How do we go from here?

Somewhere around here I suggested that this blog would pertain to my PhD study, as well as to other automotive, environmental and geographical gubbins that take my fancy. As such, I would like to use my first academic(ish) post to introduce my research. How is the way we ‘consume’ the car manifest, and will the need for more environmentally friendly personal transport change our relationship with the car forever?

We aspire to the car, we want the car, and we desire the car. But will the way we regard the car stop us from choosing a less polluting, low-carbon car? (Picture: classicfordmag.co.uk)

The transport sector is responsible for up to 25% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions. The dominant source of CO2 within the transport sector is the car, which is responsible for just over half these emissions. In other words, just over 10% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions come from the use of our beloved cars.

The need to act so as to mitigate the environmental impacts of our actions, or, as I call it, the ‘environmental imperative’, demands that we adopt a low carbon mobility to mitigate the environmental impacts of our movements. However, contemporary society – whether by dint of the spread of suburbia, various shift patterns or a fragmented public transport system seemingly run for profit and not for the public – appears to demand a low carbon automobility.

Much has been written about the costs, impracticalities and/or technologies of low carbon vehicles in academia and in the media. But how many of us think about the way in which we consume the car ‘as object’? How might the environmental impact of the car be influenced by the contemporaneous socio-cultural consumption of the car?

When I use the phrase ‘consume the car’, I don’t use it as a reference to how and why we use it; any motorist will tell you that the car is very useful, very convenient, if a bit pricey these days. Instead, I use it in reference to how we regard the car as status symbol, as icon, as cultural artefact, as avatar, as experience. I believe that how we ‘consume’ the car is fundamental to the environmental impact we have individually as motorists, because such consumption influences our choice of car, how we view the car, how we aspire to the car, how we drive the car, how we feel the car.

And why we will keep on wanting, if not needing, the car.

However, the pursuit of various low carbon automotive technologies as a means to address the environmental imperative could suggest that the nature of the car may change. In one of his columns for CAR magazine in 1996, Stephen Bayley described the car as a mature product, in that we know what it is, what it does, what to expect from it. We’ve become conditioned to the car and how it works which, in turn, impacts upon how we consume it. Yet various low carbon technologies – such as hybrids, electric vehicles (EVs), range-extended EVs, fuel cells – surely render the low carbon vehicle an immature product, in that while we may know what it is, the way in which it does it will, in some cases, be new. Low carbon vehicles may require new knowledges, new behaviours, new strategies, and also produce new experiences which, together, might impact upon how we consume the car.

As the adoption of low carbon vehicles is being left to the market and to the vagaries of consumer choice (with, admittedly, the odd governmental nudge), it is pertinent to ask whether the ways in which we use and regard the car today – our existing automobilities – can aspire to a future low carbon automobility, to find out whether irrationalities of the way in which we consume the car – our automotive peccadilloes, if you like – can be reconciled with the rationality that the environmental imperative demands. How do we consume the car? How will we reach a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to? Will we enjoy it when we get there?

To answer the question in the title of this post (which is also the working pre-title of my PhD study), we need to ascertain where ‘here’ is. I would say that ‘here’ is the latest automotive propulsion technology, whether this technology is electric, hybrid or an internal combustion engine with the low-carbon fixes and fuels, and the associated (im)practicalities of these technologies; ‘here’ is the comparatively high cost of this low carbon technology, which may well decrease over time; ‘here’ is what we know about the environmental impact of motoring and what we are prepared to do (and to pay) to mitigate and/or ameliorate it; and ‘here’ is the contemporary socio-cultural consumption of the car.

As mentioned earlier, the first definition of ‘here’ has been well documented by both academia and the technical media, as battery improvement continues apace, fuel cells are continually developed, and the internal combustion engine is constantly refined and made cleaner. In addition, the second and third definitions of ‘here’ have also been subject to a wider discourse. However, the final definition of ‘here’ is just as important, as it is through the social, cultural and experiential aspects of the car that we can begin to appraise a holistic consumption of the car. By framing the socio-cultural consumption of the car within an environmental context, and also within a technological context, it may be possible to reconcile the irrationality of car consumption with the rationality demanded by the environmental imperative, and so provide a new perspective upon the appetite and potential for low carbon automobility.

In 1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes made what now appears to be an extremely prescient observation, when he suggested that the Citroën DS may mark a change in the ‘mythology’ of cars, noting that “until now, the ultimate of cars belonged to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual and object-like”. The power race practised more recently by, for example, some of the German marques, together with a mindset fomented by certain TV programmes, suggests that this mythological change hasn’t been universally adopted. That said, an environmental imperative fostered by the threat of climate change suggests that a change in our automotive perceptions may be overdue. Might an environmental awareness acquire such a status within automobility that supplants the ‘bestiary of power’ of which Barthes writes?

Any changes in the way we consume the car may provide an appropriate answer. As a result of my PhD, I hope to have answers to some of the above questions in due course.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Cartechnical website, the link to which is here.

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5 thoughts on “How do we go from here?

  1. Hello there Jeckythump – I think this is fascinating, important and terrifying in turn. Terrifying because we live in a world economy constructed around the petrochemical industries – a long term in the making raw material in a short term capitalist economic system. In your focus on consumption, aren’t you giving consumers more power than they do have in this system? Barhes also said in that essay that the Citroen became ‘the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement’ – another ‘must have’. I’m really looking forward to the next blog. PS wasn’t that the car with the canvas bucket seats??

    • I think consumers do have some power in this respect, in that while a manufacturer may have an idea, a vision, of what their car ‘is’ or ‘says’, the consumer has the final idea or vision of what a car is or says. Take the original BMC Mini, for example; an honest, rational – if revolutionary – engineering solution to fuel crises eg Suez (and a riposte to the microcars which had begun to proliferate) in the 1950s, the Mini became emblematic of the swinging sixties and, ultimately, a much loved national icon. While it was adopted by fashionistas and celebrities and became seen to be fun and fashionable, the Mini wasn’t designed to be all of this – it just happened. I believe Marx said something like ‘an author produces a book, a reader produces a text’ and I reckon this is the case with the car, whether motorists realise this or not. Btw it was the early 2CV that had the canvas seats; the DS was altogether more sophisticated. Looking like Dan Dare’s company car, Barthes said it looked as if it had fallen from the sky, and eminent motoring journalist LJK Setright declared it ‘the most modern car ever’. Google-image it or I’ll e-mail a picture for you.

      • I clearly remember being ferried to the doctor by a Bretagne farmer in a canvas seat Citroen aged about 10… Did have a temperature at the time, so could have been hallucinating… the suppositories (for tonsilitis) were real though…My all time favourite car I owned was a blue Lada estate (new in 1982), with a starting handle, inner tube tyres,and the stamina and reslience of a tank. My ‘reading’ of this car was ‘I could invade Hungary in this’ ; my son’s reading was ‘my mum hates me’…

  2. My all time favourite car was my first car, a mini! I bought it for £100 & spent a couple of k making it nice and funky. We have relationships with cars, attachments. They also say something about who we are too, like an extension of the self…sure I have a paper on that somewhere. Great post, really important research…keep us posted:)

    • I’m not sure I could name my favourite car – there’s so many of them! What did you do to your Mini to make it ‘nice and funky’?

      Thank you for the kind words – just the tonic for the ups and downs of PhD research. Will keep you posted.

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