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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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Has America Already Hit “Peak Car”?

Any way you cut it, Americans have fewer cars than they used to. Image: UMTRI

In 1901, there were 10,000 motor vehicles in the United States.

It took five years to multiply that number by 10. The next 10-fold increase took seven years, reaching one million vehicles by 1913. Just eight years later, it was 10 million.

From there, it took 47 years to get to the next milestone: America became a 100 million-car nation in 1968. Automobiles were everywhere.

It stands to reason that the number of cars in America eventually crept upward at a much slower pace – and then started to decline. The total number of light duty vehicles in the United States topped out in 2008 at 236.4 million, according to a recent analysis of FHWA and Census numbers by Michael Sivak, the director of the Sustainable Worldwide Transportation program at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

In his report, “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?” [PDF], Sivak concludes that the dip in total vehicles coincides with the economic downturn and will probably rise again with population.

But significantly, Sivak found that the ratio of cars to people is dropping – and will likely continue to drop. Since these rates started to decline before the recession, Sivak concludes that there are other explanations for the decline.

“These rates started to decline not because of economic changes but because of other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles,” Sivak wrote. “Thus, in contrast to the absolute numbers, the recent maxima in the rates have a better chance of being long-term peaks as well.

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AAA: Hands-Free Devices Don’t Solve Distracted Driving Dangers

Researchers at the University of Utah and AAA found that using hands-free electronic devices and on-board technology can cause dangerous levels of driver distraction. Image: AAA

Distracted driving killed 3,331 people on American streets in 2011, yet car manufacturers continue to outdo each other to add more infotainment distractions in their vehicles. These systems are expected to increase five-fold by 2018, according to AAA. Carmakers seek to show their commitment to safety by making their distractions – onboard dinner reservation apps and social media, for example – hands-free. But a growing body of research indicates that there is no safe way to combine driving with tasks like dictating email or text messages.

AAA recently teamed up with experts at the University of Utah to conduct the most in-depth analysis to date of the impact of cognitive distractions on drivers’ performance. They found that some hands-free technologies, like voice-to-text email, can be far more dangerous than even handheld phone conversations. Unlike previous studies, they also found that conversations with passengers can be more distracting than those on the phone, but only if the passenger is kept unaware of what’s happening on the road.

The researchers had subjects first perform a series of eight tasks, ranging from nothing at all to usage of various electronic devices to something called OSPAN, or operation span, which sets the maximum demand the average adult brain can handle. For the OSPAN, the researchers gave subjects words and math problems to recall later, in the same order, as a way to “anchor the high end of the cognitive distraction scale developed by the research team,” according to AAA’s Jake Nelson.

The more mental energy an activity requires, the more it slows drivers' reaction time. Image: AAA

The subjects then performed these eight tasks while operating a driving simulator, and then while driving on residential streets in an “instrumented” vehicle that captures information about the driver’s eye movements and brain activity.

In each environment, researchers studied how the additional tasks added to subjects’ “cognitive workload” and diminished their eye movements. They found that as drivers devote more mental energy to other tasks in addition to driving, the less observant they become, and the more they fail to scan for roadway hazards.

This bolsters the conclusions of previous experiments: that when drivers are mentally distracted by some other task, they get tunnel vision. They keep their eyes fixed on the road in front of them to the exclusion of everything else — the rear-view mirror, side mirrors, and “safety critical roadside objects” and “cross traffic threats” — such as pedestrians.

The AAA study also found that greater “cognitive workloads” slow drivers’ reactions to events like a ball rolling in front of the car and a kid running out to catch it. (Reaction times were measured with the simulator, not the instrumented vehicle driving on real streets.)

The researchers conclude that hands-free communications can be significantly more distracting and dangerous for drivers to engage in than passive tasks like listening to music:

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Magic Cars and Silver Bullets: Will the Self-Driving Car Save the World?

Back in the day, we beheld the future, and in it, we were zipping about in electric cars. Yes, on that day way back in the aughts, we beheld a future in which a passel of problems were about to become passé: crippling gas prices, entanglements with oil-rich frenemies, dirty air, and climate-changing emissions would all disappear through the magic of automotive engineering. Chevy’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf, and next generation EVs would mitigate car culture’s costs. And we would still get to drive all over kingdom come.

Look, ma, no hands! Behold, Google's self-driving car. Photo: Byte and Chew

What happened to the fantasy of EVs should provide a reality check to our understanding of self-driving cars — but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Just over 71,000 of the vehicles now traversing America’s roads are electric — less than 0.03 percent of the total. Their share is likely to remain in the single digits through 2035. The revolution so heavily televised hasn’t happened.

New CAFE standards championed by environmentalists and set by the EPA have had a more profound effect, forcing incremental improvements to models across automakers’ fleets. Model year 2012 saw the greatest annual boost in fuel economy since 1975; from MY2006 to 2011, emissions dropped 10 percent as fuel economy improved 11 percent. Still, overall fuel economy remains under 24 mpg, far from the triple-digit dream that electric cars presented when rolled out. Experts also caution that the used-car market could undermine these standards, keeping old gas-guzzlers on the road longer as people avoid buying pricier new cars.

The evolution toward a less gas-guzzling car fleet is a slow one, nudged along by force of advocacy and regulation, and so too will be the evolution toward safer, self-driving cars. 

It’s hard to tell this, though, from the coverage of self-driving cars in the media, which might be even more breathless than the coverage of EVs. Hopped-up headlines blare that self-driving cars will “change our lives.” They are going to “change everything.” Crash rates and insurance and medical costs will go down! Fuel efficiency up! Pollution and traffic congestion down! Productivity up! And everything’s going topsy-turvy “faster than you think” — our dramatic new future is once again moments away. Get ready.

Of course, self-driving cars have their critics. Some say consumers will resist them, distrusting their new technology or disbelieving they’d be fun to drive. Others claim that consumers should resist them because they are part of a government plot. Still others worry whether or not regulators can keep up with technology well enough to protect the public interest. NHTSA’s policy statement on “automated vehicle development,” released last week, gives credence to this concern, explaining that the agency “is conducting research on self-driving vehicles so that [it] has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles.”

EVs faced similar charges pre-launch. Yet one argument used against electric cars has not been employed against self-driving cars, though it is among the most compelling: that they benefit only elites.

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Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

As we try to understand why young people are so much less jazzed about driving than previous generations, one possible explanation always comes up: Kids today just love their smart phones.

That is part of it. But the full picture is far more nuanced.

The internet, and the ability to carry it wherever you go, has changed society in so many profound ways it’s no surprise that transportation is among them. A new study by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “A New Direction,” illustrates the myriad ways mobile technology has transformed young people’s relationship with transportation.

Yesterday, we covered the report’s critique of government travel forecasting and its analysis of why young people’s driving rates will probably remain lower than those of previous generations. Technology is one of the biggest reasons. Here’s why:

Go ahead, check your stocks online – but not if you’re behind the wheel, please. Photo: PC Mag

Constant connectivity. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table or on city sidewalks, people have trouble putting down their phones. It’s not just compulsive Facebook status checking that keeps people glued to their devices. People perform an increasingly broad assortment of tasks on phones: make travel reservations, go through work email, catch up on the news, diagnose children’s ailments — the list is nearly infinite. While car companies are trying heartily to incorporate digital connectivity and social media into their cars, they still need to battle the fact that such technology is dangerously distracting for drivers. Given the option, many young people would rather take transit, where they can use their phones harmlessly, making far better use of their commuting time.

Alternative social spaces. Older adults may think it’s weird when teens would rather text each other than see each other, but hey, the world is a weird place. “A survey by computer networking equipment maker Cisco in 2012 found that two-thirds of college students and young professionals spend at least as much time with friends online as they do in person,” write report authors Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik.

Online shopping. More and more people are making purchases online rather than in stores. Young people are leading the way on that, too. And it can be greener than going to the store yourself.

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Millennials Will Drive More as They Age, But Still Less Than Their Parents

At some point over the past few years, a lot of my friends started moving to Silver Spring and Takoma Park and Falls Church. These inner-ring, transit-connected suburbs of DC are still far less compact and walkable than the neighborhoods my friends moved from. So they bought cars.

Many young people still opt for urban living in walkable, compact neighborhoods -- even once they have kids. Photo: Let's Save Michigan

Why did they do this? They’re entering peak driving age, which is historically between 35 and 54. They have more money than they did in their early 20s. But mostly, they had kids. Of all my friends, I now have exactly one that is still proudly car-free with kids.

In light of the new U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report on changing driving habits, led by young people, the question arises: Won’t those young people also drive more as they get older?

Reports of diminished interest in driving focus on two groups: baby boomers, the generation that came of age with the automobile and settled in car-dependent suburbs, who are now retiring and driving less; and millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early thirties now and the youngest of whom aren’t even old enough to drive.

Millennials’ shift away from automobile travel is well documented, especially in last year’s report, “Transportation and the New Generation,” by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. That report found that between 2001 and 2009, annual driving by the 16-to-34 age cohort decreased 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. The same age group also made 24 percent more trips by bike and 40 percent more trips by public transit.

With more people having children later in life, the vast majority of millennials are still childless. They also haven’t hit their prime earning years, which tend to be prime driving years.

That’s true, said U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the new report on driving trends, but the expected increase in driving by millennials had already been factored into the reports forecasts — all of which entail far less driving than government models predict. “Our scenarios all assume that millenials will drive more when they get older,” Baxandall told Streetsblog. “The real question isn’t, ‘Will millennials drive more as they get older?’ It’s, ‘Will they drive more than their parents as they get older?’”

There are persuasive reasons to think they won’t.
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Queens Auto Dealer: Buy a Car, Get Heart Disease

Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Clarence spotted this ad for a used car dealership in Monday’s Daily News. We can’t decide what we like best about it — the “trade in your shoes for cardiovascular disease” concept or the fact that it includes transit directions to the lot, in Long Island City.

Either way, it’s refreshing to see a little honesty in auto advertising, however unintended.

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Ford Tries to Sell More Cars By Looking to a Future With Fewer Cars

Ford wants young people to think the company gets it. Source: Ford

Ford has spent the last few years fretting about how to reach out to Gen Y. The car company made news earlier this year when it re-designed its 2015 Mustang to appeal to buyers born between 1980 and 1999. (Apparently Gen Y just screams “shark-nosed grille and round headlights” to Ford.)

Last year, Ford turned to marketing consultant Barbara Bylenga to explain this mysterious age cohort. She counseled them away from “flashy or snazzy” cars, saying Gen Yers “want to show their values, they want to show their success in different ways.” After all, “a flashy sports car makes you seem like maybe you’re trying a little too hard.”

Now the company is going a step further, trying to appeal to this demographic by displaying their grasp of the fact that demand for their product is waning. In a glossy, 74-page document that AdWeek characterizes as “an internal consumer trends report for 2013″ [PDF], Ford attempts to demonstrate that it is “not myopic, but is going beyond making cars into being an enabler in mobility opportunities,” according to Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s “global futurist” and author of the report. The document highlights Portland’s Depave activists, bike-share systems in France and China (no mention of all the ones closer to home), and downtown revitalization efforts in Las Vegas and Carmel, Indiana, where “the mayor has set out to design a city for ‘people first and automobiles second.’”

So, what’s Ford’s place in this bright, green future?

It may help to review an episode from last year – not long after Bylenga made her pitch to Ford executives – when the company announced it was partnering with Zipcar to put Fords on 250 college campuses and subsidize the car-share fees for students. It was a move calculated to show that Ford is nimble enough to change with the times. “We are looking at the future of transportation more holistically,” Ford Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. told the New York Times. “We shouldn’t be threatened by these different business models. We should embrace them.”

Of course, as the Times wrote at the time, Ford was betting that “drivers who rent from Zipcar by the hour just might be potential customers down the road.”

There’s no indication in the consumer trends report that this giant of the auto industry is going to start making profits by providing “mobility opportunities” other than driving Fords, and AdWeek reports that the company “doesn’t intend to scale down the traditional auto business.” Instead, “social business” maven Jeff Dachis told AdWeek, Ford’s release of the document is a brilliant stroke of branding. “Aligning itself with progressive trends helps Ford in the marketplace.”

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World’s Most Entitled Driver Sentenced to Wear “Idiot” Sign

Need a break from election coverage? Check out this shoo-in for the bad driver hall of fame: In an attempt to avoid waiting behind a school bus unloading children, a Cleveland-area woman was caught driving on the sidewalk.

But after some unorthodox punishment, handed down by a local judge, we’re guessing 32-year-old Shena Hardin won’t try that trick again. Hardin has been ordered to stand at an intersection two mornings next week wearing a sign that says, “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

She will also have her license suspended for 30 days and pay $250, according to the Associated Press.

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Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc

The multiple-teenager-fatality car crash remains a sad staple of journalism. And no wonder. The instant loss of several lives is so dreadful and the death of a young person so poignant that the combination is shattering. When a car-full of teens crash and die, the article can almost be assembled by rote: the devastated families, the grieving community, the investigation that will forever be “ongoing,” and the seeming arbitrariness of young lives snuffed out in a few seconds.

The aftermath of the one-car crash in Malverne, in which four teenagers from Queens died. Photo: Kathryn Brown/CBS 2

Give the Times’ Ginia Bellafante credit for breaking the mold in her Sunday “Big City” column, in which she commented on the 3:30 a.m. crash a week ago in which a 17-year-old drove his 2012 Subaru Impreza into a stand of trees off the Southern State Parkway near Malverne, a half-dozen miles from Richmond Hill, Queens, where the five teens in the car lived.

Bellafante pulled no punches in pointing out that even before he crashed his new car, the driver, who was the lone survivor, was violating three provisions of his learner’s permit: must have licensed adult in the car, cannot have more than one passenger under 21, may not drive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Even more admirably, she focused her column not on the community’s sense of loss but on the “almost obsessive” car culture in which the five teenagers came of age. Indeed, judging from her reporting, other Richmond Hill young people were more keen to talk up their wheels than reflect on the loss of life:

As Ian Ramdas, an acquaintance of some of the victims of Monday’s accident, explained it to me, he had been a car enthusiast since at least age 14. When he graduated from John Adams High School in Ozone Park two and a half years ago, his parents, both nurses, bought him an Infiniti G37. “My car from the factory, no bragging, is $53,000 after taxes,” he told me… “When you modify a car to your standards, you’re expressing yourself; it’s our art,” he said. “Some people invest $3,000 in a car. That’s what I paid for the rims. That’s what makes me different from everyone else.”

To underscore the quote, the Times editors juxtaposed a photo of Ramdas leaning against the trunk of his gleaming Infiniti outside the wake for one of the dead 18-year-olds, with a shot of the smashed Impreza in the woods. However, the article’s headline, “Gift, and a Tragedy, Born of a Car Culture,” pales beside the original (inferred from the URL), “Teenagers’ Cars Are the Gifts That Keep on Wreaking Havoc.”

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