I was born in 1965, entering the world at more or less the same time as the Porsche 911 and Ford Mustang. I learned to tune engines with a timing light and my ear. I look back nostalgically on the days when I could lift a hood and identify most of the parts within. Given the modern car’s complexity, it’s difficult for me to agree that this is the “golden age of motoring.” While I’m not comfortable with this chronological appellation, the argument can still be made that there’s never been a better time to be on the road.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), American motorists are safer than ever before. Between 1975 and 2005, the IIHS reports that deaths per 100,000 vehicles declined by 29%. In the same period, motor vehicle deaths among children under 13 sank from 3643 to 1519– despite the addition of millions of people driving millions of cars on American roads.
This safety increase comes from a number of improvements. Driving laws have become more restrictive, especially in the neighborhood of children’s car seats and adults who thought it was OK to have “one more for the road.” Cars have also become more robust. Passive restraints, extra brake lights, meatier bumpers and other assorted suggestions from the both the market and the federal government may have (gasp) worked. The legislation hasn’t always been welcome-– GM, Ford and Chrysler tag-teamed every major safety regulation-– but the results speak for themselves (without relying on a ghost whisperer or medium).
Although it doesn’t always feel that way, we’re driving better cars. Their strength, complexity, efficiency and reliabilty has increased at every level, from tire technology to engine management to the roof’s structural strength. An average car now has as much computer power as the whole country enjoyed in 1965. On-board number crunchers monitor dozens of mission critical dynamic metrics and make near-instantaneous "decisions" based on the data: modulating brakes, acceleration, fuel mixture, valve timing and all kinds of other things I don’t know about because, again, I don’t recognize anything under the hood.
Despite (or because of) this complexity, Americans are holding onto their cars longer. In 1975, the Federal Highway Administration reported that the median age of an American automobile was 5.4 years. By 2003, U.S. car owners held onto their car for an average of 8.6 years. (Light trucks follow a similar trend.) There are dozens of factors contributing to the growning length of this man/machine relationship. Obviously, a new car's acquisition cost is factor number one. But the trend also suggests the cost of ownership has declined significantly. Simply put, new cars aren’t rusting and busting as quickly as their “me era” ancestors.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is another source of good news. The EPA reports that adjusted average passenger car fuel economy has risen from 13.1mpg in 1975 to 21mpg in 2006. At the same time, average horsepower has climbed from 137hp to 219hp. Zero to 60 times have dropped from a languid 14.1 seconds to a none-too-slothlike 9.7 seconds. The nation, on average is clocking 0 to 60 times within a second of the original Porsche 911.
So cars are safer and faster while attaining greater fuel efficiency and reliability. Do we thank wondrously beneficent car companies or the wisdom and courage of the United States Congress? If neither of those choices seem more plausible than car fairies, consider choice itself. The sheer number of products available to the American consumer has risen dramatically. In 1975, the Transportation Research Board assessed all the cars and light trucks for sale in the U.S. They looked at 125 models. In 2006, there are 412 different kinds of cars and trucks in need of a warm, dry garage.
There is, literally, lots more choice. In terms of market efficiency, more choice is always more better. Choice leads to competition, which stimulates product improvements and innovations. The market forces the changes that people desire: faster, cheaper, safer, cleaner. The feds applied pressure and car-makers have bent, but it’s the market that’s created the dramatric upward curve in automotive safety, performance, environmental friendliness and price.
Of course, none of this is bound to impress nostalgic pistonheads, myself included. I find it impossible to gaze at a ‘60’s Jaguar E-type or Plymouth Barracuda and not smile, sigh, nod and lust. Thankfully, the best [noisy, smelly, inefficient and unsafe] cars of the past remain with us, dutifully pampered and preserved. They’ll be fine. Meanwhile, it's not easy seeing past the soap shaped blandness that makes up the majority of vehicles on today’s road and concede the obvious fact that cars have never been better. As much as I hate to admit it, the dull but worthy cars of the present also deserve a large dollop of praise. Done.
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