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Cars – are they a species?

The Edwardian seer and futurologist, H. G. Wells, wondered whether aircrafts would ever be used commercially. He did the calculations and found that, yes, an airplane could be built and, yes, it would fly, but he proclaimed this would never be commercial – the amount of oil-based fuel required was far too great, totally unrealistic. That a global politico-economic nexus would arise just in order to extract this black, sticky stuff (oil and oil products) was simply too fantastical a prospect for Wells to anticipate. (Question: what ‘obvious’ trends are our current futurologists missing?)

One of our contemporary seers is the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. He suggests that grass has ‘herded’ elephants, arguing that the elephants cull the trees and so enable the grasslands to increase their dominion. Is it too much to suggest that cars have likewise procreated and spread by bending human society to their own ends? We now have ‘birthing centres’ (car factories), a ‘food-distribution system’ (petrol stations), a road network, and so on. And cars are enmeshed in human society in so many ways beyond mere transportation. They are implicated in our courtship rituals, our ID system, our status hierarchy, our social interactions (for example, we become a ‘different person’ behind the wheel), and so on, and so on.

Much of this behaviour is counter-intuitive and must be trained into us; guiding an object of very large momentum in a straight line almost directly at another approaching object of equally large momentum – narrowly missing a head-on collision – would never pass ‘health-and-safety’ standards if introduced today.

The fact that the car-society has arisen by evolution rather than by edict doesn’t mean that we like all the consequences. While the advantages of cars are many, there are aspects that we don’t like at all: cities are divided by highways, we choke on fumes, obesity is a problem that in turn further increases our dependency on the car, and there is a high rate of death on the roads. In fact, the death toll is so high (it is by far the main cause of death in 5- to 50-year-olds), that an equally high death rate from any other source (war, murder, radioactivity, drugs, deaths while in custody, etc.) would cause public outrage, not to say pandemonium. As the cause is cars and other vehicles, we submit with barely a murmur. An even bigger side-effect of the car-society, which we are also barely aware of, is the impact on the climate.

A car should really be called a ‘boiler-on-wheels’ and, in rich hot countries where people have car air-conditioning, ‘a-fridge-on-a-boiler-on-wheels.’

Just as remarkable as the growth of the car-society is the fact that cars are a kind of heat-engine. Nature doesn’t like to get work from heat, and it can only do this to a certain limited efficiency, as I discuss in my blog, “Global Warming and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.” We have the astonishing fact that cars, even while they can be improved by better fuels, electronic ignition, computerization, are inherently inefficient. It’s a bit like ordering your dinner and then throwing most of it away every time. Cars and all heat-engines can only run by throwing away waste heat. The energy from the fuel goes partly into moving the car forward, and also into combating friction, air resistance, and expulsion of waste gases, but the major part of the fuel’s energy goes into heating up the engine block. A car should really be called a ‘boiler-on-wheels’ and, in rich hot countries where people have car air-conditioning, ‘a-fridge-on-a-boiler-on-wheels.’

What is to be done? My feeling is if evolution got us into this mess, then evolution could get us out of it. For sure (and despite the Jevons’s Paradox), we must try and improve engine-efficiency, increase public transport, and walk and use bicycles more, but in order to change the direction of societal evolution there must, inevitably, be societal changes. I tentatively propose two changes: more cars, but each tailored to a particular use (for example, a tiny one-person car for getting you and one briefcase from home to the train or bus station) and free cars (like free bicycles in some cities today). Perhaps if cars are freely available, then the motivation for proving one’s wealth by car-ownership will diminish.

If a new species has indeed arisen, what is the unit ‘organism’ which has evolved? Despite the title of this blog, it cannot be a car, pure and simple; we could, rather, call it the ‘car-human.’ If, at some later stage, robot-driven cars appear in large numbers then the unit will have speciated. For a society of ‘robot-cars’ we may well wonder whose or what needs are being served.

Image Credit: “강변북로의 교통체증 Traffic Jam, Gangbyunbuk-ro (Nothern Riverside City Expressway in Seoul)” by Doo Ho Kim. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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