BP, Toyota, and the Illusion of the Car System Techno-Fix

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 that reverence.

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 this faith, that technology will 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 transportation 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).