It’s out there, somewhere. Perhaps it’s only as real as a series of drawings or even a clay model. It may be nothing more than a computer file with a few pieces of artwork and some notes about cost. But somewhere lurks the car most of us should be driving.
It would be the no-nonsense apotheosis of everything modern engineering knows about auto safety. It would run on a plentiful and renewable clean-burning alternative fuel produced by American agriculture. Aware of its value to all Americans, the manufacturer would struggle in earnest to make it affordable to the widest possible demographic. It would quite possibly be the ugliest looking thing on the road.
And then I woke up, and found I had drooled on my copy of Popular Science magazine during a short nap at my desk.
It’s a reasonable question, even when one is acutely aware of the economic pressures on corporate automakers: Why isn’t the car I just described available to American drivers? It certainly isn’t a marketing problem, since a country that suffers 40 thousand deaths each year from auto accidents would at least be curious about something that could be touted as “The safest car, ever.”
But it also needs to be affordable. A lawsuit currently moving through the Riverside County court system argues that General Motors was negligent in not providing an electronic stability control system on its Chevrolet Suburban SUV. Instead, the system was available only on higher-end luxury models. So at some level the argument becomes, “Are automakers obligated to provide a known safety feature on all vehicles, not just luxury models?” Imagine shopping for food and finding that only the most expensive lettuce was marked “Safe from E. coli.”
Then there’s overcoming the “romance” problem. Ben Stein, the actor/writer/economist, wrote a few weeks ago in the Sunday New York Times of “The Dream That Once Was Detroit.” At one point he asserts, “A car is what you aspire to, what you dream of, who you want to be. A car is the bigger, better, badder you.” The article was accompanied by a photo of a ’62 Corvette, a car that Stein bought as a younger man. “I shifted from third to fourth at 100 miles an hour on route 95,” Stein recollects. “I was Elvis Presley and Juan-Manuel Fangio all at once. You are what you drive.”
Stein urges a struggling Detroit to “make cars that dreams are made of. It’s not too late.” But perhaps as consumers continue to be violated at the gas pump, the “dream” Stein describes is changing. I believe there are millions of Americans ready to give up the traditional romance with their cars and begin another. In this new relationship, the partner is a giving, safety-providing, economical, sensible lover of family and earth. Unlike Elvis, most people want to go buy their groceries, pick up their kids and return home without being “All Shook Up.”
Some say that was what the SUV craze, or delirium, was all about. Safety from size, comfort from the security bigness brings. Then SUV’s started rolling over in accidents, and as the suit in Riverside clearly alleges, they weren’t as safe as they could have been. Meanwhile, SUV’s ate so much gas that it became selfish if not outright hostile to be seen filling one up at the pump. Oil, the reason our best and bravest were over there dying.
There’s never been a better time for the elusive Mystery Car to show itself. Remember that imaginative TV commercial where all the home appliances came out to the curb to welcome the electric car? An America fatigued by death in oil warfare and ready to go green as a new form of patriotism would now rally at that curb to welcome a car with a design that, at last, came not from preoccupation with Elvis or late-life penile dysfunction but rather from an adult sense of responsibility.
Getting out of his car after driving his last auto race, Juan-Manuel Fangio turned to his mechanic and said, “It is finished.” Maybe Detroit has a similar feeling regarding its traditional approaches now that Toyota sells more cars globally. All the fetishizing and obsession with power might be nudged aside by the good sense to produce the safe and earth-smart units so many of us are waiting for. For indeed, you are what you drive.