As so often happens, when the minds of many people have been silently brooding over the same subject, there has recently been an outbreak of books, articles, and legislative investigations, all devoted to assessing the mechanical defects, the bodily hazards, and the mounting social disadvantages of the motor car. The tone of this discussion has been critical, not to say sacrilegious. Some of the critics have dared to say that the Sacred Cow of the American Way of Life is overfed and bloated; that the daily milk she supplies is poisonous; that the pasturage this species requires wastes acres of land that could be used for more significant human purposes; and that the vast herds of sacred cows, allowed to roam everywhere, like their Hindu counterparts, are trampling down the vegetation, depleting wild life, and turning both urban and rural areas into a single smudgy wasteland, whose fancy sociological name is Megalopolis.

The priesthood of the Sacred Cow, very sensitive to the mildest heresy, now shows definite signs of alarm, alternating plaintive moos with savage bellows; for in their religion, the cult of the Sacred Cow is closely affiliated with an older object of worship, the Golden Calf. With justified trepidation, the priestly establishment feels religion itself (capitalized) is being challenged—that religion for whose evidences of power and glory the American people, with eyes devoutly closed, are prepared to sacrifice some 45,000 lives every year, and to million, often irreparably, more than a million and a half more. Only war can claim so many premature deaths; for the death rate from motor cars is greater than the combined death rate from falls, burnings, drownings, railroads, firearms, and poisonous gases, plus some two thousand other deaths from unidentifiable causes. And though only roughly half as many Americans were killed outright by autos in the last four-year period as were killed in our armed forces during a similar term in the Second World War, nearly three times as many were injured.

The current uprising against the miscarriage of the horseless carriage has long been brewing; John Keat’s The Insolent Chariots broke the painful silence as far back as 1958. Only childish petulance on the part of the car manufacturers and their allies makes them attribute this spreading dissatisfaction with their product to the outspoken criticisms of a few mischievous critics, since the latter, till now a sorry few, have had none of the auto industry’s facilities for commanding public attention and suppressing debate. The roots of the current revolt spread over a wide area, and they go much deeper than even the most impassioned advocates of safer motor car design yet realize.

IF THE TEMPLE of the Sacred Cow is crumbling, it is because the whole mode of existence for which it is the prime mover has become antagonistic to the genuine human needs it was once supposed to serve and enhance. The fact is that the great American dream of a nation on wheels, which began with the covered wagon, has come to a dreary terminus. The very success of the auto industry in fulfilling the mechanical conditions for that dream has turned it, ironically, into a nightmare. An essential part of the American’s delight over the auto was a happy leftover from pioneer days: the ingratiating idea of private freedom, in the sense of being able to go anywhere one willed, at any time one willed, at any speed one willed, up hill and down dale exploring the great open spaces, and at least getting away from the familiar habitat, the daily round, the mechanical grind. In what has belatedly been called “automobility,” now that we are losing it, the personal “auto” was even more essential than the mechanical “mobility.”

Until about 1930, this dream bore more than a faint resemblance to actuality. Even such a fastidious soul as Henry James hailed the aristocratic joys of travel by motor car, which opened up the landscape and refreshed the spirit; so much so, that such usual interruptions as a leaky tire or a boggy road, if not too frequent, only added an extra spice to the adventure. Unfortunately, one of the conditions for enjoying this freedom was the existence of other possible modes of transportation, to handle mass demands, such as the wonderful transportation network, of railroads, electric trolleys, and steamboats that once spanned the country and not merely took up much of the travel load but met different human needs at different speeds. By now people have fallen into the habit of characterizing the pre-motor-car era as the “horse-and-buggy” age, as if fast transportation were unknown till the auto came. Actually, electric trolleys, in New England and the Middle West, travelled over their own rights of ways at speeds of fifty miles an hour: I cherish a picture post-card, c. 1910, showing such a trolleycar, sensibly streamlined, that served Indianapolis. As with the mass movement into suburbia, which coincided with the mass production of motor cars, the desired freedom depended upon creating a more complex pattern of both movement and settlement, maintaining and improving a balanced transportation system, and maintaining and improving old cities. Had those two essential factors been understood and respected, the motor car could have made an invaluable contribution in creating a regional distribution of population. As in the Netherlands today, this would give the countryside the social advantages of the city, and multiply the number of cities with easy access to the countryside, without the compulsive and wasteful routines that have now been developed to cope with the uncontrolled explosion of motor cars.


THE HUGE SUCCESS of the auto industry, not merely in multiplying the number of cars, but in utilizing its quasimonopolistic resources and public monies to elbow out competing form of locomotion and transportation, has turned the dream of automobility into the anxiety nightmare it has become today. From that nightmare Americans are now belatedly struggling to awake: the nightmare of the air becoming toxic with poisonous exhausts, including the highly lethal carbon monoxide; of the water supply, polluted with deadly lead from gasoline exhausts already half way to the danger point even in the Arctic wastes; the nightmare of diurnal mass commutation by car, along freeways where speed is compulsory, where the constant tensions demonstrably produce higher blood pressure, where a single car, stopping in time to avert an accident, may trigger a succession of more serious accidents in the tail-gateing cars behind, even when traveling at the usual drugged crawl of rush hours.

The motor car, it goes without saying, has brought many pleasant and desirable benefits; and certain by-products, like the beautiful Taconic Parkway in New York, remain permanent contributions to amenity and esthetic delight. But the whole picture has become increasingly dismal, and the most attractive feature of the American dream, freedom of movement and settlement, is turning into a system of choiceless compulsion. Just as old Henry Ford graciously said the consumer could have a car of any color he wanted as long as it was black, so motor travel is reaching a point where the driver can go anywhere he wants to, at a high speed, so long as he demands no change in either the environment or the destination. G. K. Chesterton’s epigram “Nothing fails like success” may yet prove the epitaph of the motor industry. Though danger and death have played a part in the awakening, frustration and boredom have perhaps played a greater part—if only because courting danger has unfortunately proved one of the chronic modes of faking real life and finding momentary relief from its emptiness and its grim routines.

The signs of this revolt are multiplying. Just a few years ago the motor car owners of the San Francisco Bay region voted $750 million to rebuild the fast public transportation system which the worshippers of the Sacred Cow had cleverly scrapped only twenty years before. But even more significantly, at the moment I write, news comes from San Francisco that “an overflow crowd of spectators cheered wildly at the City Hall here…as the Board of Supervisors voted down two proposed freeways on which the Federal Government was willing to put up two hundred and eighty million dollars.” Even worse, these delirious iconoclasts are demanding that the Embarcadero Freeway, whose construction, half-way through, was brought to an end by public demand, should be torn down. Is it not indeed time that Detroit began to pay a little attention to the feedback? If the current disillusion with the motor car keeps on growing, auto industry investments may not remain so profitable, unless Detroit’s current representative in the Defense Department manages to involve the country in even more extensive military aggressions than Vietnam.

But to go back to the American dream. In the 1920s when a score of small corporations still gave the color of “free enterprise” to the auto industry, the automobile was a crude but relatively honest machine: clumsy in its transmission system and gear shift, capricious in its starting devices, unreliable in its braking capability, decidedly old-fashioned in its reliance upon the gas engine, but still, for all its adolescent gawkiness, a functional machine, designed for transportation and recreation. Around 1930, just when the “new capitalism” suddenly slumped down to earth, the motor car industry picked itself up by exchanging economy for style. General Motors led the way here, and even Ford was compelled to follow. In the new hierarchy of values, recreation, reliability, safety, efficiency, economy all took a lower place. Style and speed were what counted. At this point, the automotive engineer took his orders from beauty specialists, whose job was to give the car a new look every year, in order to make last year’s model unfashionable, that is, prematurely obsolete. The pioneer’s dream wagon entered Madison Avenue’s fairyland.


WITHIN THE NEXT TWO DECADES, the motor car became a status symbol, a religious icon, an erotic fetish: in short, “something out of this world,” increasing voluptuous and tumescent, as if on the verge of an orgasm. What words other than Madison Avenue’s can adequately describe these exciting confections, glittering with chrome, pillowed in comfort, sleepy-soft to ride in, equipped with mirrors, cigarette lighters, radios, telephones, floor carpeting; liquor bars and tape-recorders are still optional. But in achieving these delights the designers so far turned their backs on the sordid realities of life as to increase the dangers through accidents by displaying jutting knobs, projecting, often knife-edged, instrument panels, murderous wings, confusing shift levers, soft suspension coils, undersized wheels, flimsy hardtops, utterly inadequate front and rear fenders, such broad, barge-like hoods as to give the driver minimum visibility in passing or parking, not to mention sun-reflecting chrome on windshield wipers and window frames to blind either the driver or an approaching car.

In the process of styling the motor car for flashy sales appeal, the designers not only increased the dangers but gratuitously cancelled out good features that earlier cars had had. By lowering its center of gravity, they made the car impossible to enter except by acrobatic maneuvers—this in an age that boasts more elderly people and more arthritic limbs than ever before. Likewise they reduced the six-person capacity that had been happily achieved by eliminating the running board, to a four-person size. To speak plainly, the present motor car has been the result of a secret collaboration between the beautician and the mortician; and according to sales and accident statistics both have reason to be satisfied.

With all the vast resources available for fundamental engineering research, the American motor car industry has not succeeded in producing a single original over-all design since 1930, except the Army Jeep, an honest job unfortunately built with no attention to passenger comfort. In neither shapes nor sizes has it pioneered any car as sensible as the small Volkswagen or the VW autobus. While many able engineers doubtless remain in the automotive industry, they might stop the fashion parade if they came up with a car as rugged as a Rover; and if they sought to make even bolder departures, they would be rated as unemployable. But fortunately there are still honest men in the industry, even at the upper levels, such as a vice-president of Ford who publicly admitted as late as 1964 that “the automatic transmission”—adopted on a mass production basis in 1939—“was the last major improvement.” This changeover from working machines to beauty salon dummies bears the hallmark of the affluent society and its expanding economy: compulsive spending and conspicuous waste. Unfortunately, the waste extends to human lives.

THE MOTOR CAR INDUSTRY’S studious indifference to safety, as a possible deterrent to marketability, has at last produced a public reaction; and a still greater one will possibly follow. The damning evidence against motordom, particularly against General Motors, which dominates the field, has now been marshalled together by two lawyers, Ralph Nader, who was an adviser to the Senate sub-committee investigating automobile hazards, and Jeffrey O’Connell, a professor of law at the University of Illinois, and erstwhile associate Director of the Automobile Claims Study at the Harvard Law School. Much of this evidence comes from public spirited physicians, faced with the dire human consequences of engineering negligence; and it is to the activity of a handful of zealous legislators like New York State Senator Edward J. Speno and United States Senators Ribicoff and Gaylord Nelson, that we are indebted for the public airing of the auto industry’s shocking behavior.

Now to assault the integrity of the great motor car producers is almost as audacious an enterprise as challenging the military judgment of the Pentagon; and incidentally, if we value our lives, quite as essential. The three great corporations—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—have a virtual monopoly of the American market as pace-setters and tastemakers, so that Studebaker, American Motors, and Willis-Overland had to follow their bad examples or go under. These three corporations do not stand alone, but reach out into a whole series of ancillary industries, beginning with steel, rubber, and oil, which depend upon them for their existence: Likewise these giant enterprises spread their devastating glamor through go-go Highway Departments heavy with Federal Subsidies, and through all the current media of publicity and advertisement; while by judicious grants for “research” the auto industry does not a little to seduce the judgment and sully the objectivity of the research institutes and universities that accept their dubiously philanthropic support.

In the face of this massive vested interest, it says something for the tough original fabric of American life, and not least for the Fathers of the Constitution, that any open discussion of this seemingly all-powerful megamachine can still take place. Yet, despite many early warning signals, the motor industry was so deeply entrenched, so assured of popular approval by its mounting profits that the present criticism of its aims and its methods has caught it off guard. If motordom knew how to silence this discussion, it would do so. General Motors has already demonstrated, with a stupidity that amounts to genius, that it is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent a rational public assessment of the changes that must be made in the American motor car to ensure its safety on the road. If General Motors’ position were not so vulnerable and damnable they would not have hired detectives in the hope of digging up something unsavory about the character of the young lawyer who wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. By this action, they not merely made a public confession of guilt, but added an extra count to the indictment: attempted character asassination with intent to kill.

THE REACTION OF THE MOTOR industry to criticism of its product shows that those in control exhibit the same weaknesses that General Matthew Ridgway, that gallant and intelligent officer, has pointed out in relation to the Vietnam-Chinese policy of the Pentagon: Their judgments are devoid of human understanding. And no wonder; for they issue from the same type of mind, the computer mind, programmed strictly for money and power. But since the subject of the motor car’s deficiencies has been opened up there is no telling where the assault will stop: Even computers may come in for a ribbing.

Now it is both the strength and the weakness of the two sober books under review that they are mainly concerned with a narrow segment of the motor car problem: the defects and dangers of bad mechanical design. Their positive value lies in their bringing together various suggestions, from engineers and physicians, for reducing the accident rate from mechanical defects, and for lessening the injuries that come from normal human error and from incalculable, uncontrollable incidents, such as a bee suddenly stinging the driver. These are indeed life-and-death matters; and the authors’ common approach to the subject is probably the shortest and quickest way to open up the much larger problems that must sooner or later be faced.

On the whole matter of safety, the evidence that both books summarize is both appalling and incontrovertible. Every device for increasing the safety of the motor car has been resisted by the manufacturers, even when, like the safety door catch, it has been finally accepted; while the most dangerous part of the car in a serious accident, the chief cause of fatalities, is the steering assemblage, which still has serious defects besides the tight squeeze that most cars inflict upon the driver. What is worse than the mere failure to take urgent safety measures, is the fact that even when the automotive engineers have provided them at an early stage of the design, they have been removed, either to reduce costs, give emphasis to some meretricious selling point, or just to eliminate any concern for danger from the prospective buyer’s mind.

What both books reveal is that the great motor car corporations, with all the insolence born of their supreme financial position in the economy, have not merely been careless about essential safety features in design: They have been criminally negligent, to the point of being homicidal. If these facts were not solidly established, no publisher in his senses would dare to publish these books; for every chapter would give ground for libel.

Since the authors cover nearly the same ground, use substantially the same evidence, and exhibit similar well-justified indignation over the auto industry’s refusal to mend its ways, so long as those ways are profitable, I hardly know how to advise the reader as to making a choice of them; though I should warn him that the data in either book are warranted, for a week or two, to make even the loveliest motor ride taste a little grifty, as with sand in the spinach. With regard to the main points about safety and air pollution, these books are in general agreement; though since Myers is a journalist, he does not make Nader’s rhetorical error of using the Corvair case as the opening argument, since such an extreme example of bad engineering and obstinate contempt for evidence serves best as a clincher to a more widely based indictment. If all motor cars were as bad as Chevrolet’s early Corvairs (1960-1963) no one with any instinct for self-preservation would dare to put his foot into any machine. Apart from this, Unsafe at Any Speed is as well-balanced as Safety Last; but the first has an Index without a list of cited sources, while the other has lists of references with every chapter but no index.

BOTH BOOKS ARE DRIVEN by the evidence to point to the ultimate source of the motor car’s structural defects, namely, that the cars are built with a single thought uppermost in the mind of the manufacturers: What will make them sell? And by what pinching and paring on essentials can more money be spent on styling and on advertising the non-essentials, those glossy features that will catch the eye, flatter the ego, coddle a neurosis—and open the purse.

What these books demonstrate is that most American motor cars, even of the latest vintage, are still unfit vehicles for coping with the normal mischances of the road. When one considers the wide range of competence in licensed drivers, at different ages with different road experience, and the wide daily fluctuations in their general health, their eyesight, their inner tensions and pressures, it is obvious that the one factor that can and should be standardized and normalized rigorously, and raised to the highest degree of mechanical efficiency and structural safety, is the vehicle itself. That is the responsibility of the motor car companies, not of the motorist. And if the fulfillment of that responsibility means that the profits of General Motors must be cut down from a billion and a half dollars a year to as little as a third of that amount, this is still no reason why this responsibility should not be imposed—by legislation if necessary—as a mandatory condition for earning any profits whatever.

In stressing the need for introducing every possible mechanical dodge to make the car and its occupants less vulnerable to accidents, both books carry their stern indictments to various sensible conclusions; and I would not, by what follows, lessen the sting of their indictment, qualify their arguments, or minimize the value of their recommendations: quite the contrary. Most of the structural changes they suggest are desirable; and some, like seatbelts, are so cheap and simple that one wonders why so much effort had to go into making them standard equipment.

As if to-show their open contempt for the whole safety argument, the manufacturers have lately souped up their cars and their advertising slogans in order to appeal to the least safe group of motor car drivers, the newly licensed adolescents and the perpetual adolescents; and they have underlined their incitement to calculated recklessness by giving the cars appropriate names, Thunderbirds, Wildcats, Tempests, Furies, to emphasize hell-bent power and aggressiveness, while their allies in the oil industry, for good measure, offer to place a tiger in the tank. Speed is the pep pill that the motor car manufacturers are now cannily offering to adolescents like any dope peddler; and since power and speed are both regarded as absolute goods by the worshippers of the Sacred Cow, both as good in themselves and as the surest way to expand the industry and maximize the profits, why should anyone suppose that any other human considerations will modify their homicidal incitements? Speed, marijuana, heroin, and lysergic acid, are all attempts to use a scientific technology to overcome the existential nausea that the lopsided development of this very technology is the main cause of. Have Messrs. Nader, O’Connell, and Myers sufficiently reckoned with the vast irrational opposition that their sound and rational arguments will encounter? Will safety alone appeal to a public that, in the face of indisputable cancer statistics, now consumes more cigarettes than ever before?

BUT SUPPOSE the rational argument for safer cars nevertheless was out. I don’t think that the writers of these books fully realize where their proposals will ultimately lead them unless they place these essential changes within a much wider framework. Both the desire for safety and for the enjoyment of the motor car demand a broader restatement of the whole problem. What is the place of the motor car in a rational scheme of transportation? By what system of control at source can we handle the motor car explosion, which is as badly in need of birth control as the population explosion? And what measures are needed to restore to both transportation and travel—including air travel—some of the humanly desirable qualities that an exclusive concern with speed has already robbed them of?

As to the enjoyment of the motor car, some of the safety devices that have been suggested, crash helmets, shoulder straps as well as seat belt, padded leg protection, may have unfortunate results in opposite directions; either by reducing the pleasurable sense of freedom, or by prompting those who submit to these constraints to seek a compensatory release in aiming at higher speeds with greater impunity—despite the fact that this in turn will raise the accident rate. Nothing could be worse in the long run for the auto industry than to eliminate the very things that made the automobile, at the beginning, so attractive: the sense of freedom and variety that motor travel once gave. In the interests of speed, the highway designers have steadily been taking away the visual pleasure and environmental stimulus of a long journey, and every other “improvement” conspires to the same end. The same compulsory high speed, the same wide monotonous road, producing the same hypnotic drowsiness, the same air-conditioned climate in the car, the same Howard Johnsons, the same clutter of parking lots, the same motels. No matter how fast he travels or how far he goes, the motorist never actually leaves home: Indeed no effort is spared to eliminate variety in the landscape, and to make famous beauty spots by mountain or sea into as close a counterpart of the familiar shopping center as the original landscape will permit. In short, automobility has turned out to be the most static form of mobility that the mind of man has yet devised.

If speed and safety were the only considerations, there is no reason why the auto industry, once it awakened from its self-induced narcosis, should not “go with” this movement and make greater profits than ever. For it is easy to foresee the theoretic ideal limit toward which both the automotive engineer and the highway engineer have begun to move: to make the surface of this planet no better for any form of organic life than the surface of the moon. To minimize road accidents, the highway engineers have already advocated cutting down all trees and telegraph poles within a hundred feet of each side of the road. But that is only a beginning. To provide maximum safety at high speed, the car will either have to be taken out of the motorist’s hands and placed under automatic control, as M.I.T. researchers have, on purely mechanical assumptions, worked out; or else turned into an armored vehicle, windowless, completely padded on the inside, with front and rear vision provided on a screen, and a television set installed to amuse the non-drivers, just as if they were in a jetplane. Along those lines, the motor car in a not-too-distant future would become a space capsule, a mobile prison, and the earth itself a featureless asteroid. Meanwhile, a further consolidation of the megamachine, with autos, jet planes, and rockets forming a single industry; the profits of that ultimate combine should exceed the wildest expectations of even General Motors.

BUT WHO WANTS SPEED at that price or safety at that price? one is tempted to ask. Buckminster Fuller and Jacques Ellul will doubtless answer, Everyone: or at all events, that is what is coming, whether anyone wants it or not. This answer is naive, but not disarming. For these backward assumptions which are really the leftovers of the Victorian avant garde are precisely what must now be questioned. Beyond the area of safety and freedom of movement lies the need for a conception of what constitutes a valid human life, and how much of life will be left if we go on ever more rapidly in the present direction. What has to be challenged is an economy that is based not on organic needs, historic experience, human aptitudes, ecological complexity and variety, but upon a system of empty abstractions: money, power, speed, quantity, progress, vanguardism, expansion. The over-valuation of these abstractions, taken as goods in themselves, has produced the unbalanced, purposeless, sick-making, and ultimately suicidal existence we now confront.

In short, the crimes and the misdemeanors of the motor car manufacturers are significant, not because they are exceptional but because they are typical. These indictments of the auto industry pin down the same evils as were exposed by Rachel Carson’s survey of the chemical industry’s proliferation of pesticides and herbicides, and by Senator Kefauver’s exposure of the pharmaceutical industry. The insolence of the Detroit chariotmakers and the masochistic submissiveness of the American consumer are symptoms of a larger disorder: a society that is no longer rooted in the complex realities of an organic and personal world; a society made in the image of machines, by machines, for machines; a society in which any form of delinquency or criminality may be practiced, from meretriciously designed motor cars or insufficiently tested wonder drugs to the wholesale distribution of narcotics and printed pornography, provided that the profits sufficiently justify their exploitation. If those remain the premises of the Great Society we shall never be out of danger—and never really alive.

This Issue

April 28, 1966