Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Good news: cars are no longer cool!

Is that cool, or lame?

Here's a clue: consider where it looks like it ought to be driving...

then consider where it's really going to be driving...


Last week, on our commute to her school, my daughter said "Ian, cars aren't cool". Now while she may simply have been saying what she thought I'd want to hear, I've heard quite a few kids say similar things recently, and studies show that more and more teenagers are opting out of learning to drive, partially due to the financial climate, but also out of dissatisfaction.

There was a time when cars were cool - back in the 1920s, when the open road was... well, open. When cars were rare, when most of them had an open cockpit, when you started them with a crank and when you needed to wear goggles and a heavy driving coat. But now? My daughter's right - they aren't cool. They are lame.

As far as excitement and adventure goes, driving a car leaves something to be desired: it's air conditioned, you sit in a comfy chair, you can drive in your shirt even in a blizzard. There's a radio, cupholders, GPS, etc. In terms of explorers, it's hardly 'Scott of the Antarctic' - heck, it's not even Michael Palin (for those unschooled in British pop culture references, that's he of Monty Python and BBC travel documentary fame). Okay, driving a car today might (at its best) equate to a Rick Steves travel show: pretty, comfortable, safe. But not exactly thrilling. The motorist's motto is something akin to "Hope the seat warmer is working" or "Glad I've got my coffee". Not exactly stirring stuff.

Even today's car ads have a sort of desperation about them - they're all about danger, thrills and driving fast somewhere exotic, but when the ad gets to the interior, it always just looks kinda weak. And the outside... well, they all look the same - and they're almost always offered in shades of grey. And you know that when you actually drive it, it's not going to be an experience of driving like a bat out of hell at Monte Carlo - it's going to be pottering along at 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic while cyclists and bikers pass you by. The fact is, the modern car experience is slow, frustrating and BORING!

Meanwhile, those of us on bicycles and motorbikes have a different and much more rugged experience: you're out in the elements, you're on a saddle (how adventurous is that!), no radio, no cupholder (other than a cage with a bottle of near freezing water), no GPS, you must balance and wrestle the bike through rain, wind, snow. Your motto, like that of the Post Office is "Victory or Death" (well, not really, but sometimes it feels that way). If you cycle more than half a mile you get more adventure than a motorist gets in a week.

So what happened to make cars go all wimpy and boring? And when did it happen? I don't think there was a key moment when the car lost its cachet. I think it happened gradually, but it started in the 1960s. At first, it was just environmentalists that dared to say it. Here's a modern example of those early criticisms:
"America is filled with uncool fools who... still think its oh so cool to glamorize and subsidize man-made machines depleting the world of fossil fuel while spewing carbon monoxide emissions in all directions and building a deadly greenhouse designed to perfection for the ultimate destruction of all humankind."
But then, more and more people started to voice 'that which could not be said' - car ownership is not just 'uncool' - it's stupid and passé:
"Owning a car is thought to be very stupid by Generation Y and they are moving from car ownership to renting... Today it’s not cool to own a car"

"The car, to them, is a passé form of prestige, of assuming, through the BMW or Mercedes label, a dignity beyond what the owner knows she’s worth."
Now auto makers have taken the final step - the ultimate in 'uncool' - trying to be cool:
"...nothing worries automakers more than the mounting evidence that cars are no longer cool... Surveys suggest that “millennials” regard the car as a tired, twentieth-century mechanical device that’s out of place in a twenty-first-century electronic world, where it creates nothing more than congestion and pollution."
So the auto makers are choosing to go with hi tech gadgetry to make cars appear cool to the new generation of potential motorists. But I think they're going down the wrong path. The 21st Century will, I think, be a time when simplification will be key. People will begin to want their transportation to be cheaper, simpler, more connected to the environment and less hassle. But hey, what do I know? As always, time will tell.

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