Where there’s smoke, there's a car- The New Indian Express

2022-09-17 08:26:56 By : Mr. Olantai Han

Cars changed society with ease. Road trips brought families together. America's Model T and India's Maruti 800 transformed economies and history.

Published: 11th September 2022 05:00 AM   |   Last Updated: 10th September 2022 08:51 PM   |   A+ A  A-

Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Photo | AP)

Every revolution has a fall guy. Check history. California won't sell cars that run on fossil fuels anymore. Electric cars and driverless cars are the Holy Grail of the automobile industry today, with Elon Musk as the celebrity prophet. Why isn't anyone telling Zoomers and Gen Alpha that before the gasoline era, cars, buses and trains ran on steam and batteries? In fin de siècle America, 80 percent of cars were either electric or steam-powered. The best excuse for hypocrisy is faulty memory.

Revolution devours its children and technological revolution devours entire generations. The steam engine made horses expendable. Electric typewriters killed the good old typewriter. The email made postmen redundant. The cellphone camera, with its array of apps and filters, made dark-room assistants superfluous. The telephone -- that indispensable helpmate of housewives, doctors and spies -- is an anachronism in the iPhone era. Remember the old trunk calls? The fax machine that ran out of ink? Or the overheating radiators of Ambassador cars?

Soon, conscience will be the backseat driver in self-driving cars. The motor car was an idea whose time had come. It eroded elitism, yet became the measure of the owner's worth and self-worth. Cars changed society with ease. Road trips brought families together. America's Model T and India's Maruti 800 transformed economies and history. But automobiles also played hell with mankind. Petrol and diesel engines are fouling the climate; cars are responsible for over half of overall vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. They kill and maim people.

They have created new class distinctions and define social hierarchy. Size matters; the politically correct generation perceives SUVs as Darth Vader’s kill ships and million-dollar convertibles a rich man's extravagance, while children starve in Somalia. There is some truth in that. There is also danger in unidimensional outrage. Self-driving cars will make people dependent on AI and technology more than ever. Zoomers, whose cellphones have become limb implants, choose Uber since they don't like driving nor do they have a driving licence.

Cars encouraged knowledge acquisition; they honed reflexes at the wheel. Drivers learned to take sharp turns with precision, clean spark plugs and change a flat -- survival skills of the 20th century. The true traveller’s affaire du coeur with the automobile will never end as long as there is memory in the world --not for them the soullessness and laziness of an autonomous Tesla bought with Bitcoin. In the driver's seat of a sports car with its top down, the wind racing through your hair as you pelt down a ribbon of gleaming asphalt is a peerless experience of personal joy. 

Yet, it is time for combustion engines to drive into the sunset. The Amazon rainforest is in peril. Species are going extinct. The oceans are angry. Drought is dredging up sunken civilisations. But why is the car the only fall guy? Why isn't pollution from airplanes, long-distance trucks and buses and auto-rickshaws that choke traffic fashionably toxic? No law will send old two-wheelers to the scrapyard -- it is bad politics. As green cars become the new face of the transportation industry’s expand-and-profit ideology, 'fill her up' will be the last lyric of the incurable romantic of unleaded causes.

Ravi Shankar can be reached at ravi@newindianexpress.com.

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