With driverless cars on the way, a journalist asks, is America ready to accept them?
One way to begin formulating an answer is to examine the car culture that has defined America since the 1920s, when Henry Ford turned his “missionary zeal for low, low prices” into the country’s first line of affordable automobiles. In his debut book, Albert, who writes about cars for n+1, provides a witty history of the automobile and a look at the future. He takes readers on a fascinating journey covering a lot of ground: the earliest battery-powered electric vehicles of the 1890s; Ford’s first big triumph with the 1909 Model T; Alfred P. Sloan Jr., “the most important CEO in GM’s history,” who introduced car loans in the 1920s to encourage repeat buying; the birth of America’s interstate highway system in the 1950s, “by any measure the largest government project in American history”; and the push for smaller and more environmentally friendly vehicles in the 1960s and ’70s, thanks in part to Ralph Nader. All of this leads to an incisive analysis of the current culture, in which young people would rather call an Uber than own a car, and the question of whether driverless cars really will achieve their promise of fewer accident-related deaths. A late chapter on the author’s auto-repair prowess feels airlifted in from another project, but the narrative is still an entertaining exploration of American vehicle culture and American culture in general. Along the way, Albert can’t resist political jabs, most of them directed at the right, as when he writes, “America First types may be disappointed to learn that it was France that had the first car culture.” He also notes a few facts that may surprise—that supposedly safe SUVs, among the most profitable vehicles on the market, “tip over at twice the rate of cars.”
An exceptional work of scholarship about “our relationships to cars and through cars and the stories we tell about those relationships.”