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Transportation culture is sticky
Horse heads, horsepower, and frunks
I was in New York City this past April for a seminar about the challenges state and local governments face in electrifying the transportation industry. Participants learned about the intricacies of Advanced Clean Cars 2 and Advanced Clean Trucks, the valuation of critical minerals needed for EV batteries, tax credits within the Inflation Reduction Act, and so much more. The seminar also coincided with the New York Auto Show - so we got a glimpse of the latest and greatest electric vehicles (EVs) that will soon be available to consumers.
I learned about electric vehicles, self-driving technologies, and clean transportation fuels of the future like hydrogen. I also learned that the growing need for sustainable transportation is challenging a deeply-rooted car culture in the United States. Car culture is sticky - i.e. people aren’t willing to give up aspects of their cars that are neither functional nor good for the environment if they’re nostalgic about it.
Today’s post is about how car manufacturers are evolving (or not) to satisfy stricter emissions regulations, and how a sticky car culture keeps some externalities around longer than they need to be.
The 2023 New York Auto Show
As someone who would prefer to see bicycle culture eclipse car culture, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the NY Auto Show. There were many cars that I wanted but couldn’t afford, and others I hoped nobody bought, ever. My biggest EV takeaways from the NY Auto Show are as follows:
They’re getting bigger and heavier, and
Car culture is about more than functionality
Almost every car manufacturer at the event was showcasing their newest or first electric vehicle models. The hippy van-life guy in me really enjoyed the Volkswagen ID. Buzz - an all-electric, 21st-century version of the classic VW bus:
And the hippy environmentalist guy in me despised the all-electric Dodge Charger Daytona SRT:
While I appreciate its muscle-car look and zero-emission nature, it lost me with the noise pollution. The 2024 Dodge Charger comes with an “E-rupt” feature - basically a speaker that imitates the sound of a Hemi internal combustion engine (ICE). Here’s a video of the car in action:
Dodge added the sound machine after market research told them die-hard Chrysler consumers were going to miss revving their engines. Honestly, it’s a sound I was hoping would forever disappear with the invention of electric vehicles, but I guess I’m not the consumer Dodge is worried about retaining.
As the EPA introduced stricter emissions standards, Dodge had no choice but to either discontinue their line of gas-guzzling muscle cars or try to keep their traditional consumers on board through fake engine-revving trickery. Big technological shifts like this have happened before, and sometimes trickery is the name of the game.
Sticky car culture
At the turn of the 20th century, the rise of the car started to phase out horse-drawn carriages as the preferred mode of transportation. People enjoyed having less horse shit in the middle of the road. For a while, cars and horse-drawn buggies had to learn how to share the road, which caused it’s own set of issues. Some car drivers would put fake horse heads on the front of their vehicles so they didn’t spook any horses that weren’t yet used to cars:
Just like Dodge’s fake car noises, the transition from horse-powered to horsepower came with its own weird vehicle additions.
Today we are transitioning from the internal combustion engine to battery-powered vehicles, and many of the culturally engrained side-effects of the internal combustion car will likely remain for a while - whether it’s noise, weight, shape, or size.
Take the new electric Ford F-150 Lightning, for example. The absence of an internal combustion engine did nothing to change its shape or decrease the size of its massive front end. The battery is positioned under the floor of the vehicle and runs most of the length of the car in order to keep a low center of gravity. Given that design change, Ford could build a truck that’s more aerodynamic, safer, and easier on the roads. Instead, we’ve got today’s version of a horse head on the front.
Trucks and SUVs have notoriously large blind spots directly in front of the vehicle - causing hundreds of child deaths every year. Furthermore, the electric F-150 weighs about 30-50% more than the ICE F-150, depending on the model. The unnecessary weight and shape of the electric F-150 is going to wear down roads faster and kill more kids in driveways.
Ford kept the shape of their truck not for functionality or safety, but for the cultural relevance of their iconic F-150 shape. You can’t change the look of the most popular vehicle in America and expect to get away with it. Car consumers are typically quite loyal to their favorite brands, so car companies try to deliver what is expected. Change doesn’t happen overnight in the car industry, but I expect the F-150 will eventually change as consumers get used to not having horses… I mean, engines sitting in the front of their truck.
For better or worse, cars are the dominant mode of transportation in the United States. Economically and environmentally, we’d be better off with bicycles and public transit. Culturally, there’s nothing wrong with liking cars, but it’s important we think about the options car manufacturers are giving us. As I write about often, cars traditionally come with many more externalities than just climate-changing emissions. We need to think about the space they take up, the dangers they pose, and the noises they should and should not make.