Since the birth of car culture more than a century ago, lavish consumption of energy has not been a bug but a feature. That’s now a feature we can ill afford, as we attempt the difficult and urgent task of transition to renewable energies.
Notwithstanding all the superlatives lavished on Elon Musk by mass media, one of his great achievements has gone unsung: his ingeniously simple contribution to the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
I refer, of course, to his donation of a used automobile to the possible inhabitants of outer space. If there is intelligent life out there, they will recognize Musk’s Tesla Roadster as a typically energy-guzzling death trap of the genus known as “car”, and they’ll promptly return it to sender, COD.
Wait a minute, Musk’s Roadster is not a typical car, some might protest – it’s electric! True enough, but the Roadster, like its newer sibling the Model 3, was designed to seamlessly fit into and extend our current car culture. And one of the key features of car culture is that it was structured, from the beginning, to consume energy with careless abandon.
That giddy attitude to energy was understandable in the early days of the age of oil, but it will make our current transition to a clean-energy economy far more difficult if not impossible.
The invention of car culture
In his excellent book Consuming Power, David E. Nye notes that
“[By 1929] there was roughly one car for every five Americans, and an astonishing 78 percent of the cars in the world were in the United States. In France or Great Britain there was only one car for every 30 people, and in Germany only one for every 102. The automobile had become the central American consumer good and the engine of the American economy, stimulating a wide range of subsidiary industries and suppliers.”
The pattern continued after World War II. “Americans drove 75 percent of the world’s automobiles in 1950,” Nye says. “Moreover, they wanted big automobiles.”
The taste for big, fast cars was cultivated long before most Americans could hope to buy a car. Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania shows how a small coterie of wealthy young men, hyped by the new mass media, captured public imagination with their expensive quest for speed – starting in 1900. That was the year when an heir to the Vanderbilt shipping fortune set tongues wagging with his powerful new toy.
“In June 1900, Vanderbilt bought a Daimler Phoenix, his first Daimler and his first racing car for which he had to pay the impressive price of 10,000 dollars. This car – nicknamed “White Ghost” and powered by a 23 hp engine which accelerated the car to a top speed of just under 100 km/h – was at last completely to Vanderbilt’s liking.”
Other wealthy Americans got into the racing game too, and it was essential not just to go fast, but to go fast uphill. In each city with an expensive auto dealership, McCarthy notes, the steepest hill was the standard place for a test drive. “By 1904, when vehicles such as Vanderbilt’s 90-hp Mercedes proved too powerful for the annual hill climb at Eagle Rock, New Jersey, the hill climbs had made their point.”
There was no practical use for this speed at the time – there were very few stretches of road smooth enough or straight enough to be driven at 50 km/hr, let alone 120 km/hr. But in America, unlike in Western Europe, the love of overpowered cars quickly became not just an elite hobby but a mass movement – with effects that remain strong today.
To suburbia and beyond
As one component of car culture, Americans developed a new way of living that was simultaneously industrialized and decentralized – with residences, office complexes and factories all moving out of central cities to the edges of urban areas.
As Nye explains, “This post-urban society was based on a historically anomalous situation: multiple sources of energy were all in oversupply.”
Timothy Mitchell also takes up this theme. In the US in the first half of the twentieth century, he writes, oil gushed out of the ground so readily that it was hard for major oil companies to keep control of the market, and over-supply often threatened their profits. Regulation of domestic competitors was one prong in their strategy, while purposeful restrictions on the flow of abundant Middle East oil, prior to the 1950s, was another prong.
Another “method of preventing energy abundance,” Mitchell writes “involved the rapid construction of lifestyles in the United States organised around the consumption of extraordinary quantities of energy.”
This American project began in the early 1900s and eventually became self-driving.
Overcoming performance anxiety
At the beginning of the 20th century, “The speeding millionaire sportsmen so effectively demonstrated and publicized the speed and power of the automobile that its introduction had an ‘in-your-face’ quality,” McCarthy writes. “Their behavior aroused strong emotions in other Americans, provoking a bitter reaction while also stoking the desire of millions to own an automobile, too.”
Thus was set in motion a habit exhibited by Americans ever since: buying cars that can reach top speeds well in excess of the limitations of most driving conditions and most laws.
That would have been of little consequence, unless someone started building cars that could be sold to working-class Americans, and paying workers enough that they could afford cars. That was the role of Henry Ford. His Model T hit a sweet spot of size, speed, and affordability:
“Ford made the Model T inexpensive enough, well-made enough, and, most important, just large, powerful and fast enough that buyers could close most of the status gap between themselves and the wealthy without hypocritically aping them or leaving themselves open to ridicule for choosing a cheap, slow, poorly made car.”
With its 26 horsepower engine and a top speed of 55–65 kilometers/hour, the Model T was more than fast enough for the typically rough, rutted roads of rural America in 1910 (and 64% of the first million Model Ts went to farm and small town markets).
The market for cars, of course, would have been very limited without the right legal and physical infrastructure, and government readily offered an essential helping hand. As Nye notes,
“Automobiles are not isolated objects; they are only the most salient parts of a complex energy-consuming system that includes production lines, roads, parking lots, oil wells, pipelines, service stations, and the redesign of urban spaces to accommodate drivers.”
He further explains,
“As much as half of a city’s land area was dedicated to roads, driveways, parking lots, service stations, and so on. … This reshaping of the environment was not caused by the automobile itself. Americans were extremely active in defining their landscapes by means of zoning boards, park commissions, and city councils.”
By mid-century, the US was systematically decommissioning public transit infrastructure – intra- and inter-city trains, streetcars and buses – in favor of the private car. This change happens to have been in the financial interests of both the car companies and the oil companies, the most powerful corporate interests in the country.
In energy consumption terms, the consequence was simple: “The largest growth in energy use began in the late 1930s and lasted until the early 1970s. In these 35 years energy consumption grew by 350 percent.”
The comparison to comparably-industrialized western Europe is illuminating. By the early 1970s, “Compared with equally affluent Europeans, Americans used roughly twice as much energy per capita. Half of the difference was directly attributable to their transportation system ….” In the first 70 years of the 20th century, western Europe had no significant domestic sources of oil, and thus no powerful corporate interests to make a case that it was in the “national interest” to consume as much energy as possible.
Car culture in the US, however, had acquired seemingly unstoppable momentum. In the early 1970s the US reached its peak of conventional oil production, and the country had already become dependent on steady supplies of imported oil. Yet the blip of the 1970s “energy crisis” made little difference to a high-energy way of life.
“Between 1969 (just before the crisis) and 1983 (just after), the number of miles driven by the average American household rose 29 percent. There were 39 percent more shopping trips, and the distances traveled on these trips increased by 20 percent.”
Fighting for space
At the heart of car culture is a contradiction. The essential allure of speed can be reliably achieved only on sparsely travelled roads. But the increasing profits of oil companies and auto manufacturers alike depend on selling more cars to more people – and most people live and/or work in densely populated areas.
As noted by Nye, when half of a city’s land area was devoted to roads and parking lots, that pushed residents further apart and further from urban centres. By design, the new suburbs had insufficient density to support good public transit – which further locked suburbanites into car dependency. Traffic congestion, once a phenomenon of urban centres, became a regular rush-hour phenomenon on essential arteries 30, then 40, then 50 km or more from urban cores.
The stressed-out commuters on these routes might indeed be able to drive part way to work at high speed. But in spite of (because of?) the fact that they drive increasingly powerful vehicles, they also, on average, spend more and more time commuting. So what good is that speed and power?
The promise of cars was that speed would conquer space. But the reality of car culture is that space triumphs over speed.
A specific example illustrates how this dynamic has played out across North America. Consider the collection of bridges and ramps now under construction at this site:
What vast complex of engineering wizardry is this? Actually, it’s an intersection. An intersection of two rural highways, about 70 km from downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And nothing so complex as a four-way intersection, just a three-way T-junction.
Why is it deemed necessary to invest so much in one T-junction out here? Well, as North America’s busiest road, Highway 401 regularly stalls to stop-and-go traffic anywhere along a 100-km stretch. And as the ripples of auto-dependent sprawl spread ever wider, there is a perceived need to build even more traffic-facilitating infrastructure. (Meanwhile, as in jurisdictions across North America, it’s almost impossible to find money to fix the crumbling auto infrastructure built decades or generations ago.)
In Ontario, the quest for congestion relief has taken the form of a new privately-operated toll road, taking a wide swing around the northern edges of the Toronto megalopolis. On Highway 401 a single careless driver can at any time cause a traffic-snarling accident that delays thousands of other drivers, often for hours. But on the new toll expressway, tolls are set so high that traffic nearly always moves at standard “highway speeds”.
And that’s a good thing, since at these far edges of exurbia, there are a high proportion of “extreme commuters”. A lot of drivers at the new Highway 401/418 t-junction will be commuting a long distance, so it’s very important to them that they can drive these entry and exit ramps at full highway speed. (Too bad for those who can’t afford the tolls – they’ll have to stay on the low-class public highway. And even the toll-payers will at some point have to exit onto slow-moving, congested arterials.)
The method to Musk’s madness
When Elon Musk decided to sell electric cars to Americans, he followed a century-old playbook. First, put out an exclusive product endowed with marvelous powers of acceleration and speed. (Never mind that the buyers will be subject to the same speed limits and traffic congestion as everyone else – you can accelerate from 0 – 97 km in less than 4 seconds!) Then, having cleansed his electric-car brand of any taint of performance anxiety, he began marketing the later Model 3 at a price point that average American motorists could afford.
But an individual car is of no value. It only functions as part of an elaborate system of laws, roads, parking lots, and energy production and distribution – car culture, in other words. And car culture has proven to be a colossal waste of space, time and energy.
So if there are indeed intelligent aliens, they won’t be taken in by Musk’s unsolicited offer of a used car.
If there is extraterrestrial intelligence, that stray Roadster will be marked “Return to Sender.”
Top photo: composite by An Outside Chance from StarMan in Space video.
 David E. Nye, Consuming Power, MIT Press, 1997, page 178
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 205
 quoted from “Willie K.’s Cars #1: The 1900 23-HP Daimler “White Ghost”
 Greg Wapling, “Land Speed Racing History”
 Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania, Yale University Press, 2007, page 2
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 196
 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, Verso, 2013, page 41
 McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 7
 McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 39
 McCarthy, Auto Mania, page 37
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 177
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 180
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 187
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 223
 Nye, Consuming Power, page 221
 Washington Post, February 22, 2017, “The American commute is worse today than it’s ever been”
 While both Consuming Power and Auto Mania restrict their focuses to the United States, car culture in Canada closely mirrors that in the US. Not only does the manufacturing chain function as if there is no border, but the pattern of car-dependent suburban development is pretty much the same in Canada as in the US as well.
 From many sources, including Business Insider, Aug 29, 2012
 See chart “Extreme commutes are the fastest growing” in Washington Post, Feb 22, 2017