Among self-professed car nuts, I must be the only one somewhat looking forward to this economic crisis. I do not mean to say that I was overjoyed to hear that some automakers were on the brink of collapse and that a lot of people in their employ were about to lose their jobs-- that side of the issue did give me a few sleepless nights, since I have a great number of friends and acquaintances in the industry. More powerful than that is my optimism for a drastic reshaping of North American car culture. As perverse as it sounds, I believe that this is a change that only a crisis of large magnitude could bring.
Throughout its history, the car has raised numerous environmental concerns: from the initial worries of scarcity of resources with the inception of mass production to the problem of disposal when the first mass produced cars reached the end of their life cycle and finally to the issue of urban air quality, which led to the introduction of emissions standards. All these and more were solved, not due to actions of car manufacturers alone, nor due to the pressure of environmental regulation, but ultimately because of a shift in consumer choices as facilitated by a crisis.
Currently, sustainability and global warming occupy perhaps the top two spots in contemporary environmental concerns that list the car as a primary culprit. As it currently stands, neither feature prominently in the psyche of the average motorist.
While there are a number of hybrid, alternative fuel or perhaps electric car proponents concerned about greenhouse gases, their current numbers are too few to seriously affect the overall carbon output of the North American motoring public as a whole. Much like generations past, the current average motorist has consistently proven to be slow to embrace these technologies and only truly considered them once personally inconvenienced (as evidenced by a sharp rise in hybrid purchases coinciding with the record gas prices of 2008). Any benefit to the environment, though welcome, was purely secondary.
An economic crisis can have the positive benefit of straining our wasteful automotive practices to the point that we would be forced to actually become more efficient. We would demand from the manufacturers more cars that truly save gas and not just give a nod to efficiency as they currently stand-- really, what is the point of a hybrid SUV when a lighter conventional car produces better gas mileage figures? As well, if our disposable income gets hit hard enough, then we might also start clamouring for simpler, smaller and more ecologically sustainable cars unburdened with excess options and weight.
Perhaps most importantly, a shift in the definitions of automotive cool might just occur. Instead of awarding the badge of cool to technological complexity, we would instead give it to artful simplicity. Instead of defining a car's greatness by how it insulates us from the experience of driving, we would call for a return to the elemental aspects of motoring where every nuance of the road and the environment is transcribed to the driver.
Having written this, I will certainly get assailed by accusations of not being a true car nut. How can I say I truly love cars when I'm practically welcoming the death of car culture as we know it? To that I say: I love cars so much, I'd rather that the culture as we know it die than cars in general.