No Fixed Abode: The Electric Horizon

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. No doubt some of you will recognize that little speech, even if you’re not quite of the correct generation to have seen Blade Runner in the theater. It was on my mind as I sat in my father’s office yesterday and talked to him about the value of my Porsche 993.

“Sell the car and invest the money for your son,” he suggested, before leaning back in his chair and clarifying, “Of course, right now you’d have trouble finding an investment that is doing as well as that car.” The man has a point. I don’t think we’ve hit Peak Aircooled Value yet, as ridiculous as that sounds — but that time will come, and on the other side of that singular moment will be a free-fall into the abyss.

Not just for my 993. Not just for the Boss 302 formerly owned by my brother. It will swallow everything. My car. Bark’s car. Your car. Ralph Lauren’s McLaren F1. Every Hemi ‘Cuda ever made and every Ferrari F40. They will all become utterly, completely worthless. Like scrap metal worthless. You know it’s going to happen. But would you believe that you’ll live to see it? Because chances are that you will.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s going to be here sooner than you think.

There is a perfect storm coming. And, just like any perfect storm, it’s comprised of several different forces.

Force Zero: the end of internal combustion as a legal means of getting around

The looniest of the social-democracy Euro-countries are pushing for “gasoline freedom” in ten years. The minute they successfully make the transition, the rest of Europe will follow posthaste. Don’t make the mistake of thinking EU countries will delay these mandates because they recognize the obvious deficiencies of battery power for commercial and/or sustained use; they have a centuries-old tradition of “for me but not for thee” lawmaking that will leave diesel trucks free to crawl down the Autobahn in perpetual motion while you wait all afternoon at the Supercharger station for your next fill-up.

The United States will lag behind Europe in banning the private gasoline engine, but they won’t lag far. And again, look for corporate interests to be protected while yours are shamelessly violated. Archer Daniels Midland will be able to run diesel generators long after your uncle is forced to put his Fiat 124 Abarth into the barn at his country place.

Force One: the final triumph of urbanized society

The demographic shift to city living is all but complete. Like it or not, urban dwellers don’t need cars and they increasingly don’t even want cars.

Force Two: a dismal economic outlook for future generations

Your humble author’s delight in poking fun at the Millennial generation is well-documented but even I have to admit they’re facing a nightmare combination of declining job prospects and soaring asset prices. Economic power is flowing from labor to capital at a rate never before seen in human history.

Regardless of what you think about the published unemployment numbers, only a fool would assert that today’s 25-year-olds are going to have an easy time joining the middle class in any of the Western democracies. Meanwhile, the average age of the new-car buyer continues to climb. It’s almost certain that people in reduced economic straits are going to change from owners of automobiles to renters of “mobility” just as surely as today’s Millennials have been bait-and-switched from building wealth with their own suburban homes to paying rent on urban apartments. And if you’re just renting access to a transportation box, what do you really care about the powertrain?

Arguably, the gasoline-powered automobile could survive any two of these forces. If new cars are made illegal and everybody moves to the city but there’s still plenty of money to go around, you’ll have a trackday preservationist culture. If new cars are illegal and nobody can afford a car anyway, but people stay rural, you won’t have an all-electric fleet until those cars can truly outcompete used gas-powered cars in long-distance operation. And if everybody moves to the city and nobody has a job, but there’s no legal component, then we might see a hobby resurgence of cars built by next-generation, low-cost manufacturing techniques.

Don’t cross your fingers. The planets have aligned and it’s all over but the shouting. And there’s a fourth force that I haven’t bothered to mention. I call it “The Accordion Effect”. You see, prior to the rock n’ roll revolution the accordion was one of the most popular — some sources say the most popular — musical instrument in the United States. Once the kids saw how much cooler the guitar was, however, interest in the accordion died off seemingly overnight. The same thing is happening to guitars now, by the way; for the first time in decades, acoustic guitars are outselling electric models and the instrument as a whole is facing a profound lack of interest among a generation of children who have found that you can become a master of “EDM” in the same time it takes a novice guitarist to learn how to successfully play the “D” chord.

It’s no accident that the sports car and the electric guitar are so closely tied together in everything from pop culture to the multi-million-dollar collections of nearly every hyper-successful man born between 1945 and 1975. They are artifacts of an era that worshiped rebellion, individuality, reckless behavior, and conventional masculinity.

Cars and guitars were cool because the mastery of either could get you a girl or two. It doesn’t work like that anymore. We are all part of the Tinderverse now. While you’re out cruising the strip in your hot rod or perfecting the intro riff to a Zeppelin song, the girl of your dreams is racking up new partners at the rate of one every Saturday night, maybe more.

Corvettes, Porsches, even affordable cars like the Toyota 86? Nothing but accordions-in-waiting. Nobody’s falling in love with cars any more. Two generations from now, young people will find being enthusiastic about a mere automobile precisely as incomprehensible as forming a sexual obsession with one’s hot water heater. That, more than anything else, is what’s going to kill the automobile as we know it today.

If I told you that I had a better way to do your dishes, you wouldn’t spend ten seconds mourning your old Whirlpool or Asko washer. The same will be true of cars.

What, then, remains? Mobility. Choices. Commuting. Travel. A generation of young people who will get their thrills from a screen and a high-speed connection to the Net. Whatever thrill-kill culture that remains will focus on things like wingsuits and freeride mountain biking and the various legitimately exhilarating outdoor pursuits. I don’t mean to say it’s a bad thing. Let’s not get moral about something that in no way deserves a moral examination. Still, as I ponder our wheeled future, I can’t help feeling like a replicant on a rooftop somewhere.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Ferraris blazing down the back straight at Mid-Ohio. I watched headlights glitter in the dark near the Nurburgring Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time… to die.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • THX1136 THX1136 on Jul 26, 2017

    Thanks, Jack, for pointing out the connection between the guitar and car. I had never considered that before, but I believe you're on to something. I have a couple of younger friends and their choice of instrument was an acoustic over an electric guitar. In the middle of the garage band "so you want to be a rock and roll star" phenomenon of the Sixties, the overwhelming choice was the electric, not acoustic. In my neck of the woods the acoustic didn't seriously re-enter the scene until the early 70's with the advent of country rock (a few years earlier) and soft rock (what's known today as yacht rock). Good article, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Jul 26, 2017

    "a profound lack of interest among a generation of children who have found that you can become a master of “EDM” in the same time it takes a novice guitarist to learn how to successfully play the “D” chord." Jack, if you had stayed at the NAMM show for a couple more days (, you would have been heartened by the number of 7-12 year old kids who came on the day when the show was open to the general public. Lots of little drummer boys and girls and kids playing guitars, and not just the Loog three string things made for kids. The percentage of kids willing and capable of doing the grunt work of practicing scales and exercises enough to become proficient on a musical instrument has never been very high. When I was a child it was more or less expected that middle class families would give their kids some kind of music lessons. Few become competent.

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