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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 cars 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
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 individuals 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
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 whats more?
the SUV wont 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
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 brothers 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. Wouldnt 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