Driving the Chevrolet HHR sent your humble author into a massive 1980s flashback; no drugs required. The Japanese car supply/demand imbalance during Paula Abdul’s Laker Girl days meant any Japanese model could find a market, regardless of merit. One of the least meretricious was the Isuzu I-Mark; a car so relentlessly non-descript that boredom was primary safety hazard while driving one. Twenty years later, that particular strain of car flu, automobilis mediocritas, has mutated and infected the Chevrolet HHR, turning it into one of the dullest transportation appliances of the twenty-first century.
Posts By: Eric Stepans
In his farewell speech (the one about the military-industrial complex), President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans, “As we peer into society’s future, we– you and I, and our government– must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” As any oil company CEO (cough, Dick Cheney, cough) will tell you, Eisenhower’s words point to personal virtue, but shareholders want profits today not resources tomorrow. Thankfully, some take Eisenhower’s words to heart. One such person is Josh Tickell, the creator, director, and protagonist of the impressive documentary film Fuel.
Biologist Jared Diamond once wrote that worst mistake in the history of the human race was adopting agriculture. It allowed a greater population compared to hunter-gatherers, but at the expense of increased vulnerability to disease, pests and warfare. Diamond underestimated humanity’s capacity for blunder, for an even bigger mistake was tying our transportation system to petroleum.
America is addicted to oil. I’m sure this revelation ranks with ‘Chrysler’s in a spot of bother’ on the scale of surprises. Everyone from the Sierra Club to President George W. Bush has lectured the country about its dependence on oil in general, and foreign oil in particular. Pistonhead, blame thyself! Transportation fuels make up between 25 and 30 percent of total US energy demand. Needless to say, nearly all of that fraction is petroleum. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot and the Stanley twins may have powered their jalopies on steam (even then, the Stanley Steamer was kerosene-fired), but modern vehicles are all about the distillates, baby.
Automakers are justifiably proud of the fast, safe, clean and comfortable products they’ve unleashed upon the automotive market. But today’s carmakers have entered into a Faustian bargain with the electronic systems that make these four-wheeled wonders possible, and it’s busy biting them and their customers in their collective keister. Never mind the inherent safety hazards of protecting drivers from their own stupidity. The heavy reliance on technology has fundamentally altered the ownership experience, particularly when these techno-wondercars are repaired and resold.
Retired Israeli Air Force ace Giora Epstein flew Mirage, Nesher and F-16 fighter aircraft during his career. When asked by the History Channel which aircraft he preferred, he replied “In the Mirage and the Nesher, the pilot flies the aircraft. In the F-16, the computer flies the aircraft and the pilot is just another input to the computer.” Modern automotive electronics have transferred Epstein’s complaint to millions of cars. We may purchase and maintain our vehicles, but we no longer truly drive them. Increasingly, we’re mere inputs for the computers that do.
It’s doubtful that the AC-Delco engineers who devised the first electronic ignition system in 1961 envisioned the automotive revolution to follow. By then automobiles’ basic technological framework was well-established (piston engines, welded steel bodies, pneumatic tires, hydraulic brakes, etc.). Electronic ignition probably seemed like just another incremental improvement. Instead, electronics enabled quantum leaps in automotive performance, safety, comfort, efficiency and environmental impact. No other technology has been nearly so transformational.
GM circa 2007: bad investments and expensive labor contracts; excess capacity and crushing debt; a surfeit of brands and products. It’s also GM circa 1910, 1920, 1973, 1980, 1991 and 1998. In fact, wandering through GM’s history is like watching an endless loop of “Groundhog Day.” Clearly, The General doesn’t share Phil Conners’ ability to learn from its mistakes. Can there ever be a happy ending for The General?
Quick! Which is bigger: San Antonio, Texas or San Diego, California? It’s San Diego. And here’s the kicker: a classroom of German students is more likely to get the right answer than you are, for one simple reason: more of them have heard of San Diego than San Antonio. Try another one. Should GM build the new Chevrolet Malibu? Despite auto industry execs’ huge salaries, you, a car guy or gal, are more likely to get it right than GM's top execs. And for the same reason: your gut instincts are more reliable than factual analysis.