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).

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

  1. These are good points, but I think the problem is deeper. People expect to live in a 70F to 75F bubble at all times. The car is a high-tech mobile bubble to transport us from one fixed bubble to another. I am reminded of this each time I see someone slide out of their SUV in tank top, shorts, and flip flops, skip across the snowy parking lot, and enter a coffee shop. We expect technology to keep us separated from the world at all times. The cost for this dear.

  2. Great piece, needed to be said, I’ll look for the book but wish you a higher pulpit.

  3. The automobile, not the computer or smart phone, is still the technological icon we venerate with the greatest fervor.

    I question whether it’s indeed the case. Apple showrooms feel a lot like houses of wankery worship. People argue over Facebook versus Google Wave. The media almost never talks about new car technology, unless it’s electric cars, and even then it’s framed as part of green tech rather than automobility; however, it talks about browser releases, new smartphones, and what have you.

    As for car safety, all I can do is ask people to read John Adams, who notes that despite decades of car safety advances, modern cars in third-world countries kill people at the same rate that Model T’s did in the 1910s. If per-vehicle-km accident rates have fallen, it’s purely because people in developed countries learned to adjust and stop walking as much. (There have to be studies somewhere quantifying the effect of cars on obesity… does anyone here have a link?)

  4. http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/05/george-shultz-proposition-23/

    George Shultz, former Secretary of State and Treasury:
    “Global warming is created by burning fossil fuel and payments for foreign oil sometimes wind up financing terrorism.
    . . .
    “There’s a climate problem connected with burning fossil fuels. The basic facts are pretty clear.”

    As mentioned in a recent comment, once civilization no longer requires high-energy densities, cars and many other wasteful practices will become a thing of the past.

    Designing around high-energy density storage such as fossil fuels is an extremely wasteful antiquated habit. Simple human power is many times more efficient and convenient for the majority of small trips — including going to the bathroom — and automobile and large-vehicle travel requiring highly dense energy storage in dense urban areas makes absolutely no sense; and there exist critical paths to complete long-range solutions using hybrid human-electric technology.

    As people, including scientists and technologists, work with what they know — often along with special interest groups providing the necessary resources for financial gain — this often leads to some really absurd long-term and entrenched technological practices.

    One new emerging trend in electronics seems to be devices that require such little energy that sufficient powering can be retrieved from the bath of electromagnetic radiation we are constantly immersed in.

    Compared to the tremendous capabilities of hybrid human-electric mobility solutions transportation systems based on cars can be neatly classed as “dinosaurus amongus”.

  5. http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/05/a-climate-plan-b-for-team-obama/

    “A climate ‘Plan B’ for team Obama”

    Worth a good read.

    1. In full partnership with state, tribal and local government leaders, create a national roadmap to the clean energy economy.

    2. Declare a war on waste.

    3. Reinvent national transportation policy.

    4. Stop subsidizing fossil fuels.

    5. Make ecosystem restoration a central strategy in climate mitigation and adaptation.

    Based on past actions and remarks, it would be astonishing that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz be even remotely capable of intelligently participating in such important discussions.

  6. American conservatives are “rugged individualists” who believe in hard work and personal initiative. Except for when it comes to getting around town. That particular task should be accomplished by relying extensively on the government and major corporations to figure everything out for you.

  7. Fantastic article, and great to see people realizing this. We are, as stated in the article, a culture that absolutely worships technology at the sake of all else. But technology is neither good nor bad, it just *is*. It will always be a part of our very nature, but it’s just that: a *part*. To rely on it to fix behavioral, ethical, and social problems (which is the true case of the havoc we are inflicting on the environmental and our own mental and physical health) is nothing but a recipe for utter disaster. We could solve most of our environmental and health problems almost overnight — with our current level of technology — if we simply *willed* it and enacted the appropriate policy and behavioral changes. But we are simply too lazy to enact such comprehensive and difficult changes. Instead, we take the so-called easy way (though it won’t be easy in the long-term) out: fall back on some technological fix (even though the technology is what is causing the problem).

    I think we are reaching a very difficult point in our evolution. Our current biology is essentially unchanged from that of our ancestors who lived in a tribal society, hunted for and gathered food, and were obviously completely in tune with nature and hence could see the direct consequences of their behavior on how it effect the environment. But our technology has completely changed the surroundings in which we live and almost completely removed us from interaction with nature (witness the fact that many children no longer even know where food comes from) so that our biologically-evolved behaviors are no longer the proper ones to ensure the species continuance. For example, we evolved to eat fatty and sugar foods because we were mostly under-nourished and, on the rare occasion that we ran into these foods, the resupplied us with energy, protein, etc. However, if we were running into these foods every day all day, then craving these foods would have been very bad for our ancestors (as today’s obesity epidemic shows) and those who had this craving would have been slowly weeded out. So our current instinct — to pig-out on fatty and sugary foods — is no longer appropriate for the world we have created (and that’s all because of our technology having removed us from our natural environment).

    So we have some hard choices to make. If we just keep acting on our primitive urges (eg, I’m tired so I want to drive instead of walking, or I want the food from the fast food place instead of making my own or even growing it, or I want to blow my money on mindless entertainment and electronics rather than saving it for proper food, healthcare, or more substantial intellectual or physical pursuits like sports or reading, etc.) which are no longer appropriate today, then we are doomed. But if we want to transcend this path of destruction, we need to us our intellect and awareness to *force* ourselves to act in ways that may seem contrary to our primitive instincts. And this means breaking our dependence on technology and realize that we must be very careful with technology since it uproots us from our traditional surroundings and hence puts in a place where our instincts may not necessarily produce the best results.

  8. This discussion reminds me of a mythical “folk song”: “Hush little luxury, don’t you cry/You’ll be a necessity by and by…”

  9. People don’t “worship” or “venerate” cars. People use cars because cars provide the best solution to their transportation needs. They’re faster, more convenient, more comfortable, more flexible and more functional than the alternatives of walking, bicycling or using mass transit. As for accidents, the safety record of driving has been continuously improving, and new techologies promise to improve it further in the future. In fact, Volvo expects to have an injury-proof car within 20 years. All major automakers are constantly working on improving safety. No form of transportation is without risk. People are willing to accept the risks of driving in return for the huge benefits in mobility.

    As for the Toyota “sudden acceleration debacle,” the NHTSA has yet to report any official conclusions, but it increasingly appears that the cause of these incidents was human error rather than a mechanical or electrical problem with the cars themselves.

  10. #10 garyg, Transportation systems based on cars exist as dangerous local monopolies preventing much more sensible, faster, better, safer, easier, low-cost, miniscule eco-footprint methods of travel which have existed for a long time.

    Special interest oil, auto, finance, and insurance industries make huge amounts of money helping perpetuate these monopolies.

  11. #11 gecko (continued)

    The finance industry alone issues more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars — $850 billion — of credit for the purchase of cars completely ignored in recently “crafted” and voted on regulations designed to limit risky financial practices.

  12. #11 gecko (continued)

    The cash-rich and mature oil industry receives $45 billion in subsidies each year with about 70% of product directly used by the transportation industry; with equity in petroleum only to rise in value as a result of peak oil and increased demand based on per-barrel estimates greater than $175 in the next few years by Deutsche Bank, etc.

  13. Following on to garyg: For years writers have used the phrase “America’s love affair with the car”. In relatively few cases, this is true, but for most people it’s a “marriage of convenience” rather than a “love affair”. Having a car ready to go, 24/7 beats waiting for a bus, train, or even a taxi (especially if you live in “Suburbia”).
    Somewhere I saw this comment on cars: Of course the private automobile took over the majority of local passenger trips in the US. Look at the typical human characteristics it plays to: 1) Selfishness. It’s MY car and I will go where I want to go. I won’t have to share it with people who look (or smell) different from me. 2) Laziness. Unless you live next to a bus stop or train station, you have to walk a ways to use mass transit. Bicycles are good exercise, but if you live in hilly country, biking gets old fast. 3) Impatience. Americans culture does not prize patience. There’s an old gag about how, ‘in the old days, if you missed a stage coach, you’d bunk down at the wayside inn until the next day’s coach came. Nowadays, people get upset if they miss one section in a revolving door’.”
    By now, most of us are aware of “carbon footprints”, but are reluctant to give up the convenience of motoring. People may talk about the virtues of using mass transit, but deep down, we envy the bigshots with chauffeur-driven limousines and imported luxury cars. (for the record, I drive a Honda Accord 4-cylinder model)
    A further comment on “America’s love affair with the car”–cliches are an abomination; one should avoid them like the plague.

  14. It is useful to think of the habitual motorist as an entirely different species from human beings who regularly walk, bicycle, roll wheelchairs, push baby strollers, pull Radio Fliers, and share transit. Most of our public spaces are now so thoroughly dominated by the swift, the mighty, and the heavily armored that few are willing to try to occupy them sans automotive exoskelton.

    We just love to blame car companies, oil companies, tire companies, evil planners, and Departments of Transportation, but we-the-people have more or less gotten what we “voted” for. Not at the ballot box, but behind the wheel.

    Forget energy sources and green cars – the most tragic impact of the automobile is manifest in the places where we live. The habitual motorist undermines, destroys, and prevents the formation of human-scale habitat in which people consider it safe, practical, convivial, and NORMAL to engage in purposeful self-locomotion.

    And the only way to “get it” is to get on the other side of the windshield. If we had any sense, we would demand that our elected officials commit to walking, biking, and using transit themselves. Enlightened policies would surely follow!

  15. Civilization’s dependency on tobacco is predicted to kill one billion people by 2050 AD.

    Civilization’s dependency on cars will destroy it.

  16. Yes, it’s time for our “powers that be” to set an example by using transit more often than opening days of light rail lines, and using other non-automotive transport. However, Antonio Villaraigosa, the Mayor of Los Angeles, is recovering from a broken elbow suffered while on a bicycle ride, which may dampen his enthusiasm for biking.

  17. #18 Bob Davis,

    Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was cut off by a taxi and the first major initiatives will be making the streets safe for non-automotive mobility.

    Mainstreaming cycling technology seems to be the major path to extensive mobility solutions since it provides less than 1% the environmental foot print of transportation systems based on cars conveniently as a small fraction of the cost all with existing mature technology completely amenable to ongoing trends of miniaturization, light-weighting, and high mobility.

    Cycling technology is actually three to four times more efficient than walking with comparable reductions in carbon dioxide emissions!

    Requiring significantly less than 1% the environmental foot print of transportation systems based on cars is a major advantage now and many times more far into the future where the global population is projected to peak at between 8.5 to 10 billion people by mid-century.

    Recumbent and semi-recumbent tricycles are much safer and more comfortable because they are equipped with real seats and with electric assists can virtually provide complete accessibility to everyone except those that are visually impaired. They are much lower to the ground and with the rider sitting back there is much less tendency to go over handlebars as on conventional bicycles. With a lower profile and subsequent air resistance they are also easier to ride and human-power being more efficient than conventional upright bicycles. On-demand soft enclosures and hard enclosures also exist to further reduce air resistance and provide weather protection if desired.

    Speed records over 80 mph have been achieved on faired human-powered-only recumbent vehicles.

    Keeping free-wheeling speeds below 20 miles per hour helps with safety and much higher safe speeds are obtainable using simple mechanical collision avoidance and control such as small monorails and guide ways further extending accessibility to those that are visually impaired. Systems can also help reduce and ultimately eliminate much of the need to transport dense energy storage such as fossil fuels and batteries.

    Highly modular vehicles and systems provide considerable practical advantage. Just as someone might help a blind person across a difficult street, pushing and pulling one another while free wheeling would provide communal assistance to those that are visually impaired with the high value of the communal nature of transit being extremely important.

    Technically, high modularity is likely critical to creating transit using lighter-than-human-weight-vehicles working on-and-off systems that are easily adaptable to on-demand requirements such as multiple individuals traveling together, moving additional freight, different weather and environmental conditions.

    Broad implementation of such technologies would require extensive deployment and employment of many industries and laborers. Typical advantages would go to early adopters such as having a say in de facto standards potentially effecting local monopolies and dissemination of replicable models, experience-driven insider knowledge, and market positioning.

  18. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09krugman.html

    “America Goes Dark,” Paul Krugman, NY Times, Aug 8, 2010

    “Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.”

  19. garyg wrote: In fact, Volvo expects to have an injury-proof car within 20 years.

    Reminds me of the Tarantino film ‘Death Proof’ in which the bad guy said to his passenger “This car is really deathproof, but to get the benefit from it, you have to be sitting in my seat”. Just before he killed her, and 4 other girls.

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