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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: May 24, 2002
Topic: Individualism and the Car Culture

As North Americans, like it or not, we live in a car culture. In this culture in which the vehicles we drive both shape who we are and reflect who we are, it is no surprise to find that carmakers have consciously designed our obsessions into the vehicles we own.
I grew up in a small car family. From our 1968 VW Beetle to our 1986 Chevy Nova, nothing brought our family of six closer together than the cars we owned. Our intertwined knees and elbows made the car a safe environment for us, but not always an environment that promoted love between siblings. Nonetheless, I think we all to some extent fell in love with our small cars. It was a strange obsession not with power or speed, which where noticeably absent, but with the car’s ability to do so much with so little; an obsession reinforced by our family ritual of calculating the average fuel efficiency after every new tank of gas. When the car achieved over 50 miles per gallon we considered the trip a success. A dip below 40 miles per gallon worried us…Is something wrong? Should we try to drive without the air conditioner?

Times have changed. Obsessions have changed. And according to automakers, progress has been made. But progress for some is never progress for all. Progress is always relative to what you value. For those of us whose auto ideal remains linked to the idea of going the furthest on the least amount of gas, Detroit has regressed. In fact, since the 1980s, the average fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles on the road has declined. This step backwards is due to the ever-increasing presence of the sport utility vehicles, sport trucks, and minivans on our highways. However, the reason for this regression is ideological. A new ideal of progress has been manufactured by automakers and embraced by North American culture.

For the second time in two years the U.S. congress has rejected legislation that would encourage automakers to provide consumers with sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickups that achieve adequate fuel efficiency. I find this rejection disheartening. In this failed legislation I saw only opportunities. As a minivan owner, I saw opportunity for my next family vehicle to provide substantial savings on our transportation expenses. As an engineer, I saw an invitation for Detroit to engage in creative redesign. As one longing for peace in the Middle East, I saw opportunity to keep our U.S. oil interests from complicating our arbitration efforts. As a Christian always in the process of learning to love what God loves, I saw in this bill a first step toward providing better care of the good creation that we are a part of.

In contrast, I found most arguments against this bill to be unsubstantiated. However, one such argument troubled me. Auto lobbyists argued that the proposed bill would force consumers to drive unsafe vehicles. While national crash test data does not support the notion that bigger is always safer, Detroit does understand a bit of basic physics. It takes more force to stop 8000 lbs of steel heading toward you at 65 mph, than it does to stop 4000 lbs of steel traveling at the same speed. Clearly, an individual’s safety depends on what you collide with. Surround yourself with a large mass of steel and you are sure to maintain some advantage over potential collision candidates. Which makes me wonder, if the driver in the more massive vehicle is guaranteed to inflict the most damage on the less massive vehicle, can we truly call the larger vehicle the safer one? From the perspective of the driver of the subcompact car, the large SUV is the MOST dangerous passenger vehicle on the road.

In North America, however, the consumer is conditioned to think only of oneself. From this twisted perspective, the idea that the large SUV is a safe vehicle becomes a plausible notion. Cleary the automobile is ergonomically designed to not only fit our bodies but our mindset as well. This is not new. The development of the automobile from its inception has been fueled by an ideal of individual freedom and choice. This ideal culminates in the creation of the SUV which declares to consumers once again that you are free to go where you want when you want…and what’s more?…the SUV won’t let roads constrain you! When society equates progress with individual autonomy, the fact that an SUV is a potential threat to other motorists and to the environment is rarely considered.

But Christians see things differently. The idol of individualism cannot consume those who truly believe that our lives and the world around us belong to God. We are appointed to be both our brother’s keeper and the keepers of creation. I am not suggesting that a Christian cannot own a truck, van, or SUV, but I do expect that Christians who do own such vehicles will drive fully aware of the danger their vehicle presents to others and to the environment when used carelessly and without restraint. And I expect most Christians would take delight in supporting future proposals that promote creativity in the automobile industry while establishing higher fuel efficiency standards. Wouldn’t it be great if future generations would look at the vehicles we develop and see in them a reflection of our obsession, an obsession with loving each other and the world around us. We can only hope.

For Plumbline, this is Ethan Brue, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Dordt College