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Fix Lauren: No War on Cars

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 18, 2017

We have gotten to the point with automotive safety where we are happy to hear that ONLY 18,000 people died on the nation’s highways in the first six months of 2017. That’s right. That is good news – 100+ people were killed every day so far this year in, by or as a result of cars.

Somehow or other this slaughter is either misunderstood or ignored by experts and pundits. But the average car consumer is painfully, aggressively aware of this state of affairs. Strategy Analytics consumer survey data shows that consumers consistently prioritize safety historically, geographically and demographically when buying a new car. I have observed my own three sons express their individual trepidation regarding driving and even obtaining a driver’s license - in contrast to my own desperate desire to drive in my youth.

It is in this context that I must call out automotive media personality Lauren Fix for her “War on Cars” podcast. At the risk of driving even more page views than the 2M already gleaned by this misguided rant, allow me to deconstruct Lauren Fix’s “War on Cars” ravings shared via Prager University’s video channel at www.prageru.com.

Fix posits that nanny-state government regulators are seeking to separate American consumers from their cars and drive us all onto public transportation – buses, trains, etc. She maintains that the strategy behind this effort is traceable to a severe regulatory regime that includes onerous vehicle fuel efficiency standards. 

By blaming the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards she accomplishes three goals – a) assigning blame to the Obama Administration which upped those requirements; and b) suggesting that lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles are less safe and are therefore the source of rising highway fatalities; and c) pointing out the contradiction of promoting electric vehicles which indirectly produce as much pollution as internal combustion engine vehicles.

The ultimate goal of her argument is to assert that government regulatory measures constitute a war on cars intended to separate consumers from their right to freely travel as they please in the vehicles they prefer. Listening to Fix’s talk or reading it one would have to draw the conclusion that Fix doesn’t do much actual driving. 

There is very little freedom associated with most driving activity today. In spite of that lack of freedom, the average car consuming American is buying large SUVs, pick-up trucks and crossovers at a sufficiently furious pace as to put the economic viability of simple passenger vehicles at risk.

But let’s break it down. If you’re driving in a city – a key battleground for car ownership in Fix’s narrative – chances are you are moving at less than 25 miles per hour and are frequently pre-occupied with the challenge of finding a parking space once you have finished avoiding darting pedestrians. 

On the other hand, if you’re commuting to or from work - as 84% of Americans do every day - there’s a good chance you are slammed in perpetual, mind-numbing traffic on the interstate. In other words – traffic has infiltrated everything but thinly populated suburban and rural areas.

But you needn’t actually drive a car to experience the lack of freedom inherent in vehicle ownership. Cars must be registered, inspected, licensed, garaged and insured and, in some states, taxed. Cars are expensive, and getting more so – with car loans lately stretching as long as 84 months.

The bigger issue, though, is what is unspoken in Fix’s rant. What is missing is the motivation for government’s regulatory interest in the automotive industry. Fix also overlooks the impact of the smartphone.

For many consumers of individualized vehicle-based transportation the experience has been distilled to the button push associated with a smartphone app. Ride hailing and car sharing services have enabled thoroughly ad hoc transportation choices without the burden of vehicle ownership. Of course, smartphones have had another less opportune impact on driving in the form of distraction contributing to rising highway fatalities.

The greatest motivation for government interest in regulating the automotive industry is the immense economic, social and personal impact of the automobile. We know that approximately 40,000 Americans lost their lives on U.S. highways in 2016 (a number widely believed to under-count the true toll for a variety of reasons). What we know less clearly is the indirect impact of vehicle emissions on the economy and life expectancy. Without borrowing the data of other organizations and experts you can trust me, it’s negative.

Not unlike the alcoholic’s misperception of his or her alcohol use as a personal choice with no consequences (until he or she gets behind the wheel of a vehicle), the automotive industry’s choices regarding vehicle safety and emissions have consequences. This creates a public interest in regulation.

Car makers have spent billions of dollars on safety research. At the same time car companies have spent millions of dollars fighting off safety regulation.

Car makers fought against the mandated implementation of safety belts and airbags for decades. These requirements only came to pass under the Reagan Administration after the intercession of the Supreme Court.

At the time highway fatalities were on the rise and car makers found a difficult balancing act between cost and customer demand. It took a mandate to bring these life-saving systems to market.

The implementation of airbags, seatbelts, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control have all contributed to negatively impacting the rise in highway fatalities such that a decades-long decline only recently came to an end. Government regulators in the U.S. are still struggling to come to terms with the recent rise in highway fatalities even as emerging technologies related to autonomous driving show the promise of a long-term solution.

The reality of Fix’s so-called “War on Cars” is the fact that the auto industry is drowning in its own success. Car ownership is at a peak – in spite of young people delaying or deferring obtaining driver’s licenses and the steadily aging population of cars that are lasting longer than they ever have before.

Cars are everywhere clogging up cities and commuter arteries and parking garages. Cities are choking in traffic and vehicle emissions. It is the latter problem, vehicle emissions, that is driving European cities to bar older and diesel-propelled cars from city centers. It is the former problem that is leading U.S. and European cities to consider congestion charging and mileage-based taxes.

Not surprisingly, legislators in Europe are evaluating various plans to scrap older cars – a proposition that is likely to gain momentum as more European countries join France and the United Kingdom with bans on new internal combustion engine vehicles beyond 2040.

There are simply too many damn cars. If there is actually a war on cars afoot, sign me up! If I decide to drive somewhere at the wrong time of day, I may end up going nowhere. Advocating for increasingly unfettered use of vehicles and an unregulated industry – as Ms. Fix does - is a recipe for gridlock – of both traffic and policy – and negative economic and environmental consequences.

Somehow Fix has overlooked the fact that the government and the industry are in cahoots. One need look no further than the 2008 bailout to understand that the fate of the American economy – like so many others (Germany? Japan? China???) hinges on the health of this industry. (General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s recent silence - as a member of President Trump's manufacturer advisory panel - in the face of Trump’s racist expressions of support for Charlottesville white supremacist protesters was further evidence of government-industry collusion.)

The real problem lies in government policy-makers so eager to help while proffering precisely what the industry does not need. For example, import taxes intended to support domestic makers that would actually favor Hyundai, Nissan, Honda and Toyota and their U.S. plants; or a gas tax to fund infrastructure that is likely to fuel interest in Tesla Motors’ EVs, as would a relaxation of CAFÉ requirements also hinted by President Trump’s EPA administrator.

Fix concludes: “Personal car ownership is part of America’s fabric. It brings people together, and makes this big country of ours seem a little smaller… and more free.

“America’s car culture isn’t dead… yet. So long as Americans still want to live in the Land of the Free. America’s car culture will never die.”

Far from bringing people together, cars separate us in our little transportation bubbles. Cars give us a false sense of security and give us license to misbehave in the mistaken notion that we are anonymous actors in a guerilla-like battle to get from point A to point B.

Fix fundamentally misses the transformation sweeping the automotive industry where sharing of cars and sharing of data is building toward a more cooperative transportation environment where all forms of transportation are equally valid, available and affordable and no single form – ie. the car – has favored status. 

The privileged position of the car in the present transportation portfolio is the source of the rub. Cars are taking their place with ride hailing and car sharing services and autonomous driving technology in a networked transportation scheme emerging city by city. What is changing is that transportation consumers are increasingly gaining access to better information to make more informed transportation choices. And those choices may not always include a car. They might involve a bike.

Driving a car long ago parted company with a feeling of freedom and exhilaration. Car companies are struggling to come to terms with a driving experience that is too safe and boring.

Drivers are distracted and safety systems and smartphones are fueling this attention deficit. Car makers today are increasingly introducing systems designed to keep drivers focused on the driving task. In the emerging world of self-driving car technology, consumers are at risk of dozing off completely while driving or simply losing interest. 

The bottom line is, the average driver (excluding enthusiasts) simply cares less than ever about the driving tesk. The real war facing the industry is the war on driver distraction. Further down the road we are likely to be facing a broad erosion of driving skills. This is a much greater dilemma for car makers than any fanciful “War on Cars” that clearly is not under way.

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