The Guardian view on car culture: change is coming
Over the holiday period the Guardian’s leader column examines the challenges of the future by fathoming out the present. Today we look at the changing shape of car culture
Lewis Hamilton’s recent declaration of support for climate action attracted derision as well as plaudits. “I like fuel. Can I say that? I don’t like electric stuff,” was the deliberately provocative response from a fellow Formula One driver, Max Verstappen. But the sport is officially on Mr Hamilton’s side. In November it announced a net-zero carbon target of 2030.
In planning to eliminate most of the carbon emissions for which it is responsible, and offset the rest, F1 is part of a growing movement. The most recent round of United Nations climate negotiations may have ended in disappointment. But the past 12 months have undeniably seen a global surge in public awareness and activism on climate issues. Even Jeremy Clarkson, the television presenter and anti-environmental journalist, admitted the danger of global heating in a public statement last month. While filming a journey from Cambodia to Vietnam for his TV show, The Grand Tour, he saw for himself the impact of water shortages on a dried-up riverbed and admitted to being alarmed.
Since the automobile industry’s earliest days, motor sports have served both as a laboratory and a showcase. While advances were once focused on speed, design and safety, energy could be viewed as just another challenge. But should we embrace “electric stuff”, or other alternatives to petrol, as the automotive future?
Of the estimated 1bn cars in the world currently, 5m (0.5%) are electric. Sales in the US, China, Japan and Europe are rising fast, and secondhand markets starting to take shape as batteries perform better than expected. Last month Volkswagen embarked on the most ambitious scheme of any carmaker to date, with the opening of a new assembly line in eastern Germany to build its first mass-market battery-powered car. Tesla’s Model 3 is among the UK’s most popular new vehicles.
An electric future?
Driving enthusiasts and industry champions, including governments, naturally welcome these developments. For authorities struggling with high levels of air pollution as well as emissions targets, there is no doubt that electric vehicles represent an improvement, especially when they replace older vehicles and SUVs. For decades, petrol pumps have been the most direct point of contact between people and the oil industry. To anyone who seeks to weaken the hold of these powerful businesses, breaking these bonds feels like progress.
But is it enough to wean drivers off petrol and diesel? Or could 21st-century transport be more radically reconfigured in such a way as to reduce our dependence on private cars? Automobiles were the creation of the age of oil, as a timely new exhibition about their history at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum makes clear. As nations across the globe get set for the decade of emissions cuts that is mandatory if we are to avoid the catastrophe of global heating of 2C or more, what should be our attitude to driving?
Transport is the fastest-growing contributor to global emissions, accounting for around a third of the total in Europe and the US. One recent study found that between 2010 and 2018, SUVs were the second-largest contributor to rises. In the UK, the government is considering a proposal by its climate advisers to bring forward to 2035 a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.
But if the environmental case against the combustion engine is clearcut, arguments about electric vehicles are more complicated. While environmentalists argue for a fundamental shift away from private cars, other sceptics borrow their arguments about the damaging impact of electric vehicle manufacturing and batteries to defend the status quo. These are partly technical questions about the way that emissions are calculated, and how other harms – such as that caused by the mining and disposal of cobalt and lithium used in batteries – are balanced against the danger of continued global heating. But their political importance can hardly be overstated. That is because what is at stake, when we talk about the future of the car, is not only a crucially important industrial sector, particularly in Germany, the US and Japan, but also the way that societies are organised.
In the 20th century, the car became part of who we are. While this is perhaps truer in the US than anywhere else, car culture as well as technology has made deep inroads in almost every corner of the world. The economic and social aspects of our relationship with motor transport are so bound up together that they are difficult to unwind. But the V&A exhibition, drawing on work by cultural historians, illustrates the extent to which cars have shaped the world we know. Exhibits include a useful introduction to the mode of industrial production known as Fordism (after Henry Ford), a depiction of the role of motorways in 20th-century nation-building, and sections on safety, gender, and the future – as well as a vast screen showing video of an oilfield.
There is no getting away from the politics of transport. Arguments over the division of space and resources between roads and public transportation, and between drivers and other travellers – walkers, cyclists, bus passengers – are generally played out as culture wars between rival tribes.
Different political philosophies, as well as lifestyles and needs, push people in opposite directions. Broadly speaking, cars appeal most strongly to people (and political parties) who are more invested in private ownership and individual freedom, while public and low-carbon transport are championed by those who value public space and collective modes of living. All of these issues are even more fraught in the developing world, where investment in public transport is urgently needed if there are to be viable alternatives to further increases in car ownership rates.
At a time of dangerous political polarisation, it is important to recognise that beliefs about cars, as about most things, are contingent on experience. Bear in mind the faultlines between cities and towns that have recently attracted notice in countries including France, the US and UK. Attitudes to transport, as to much else, will vary according to geography. A rise in fuel duty was the initial grievance of the gilets jaunes.
Climate science dictates that the use of petrol and diesel cars and trucks must be drastically reduced. Electric vehicles are part of the solution, but car culture as a whole also needs an overhaul. This will not be easy. As well as their utility, motor vehicles have come to symbolise powerful human longings for privacy, autonomy, speed, mobility and freedom. Lewis Hamilton is not alone. The rest of us need to do some thinking too.
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