from Detroit to Silicon Valley. They’ll come up with something eventually, although it’s proving more difficult than they thought. With the success of ride-hailing companies like Uber, we’re moving to a world in which the pleasure of the car itself and the internal combustion engine are going to be left behind.
Q. The vehicles of the future are going to be electric, but EVs themselves are just as old as international combustion vehicles. Why didn’t they take off when they were first invented?
A. There was no certainty that the internal combustion engine was going to win. There were steam cars and steam buses and so on, and there were electric cars. In 1900, only 20 percent of the 5,000 cars in the US were powered by petrol. The rest were electric or steam-powered.
One of the things about steam cars is that they’re incredibly quick. One in Florida hit 127.7 miles an hour, which was unthinkable at the time. No petrol car came close to it. People were at home with steam because they were used to trains.
The electric car was more tricky. In marketing terms, it was marketed to women because it was seen as a more simple car, and women were regarded as simple creatures in those days. It was very rudimentary. It turned on a switch and it went, but they didn’t have the battery technologies that we have today, so the range was rather pathetic.
Q. Your book explains that when the car first showed up, it was seen as a luxury item. Then, it became more commonplace as manufacturing scaled up and prices came down. How is that story playing out with EVs?
A. The Nissan LEAF was Nissan’s guess of what an electric car should be. The guess was: It would be a small city car. It was a very successful car and very well made, but it was boring. Nobody’s gonna get a thrill out of driving in this LEAF. The genius of Elon Musk was that he saw that what would really launch the electric car was a really fast, exciting car. Musk successfully spotted that electric cars should not be boring and slow — that’s it.
The EV1 that GM produced in the 1990s was a gem. Everybody loved it. It was a pure electric car, easy to drive, and it was perfect for going around town and so on. It was a remarkable achievement, and they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do. And then they changed their minds. They’d only leased the cars to people — they hadn’t sold them — so when they ended the leases, the owners were required to get them back. So the very good EV that General Motors made before everybody else just ended. They sort of dropped out of the race, and it was a fatal mistake.
Q. Now that EVs are going mainstream, what do you think will happen to all the infrastructure that was built to cater to the internal combustion vehicle?
A. The beauty of the internal combustion engine — that sort of electromechanical magic of the internal combustion engine — requires super-refined engineering. An electric motor is just an electric motor. It will destroy jobs, both in manufacturing and services because they don’t need much servicing. I suspect that the removal of petrol from the picture will also change things fundamentally. It will change the way the industry works, but also change the way the customer end of it works.
Q. As you said, the automotive industry is shifting from Detroit to Silicon Valley and taking jobs with it. What are the consequences of that?
A. Silicon Valley has taken over now. So why are they doing this? They’re doing this to grab another source of information, which is where you’re driving, how you’re driving, what you’re doing while you’re driving. Everybody says at the moment, though, they’re not going to make the self-driving car. But they’ll make it, and the question then becomes: How much do you care about your car? How much do you care about driving? People will care for an awfully long time, but will the next generation?
Meanwhile, these ride-hailing services are transforming the world. For the first time ever, both in Britain and America, applications for driver’s licenses from young people are dropping. They don’t care. They don’t want a car. They don’t see the point of the expense, so they just hail rides all the time or rent a car for a day.
Q. In the future, will we own the cars that we drive?
A. If I buy this iPhone, its software is not mine. The software is controlled by the cloud. Just as with Tesla, Elon wants to pick the right thing and drop it into your car without you knowing anything about a piece of software. There’s a problem: Modern machines are in themselves useless. They have to be connected. There’s no point to a computer that’s not connected now. That connection is not yours — you don’t control it. Cars will be like that.
Q. Is this the end of the car, or at least, the car as we know it?
A. The horse is a magnificent thing and lasted for five or six thousand years as a trade animal. The car is the same thing. It was a wonderful, extraordinary thing. Now we’re finding fault with it. They changed the world more fundamentally than any other technology. Physically, they changed the world.
We crave anything new but fear change. It’s a conundrum that defines human existence. It took several thousand years for the internal combustion engine to replace farm animals but just over a decade for the smartphone to turn the technology age on its head. The fact that so many young people are deciding not to get a driver’s license could be a harbinger of the collapse of the private passenger car era.
Imagine how that might impact society. In some cities, parking spaces for cars take up huge chunks of valuable real estate that could be put to higher purposes. The emissions from manufacturing cars are significant, even if those cars are battery powered. Making fewer of them could be good for the environment.
The only constant in life is change. Those who are able to recognize change first will thrive. Those who don’t face the prospect of going bankrupt. Bryan Appleyard says it’s the end of the car as we know it. If he is right, a lot of smart people are wrong. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride from here into the future.
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