When I took a new job in Washington thirty miles from home and found that several colleagues lived in my neighborhood, I asked if they would like to carpool with me. They would not. Their reaction was one of horrified disbelief. One condescended to explain the negative response. “In the office, we are bullied by our bosses,” he said, “and, at home, we are bullied by our wives. Our only moment of freedom and peace is when we are in the car. You want to spoil that with a carpool?”
I am not overly fond of my car, nor am I trying to escape anyone’s bullying. Yet I feel a strange air of insouciance when I scurry out of city traffic, turn on the cruise control and drive on the interstate without a clear destination in mind. I feel maybe a fraction of what nomads feel when they leave an accustomed corner for the wide unknown. The first time I bought a car in India I had driven out of town without a plan, except a utopian notion of experiencing the unexpected. I had more than my fill of adventure, for the car broke down miles from nowhere (you can’t blame an old jalopy for doing what comes to it naturally). I had to scour a tiny village for someone who knew about a car a little more than me, and sleep in a hut after dining on a bowl of gruel. I remembered the friendliness of strangers better than the Spartan accommodation and indifferent chow. I simply loved being away from the city and the curious sense of being untethered, in touch with whatever was around me.
So, it is easy for me to understand why some people love their cars so dearly. It is always at our beck and call, ready to take us to wherever our fancy guides us. We don’t have to wait for a train, plane or bus. We can hop into our chariot at a moment’s notice and get going. Yet it is worth giving the subject a second thought. Every time a friend takes me to a show or a restaurant, as the car winds out of my cul de sac I am amazed at what I see. My neighbor has repainted his house an atrocious mauve; a lawyer friend has had his front lawn eye-catchingly manicured; the school next door has a shiny new wing. How come I didn’t notice these earlier? Because when I drive, I am focused on the street, traffic and pedestrians, and notice little else. The car may take me places, I may see new things. But, while doing so, it induces me to overlook many things; I simply do not observe many a thing worth observing.
The euphoric feeling that speed generates, blinds us to the truth that a car is the most underused asset on earth. The world over, people use a car no more than two hours a day. 90 percent of the time a car sits in a garage or on the street gathering dust – and, worse, losing its value. The moment you drive a car out of a dealer’s shop, it becomes a ‘used’ car and loses a third of its value. Tells you what an item of vanity and vagary it is. In any case, for that item people on average cough up $30, 000 – unless you need a larger dose of vanity and spend a million dollars for a Bentley or a Lamborghini.
The astounding thing is that the internal combustion engine of a car is the most outdated thing in modern life. Developed when women wore corsets and men sported top hats, and nobody had heard of plastic or silicon, it represents the most inefficient use of energy and an outrageous misuse of the world’s resources. Its tailpipe emissions spew toxins and reduce the life span of thousands in major cities by at least ten years, causing cancer, asthma and lung disorder. Cars and trucks account for over four-fifths of the world’s carbon pollution and trigger the worst threat of climate change. The incessant thirst for gasoline it creates, not only generates perverse political alliances with oil producing countries but triggers environmental havoc with technologies like fractioning. The rising sea level and the draughts and storms global warming generates do damage that, if factored in, would raise the real price of gasoline to $10 a gallon.
All this leaves aside the brutal fact of silent slaughter by cars every day – silent because nobody talks about it and the press finds it too common to deem it newsworthy. When terrorists used two planes to kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11, it drew headlines for weeks; but 3,000 Americans die from car accidents every month – more than in wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan – and it hardly merits any attention. More startling still, over 3,000 people die every day in the world, with India a major contributor, and we, car lovers, scarcely raise an eyebrow.
No surprise that Uber and Lyft are doing good business and Zipcars, temporary-use cars, are gaining ground. I can barely wait for automatic, driver-less cars.
Our adoration of private cars has become as old-fashioned as our nostalgia for horse-drawn buggies.