Maintaining the faith in a changing world.
The past several years (broadly coinciding with the discovery and eventual contribution to Driven to Write) have been a period of rediscovering my enthusiasm for cars; their history, engineering, aesthetics and the experience of driving them. More recently, however, I have found myself troubled with doubts as to the potential future of such enthusiasm and increasingly, by questions regarding the moral status of our collective hobby.
If the above sounds a little melodramatic, consider the following: Whilst there are questions to which no definitive answer is possible – the value of which lying more in the discussions they prompt, rather than in finding one true solution – such as what constitutes the good life, free will versus determinism and why my smartphone came with two entirely separate SMS apps installed by default, questions relating to the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine are, to most rational persons, not amongst these.
Given the scientific consensus around the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change, it is clear that we must make haste with radical reduction of their use and although cars are only one part of this issue, they are no exception to it. In any case, it is perfectly clear which way the market is going (partly, but not entirely, due to legislative pressure) and that electric cars are the future. So where does that leave those of us for whom the sound of a large petrol engine with an unnecessary number of cylinders forms an actively pleasant part of forward motion? Is this a guilty pleasure about which we must now feel guilty? That doesn’t sound much like fun.
As regular readers of this site may already know, I am now on my third V6-powered product of the once proud MG Rover group and so, with the recent Glasgow conference in mind, this is no mere rhetorical point for me. Reading the news reports of that meeting and reacquainting myself with the dire predictions of the scientists genuinely had me wondering if I hadn’t made a bad decision in purchasing an immaculate old MG sports saloon instead of something less polluting (no car at all is not an option where I now live). Certainly, if the categorical ethical imperative is to behave in such a way that our actions can be universalised into moral law, my classic British motoring adventures would seem to be on shaky ground (it also explains why Immanuel Kant didn’t get invited to parties very often, but I digress).
So what is a motoring enthusiast to do, in this new 21st century reality? Do we give up and scrap our beloved-but-polluting carriages, replacing them with the app-connected appliances on wheels peddled by the Teslas of this world (and increasingly the old guard of car manufacturers too)? Does being a motoring enthusiast then have any future, or is it simply to become the oxymoron it would in that context seem to be?
Firstly, we should not forget that there are already two schools of car enthusiasm: Classic and modern. For many of us (certainly among regular visitors to DTW) there has been relatively little to get enthusiastic about in the modern part of our world in recent years and our sights have tended to be set more upon classic (in a broad sense) cars and companies.
To all intents and purposes, given the commercial, legislative and environmental reality of our time, ICE cars will, within a fairly short period, either cease to exist or become part of that classic motoring world. The cars of the electric era are, I believe, fundamentally different products and cannot possess certain elements of the appeal of a ‘real’ (in the sense of being powered by an internal combustion engine) motor car.
That does not mean we should abhor them or that enthusiasm about them is impossible but the type of enthusiasm will be different; more akin to enthusiasm for modern gadgets and rooted in appreciation for ingenious technology in and of itself, rather than human interaction with an engineering product. The satisfaction inherent in synchronising the revolutions of an engine with a gear chosen by hand, or in hearing that engine do its work, will in the future be confined to the classic part of our world.
Is such a pivot towards classic car enthusiasm such a bad thing? Perhaps not. When I bought my MG (a car made by a manufacturer that ceased to exist over 16 years ago), a friend described it as ‘rolling heritage’ and as a somewhat historically significant and interesting car, this strikes me as appropriate. It is also, however, my main form of long distance transport and its usage is inherently polluting: Can this be defensible?
When purchasing the car, one of my arguments with myself concerned the relative environmental impact of maintaining and using such a car beyond a standard economic lifespan compared to the impact of producing a new electric vehicle (leaving aside for a moment the purely financial cost to me as an individual). Such sums are complex and are progressively tilting in favour of the production of electric vehicles; in the long run, as discussed above, there is no argument.
However, the continued use of objects does discount the initial environmental costs of their construction by spreading them over a longer period of time. In the case of an ICE car, this offsets to some extent the environmental damage caused by their emissions. When a car is only used once or twice a week, as mine is, and assuming one makes an effort to mix that use with alternatives such as walking, biking and (where possible) public transport, the degree of offset increases, even though it will never be complete.
Though their days as everyday transport in a literal sense are undoubtedly numbered, I believe that a reasonable case can be made for the continued maintenance and infrequent use of ICE cars as classics, or hobby cars, in the future. If this strikes you as insufficient comfort, do not forget that we are at the very beginning of the new electric era.
We will lose some of the manual interaction and sensory enjoyment of the cars we currently own but just imagine that, in a few years, someone designs a vehicle as radically elegant as the first Jaguar XJ, making full use of the new packaging possibilities brought by electric drivetrains and abandoning the antiquated design vocabulary of angry-looking grilles that continue to despoil the car industry’s current output. Now think that such a vehicle could have a level of refinement that would make said Jaguar seem positively uncouth. Isn’t that something to look forward to?