Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?

The adventure part, he thinks, explains why electrics ultimately fell away. Because electric engines were expensive to produce, a coalition called the Electric Vehicle Company formed to lease them to operators, as taxis, or perhaps rent them, à la Zipcar. The business was profitable, but, in the style of Uber, the company decided that it was vulnerable to competition unless it could take over the whole country at once. That expansion attempt set off alarms about monopoly, and, after reporters found one of the company’s loans to be fraudulent, the business of shared-use electric cars collapsed.

It helped that, by then, electric vehicles were struggling culturally, for reasons we would now call gendered. “The internal-combustion car that had to be coaxed and muscled to life, with its lubes and explosions and thrusting pistons, that would be the car for men,” Albert writes. Electrics—quiet, practical, and, in one engineer’s estimation, “tame”—took on female associations. Not for the last time, the makers of gas cars didn’t so much win the market as create a market they could win. The triumph of gas engines entailed a shift in the whole transportation model—from shared cars to privately owned cars, from an extension of the metropolitan network to a vehicle that required infrastructure of its own. “Had this period of random technological mutation selected for the electric, the social history of America would be unrecognizable,” Albert notes.

In 1909, there were two million horse-drawn carriages manufactured in the United States and eighty thousand automobiles. By 1923, there were ten thousand carriages manufactured and four million cars; by 1930, more than half the families in the United States were car owners, and the horses went to pasture. A key factor in the explosion of the market was the release of the Model T, created by Henry Ford, in 1908. Ford was an unmannered, intellectually narrow efficiency nut of the sort that we might now associate with Silicon Valley. Early in his career, he accused milk cows of being underproductive and sought to develop a soy milk to replace them. Later, he joined George Washington Carver in preparing “weed spread” sandwiches from greens he found in his yard, an attempt to maximize nutrition with minimal waste. Ford served the nasty sandwiches to his colleagues, and didn’t understand why they never caught on.

The Model T, though, marked an alignment of Ford’s abstemious style with demand. The car, of which more than fifteen million were produced, was cheap, light, reliable enough, and so stripped-down that it sustained an industry of third-party add-ons. (Albert calls it “an open-source car”; the standard model lacked a speedometer, a mirror, or a gas gauge.) In those days, cars were seen as environmentally friendly: unlike horses, they didn’t befoul the streets, and they carried passengers closer to the remote natural world than any other transportation did. In Albert’s telling, the versatile Model T further de-urbanized the automobile, turning it private, populist, and rural. At a moment when cities were building out their transit systems, the places between places in America filled up with middle-class cars.

“The Model T’s spiritual descendants are the Ford F-Series pickups,” Albert writes. “These body-on-frame vehicles defy change and modernization. Let the Europhiles in Boston drive their Swedish Volvos and the Los Angeles elites have their holier-than-thou Teslas; let New Yorkers rely on ride hailing and Mobility-as-a-Service. We F150 drivers will stick to a rugged American vehicle at home in the heartland.” Appearing quickly, pervasively, and years ahead of exurban infrastructure, the Model T helped to define the differently navigable regions of identity now known as red and blue America.

A famous film reel, shot on Market Street, in San Francisco, in 1906, shows carriages, early cars, streetcars, cable cars, and pedestrians swerving around one another, in both directions, in a terrifying free-for-all across the urban road. By the interwar years, the turf of privately owned cars alone was so ungovernable that its chaos became a metaphor. “The Great Gatsby” reaches its climax in a car crash, and many real-world stories ended that way, too. (Fitzgerald died the same weekend that Nathanael West, his comrade in Southern California dissipation, plowed a Ford through a boulevard stop and into a two-door sedan, killing himself and his wife—a coincidence that is either rich in literary irony or just proof of how bad the odds on the roads were.) When Jordan Baker, in Fitzgerald’s novel, observed, “It takes two to make an accident,” she wasn’t talking only about men and women.

Sane, upstanding pedestrians didn’t murder one another as they ran errands around town. Sane, upstanding drivers did, or might at any moment, and thus required a new style of policing. “How could a democratic society founded on self-governance depend on police governance and still be free?” Sarah A. Seo, a law professor at the University of Iowa, writes in her remarkable new book, “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.” “How could the laws be fashioned to allow the investigation of potential criminal suspects without harassing law-abiding citizens when everybody drove?”

Seo’s idea is that the problem of policing cars, far from being a remote corner of the law, is central to how the jurisprudence of the Fourth Amendment (searches and seizures) took shape during the past hundred years. Automobiles, after the Model T’s expansion of personal ownership, confounded the parameters of the amendment: a car would seem to be private property, but roads were public, and the conduct of cars—traffic, transport—was a matter of public concern. The issue became pressing, legally, during Prohibition, when smugglers began using privately owned cars to traffic hooch.

A turning point arrived in the bootlegging case Carroll v. United States, decided in 1925. The Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote, “The seizing officer shall have reasonable or probable cause for believing that the automobile which he stops and seizes has contraband liquor therein.” In Seo’s view, Taft’s opinion “shifted Fourth Amendment jurisprudence from a categorical analysis—is the automobile, as a category, public or private?—to an individualized determination of reasonableness—was this particular search reasonable?—to determine the warrant question.” The person who did the determining, under this new standard, was an officer of the law.

This kernel of police empowerment grew to fit the contours and the concerns of each age that followed. “At midcentury, the problem was the potential for police action without basis in law,” Seo tells us. “At century’s end, the problem had become police action that did have a basis in law but that departed from normal practice”—specifically, the ways police approached drivers of color. A version of the matter came before the high court in 1996, in Whren v. United States, a case about a traffic stop—for turning too fast and without signalling—that ended in drug convictions. The petitioner’s claim was that the motorist was really stopped because of racial profiling, and that the traffic infraction was a pretext. Maybe so, the Court unanimously held, but such stops were fine so long as there was an objective basis for them, “whatever the subjective intent.” Decisions like these can inform the thinking about search-and-seizure norms far more broadly, potentially affecting everything from exploratory K-9 searches to the use of data gathered from smartphones.

There are two strong claims in favor of the idea that our century-long adventure in owning and crashing gasoline cars was, although not perfect, a step forward. The first is infrastructural: cars let Americans cross cities, states, woods, mountains, deserts, and, ultimately, the nation in reasonable time. Cities and towns thrived with the flow. The second is cultural: the idea that car travel conjugates American life in its healthiest and most distinctive forms. Both arguments took root in the two-decade period after the Second World War.

Albert holds that the war brought down the curtain on the sinister, crashy, Gatsbyesque idea of the road. American car travel almost halved between 1941 and 1943, largely owing to wartime rubber shortages and gas rations. Companies stopped making cars, and instead manufactured planes, guns, and battlefield transportation—work that, Albert suggests, gave these companies a patriotic glow when production resumed after the war. By then, the West was settling into conflict with the East, and a new project was under way. The world had to be persuaded of the freedoms of American life. Cars could be of help. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, inaugurating the federal highways as the largest public-works project in U.S. history. (Albert is at pains to claim the system for the F.D.R. Administration, which first sketched it out.) The interstates were strategically versatile: they could carry commuters and goods in peacetime and soldiers and evacuees in an emergency. They were also smoother, safer, and more capacious than previous highways, boosting the allure of the open road.

The largest highway budget went to California. A popular narrative has it that, in the forties, a consortium of auto interests bought up streetcar systems in Los Angeles and elsewhere in order to replace the trains with buses—a conspiracy against urban rail. Today, that account is disputed by many historians, who suggest that the auto companies were riding, rather than guiding, a transition to buses that had already begun, but early TV ads for cars did favor images of Golden State life, and pop culture followed. In “This Is the Sound of Irony: Music, Politics and Popular Culture,” Katherine L. Turner notes that the Beach Boys buffed up songs with automotive techno-speak—much as, in another age, Tom Clancy embraced nuclear technobabble. (“She’s got a competition clutch with the four on the floor / And she purrs like a kitten till the lake pipes roar.”)

The Beach Boys’ fetishism still resonates today, possibly because the cars of that era remain un-car-like in their coolness and appeal. In one wartime poll, a third of Americans reported wanting to own a plane, so car manufacturers built cars that were winged, wide, and streamlined, with jet-engine trim. A TV ad for Dodge’s line from 1956 showed three pilots driving in formation across the Golden Gate Bridge, parking at a hangar, and boarding their aircraft. A Chrysler commercial that year depicted a young wife being helped with groceries by a bag boy. “Wow!” the young man cries out. “That rear end looks just like a jet plane!” The so-called golden age of the road makes clear that cars didn’t construct American culture; American culture constructed cars. Auto manufacturers needed to re-stoke a market that had cooled during the Second World War.

It is odd, then, that we still look to the mid-century for evidence that cars proved their necessity and worth. Tell someone that you cannot drive, and they respond as if you had confessed an intimate eccentricity, like needing to be walked on with high heels before bed. “Re-e-eally! ” the reply goes. “How do you . . . ?” The answer is planes, trains, buses, ferries, cabs, bikes, feet, and the occasional shared ride: almost anywhere in the world can be reached this way for less than the amortized cost of a car and its expenses.

Still, I frequently wonder what experience I have missed out on as a consequence of never spending time behind the wheel. In my imagination, cities like Los Angeles are filled with kids who cruise across the evenings with their dashboards glowing and soft bedroom pop throbbing through their speakers. Though I’ve never been a driver, I have notions of the things I do not know. Once, some years ago, a woman in a new rented convertible drove me along Mulholland Drive near midnight in a high wind coming in off the Pacific. Our hair was ropy from exposure, and the streaming channel played “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” in a trail of sound we seemed to leave behind us in the road. The air was rough—leaves and twigs that had snapped in gusts whipped at our faces and the leather of the open seats. She took Mulholland’s bends hard, as if trying to tell me something about her that I hadn’t understood. In this suspended state between the starting place and the inevitable return, I felt, for a long moment, settled, as if I had reached the life that I’d been using mine to chase. Then we arrived; a few days later, we returned the car. That journey ended, and we do not speak much anymore.

During the late sixties and the seventies, loss had hit the road again, partly as a result of a collapsing industrial sphere; partly following countercultural distrust of corporate motives; partly owing to Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965), which suggested that your beautiful American car was trying to kill you; and partly owing to an influx of smaller, cheaper vehicles from abroad, which grew popular as gas prices increased.

Albert’s narrative, like a lot of nostalgic car passion, loses traction on this downslope. His politics hew closely to a baby-boomer outline, which is to say that they are deeply felt, heraldically blue, and largely incoherent just beneath the surface. He thinks that Jimmy Carter had good vibes at first but turned into an uncool, “church pew” square when geopolitics compelled him to push for energy independence. He identifies with a group he calls “the Aquarians”—young, ecologically minded people who fight the Man, people like, he says, Joni Mitchell—but drives a minivan and a large pickup truck. This contradiction pushes him to a poetic state; he describes himself as “desperate to recover Eden, but enjoying my automotive apple.”

Albert’s determination to judge these turns with sensibility more than with sense can muddle his analysis. He cheers on the Aquarians for rising against the establishment. He is circumspect about the truckers who, in 1973, fought gas taxes and a lowered speed limit by, well, rising against the establishment. The crucial difference, in his mind, is that the Aquarians are blue, and the truckers are in large part red. Isn’t the more revealing point that, by the seventies, anti-establishment sentiment had become such a general reflex that everybody, from all parts of the ideological spectrum, was on the march?

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