The home of the brave and the (electric F-150) pickup truck

With all of the talk of the electric Ford F-150, I ran into this statistic about sales of the current F-150:

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Still, if you’re going to pick an electric ambassador to the gas-loving masses, it would be hard to do better than the F-150. The truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the country for decades; more than 2,450 Americans buy a new one every day.

This is a hard number to understand. Roughly 2,500 a day? Some context might help. Americans like driving. They purchase millions of vehicles each year. According to Statista, they purchased over 11 million in 2020. Back in the early 1980s, the number was just over 2 million but there was a steady rise from the early 1990s to the late 2000s and then again in the last decade.

The anecdotal evidence I have matches these numbers. Having spent much of my life in the suburbs, I do not recall seeing many pickup trucks when I was younger. They were more of an occasional sighting, Now, there are pickups all over the place in all different sizes. The F-150 is indeed popular as are numerous other makes and models. The pickup is now a normal suburban vehicle.

According to Edumunds, the F-150 dominates car sales across the United States (and some other vehicles, including pickups, lead in a small number of states).

This reminds me of a magazine advertisement I used for years in my Intro to Sociology course. The ad was two pages and showed a parked pick-up truck within a swampy area. Sitting by the truck were roughly 15 dogs and standing nearby was the solitary man with his gun and camo. All of it screamed individualism and male vehicle. And this message is repeated over and over in television ads for trucks during sporting events and in many other places.

The electric pickup has the chance to keep Americans driving for decades in the big vehicles there are used to. There might still be a range issue for longer trips. But, imagine pickups that can accelerate even faster and just need to be plugged in at night.

If automated vehicles lead to more miles driven, does this mean cars will continue to dominate American society?

A new analysis suggests drivers who have vehicles that drive themselves put more miles on the road:

In a 2020 paper, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and he found that most thought the feature made driving less terrible. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman says. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”

In new research released this month, Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty suggest that making driving less terrible leads to a natural conclusion: more driving. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners, with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in.

Extrapolate that result to the wider population, and it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. For governments, which have to anticipate future infrastructure demands, understanding those changes are critical. Shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. If electric vehicles are doing the traveling, governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge them for it. And though electric vehicles like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always a renewable source. A country made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles to get to work or play, isn’t an efficient or sustainable one.

The new research suggests that partial automation could have upsides too. The bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, Hardman and Chakraborty found. Prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly, which would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions. In the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.

As noted here, there are a lot of possible consequences. I would add a big question asked for decades in the United States: would this continue the dominance of cars in American society? Much critique in the postwar era emerged around planning cities and suburbs around cars as opposed to around people and community needs. All the driving and the infrastructure for it helped give rise to white flight, fast food, big box stores, and even more sprawl within metropolitan regions. Efforts to limit car use have done little to reduce reliance on personal vehicles. Do self-driving cars make cars even more prevalent in American society?

Going further, would electric powered autonomous vehicles mean even more miles driven? If gasoline is out of the equation and the electricity (and car batteries) can be produced with fewer emissions, Americans might feel even more free to drive, commute, and travel.

If a major concern in society is driving itself, no matter how enjoyable it may be, new kinds of vehicles may not be welcome.

Misplaced nostalgia in Cars for the pre-Interstate days

On a recent rewatching of the Pixar film Cars, I was reminded of something that bothered me at my first viewing soon after the movie came out in theaters. Here is the issue: one of the key points of the plot is that the small town of Radiator Springs suffered when Interstate 40 opened nearby. But, the film makes clear that the issue is the interstate, not driving in general.

This movie celebrates driving. The main character, Lighting McQueen, is an ascendent race car and he needs to rediscover his love of the road. He does this after getting stuck in Radiator Springs. The combination of relationships, the lanscape, and a reorganizing of priorities helps him see that driving should be fun and relaxed, not just about winning and being brash.

The Interstate represents all that is bad. McQueen gets into trouble when he is accidentally dumped off on the side of the Interstate and gets lost. Radiator Springs is just a shell of itself because all the traffic that used to come through town now just whizzes by on the Interstate. Route 66, the road of quirky local establishments, small towns, and vistas, gives way to the straight and multi-lane highway where people just want to go as fast as they can to get to the real destinations.

The movie says everything went wrong with the Interstate. Its emphasis on efficiency came at the cost of communities. It left places behind; not just urban neighborhoods where new highways bulldozed homes and establishments but also small towns in the middle of the desert. McQueen would have left it behind too if he wasn’t forced to stay.

Is the real problem the Interstate or an American way of life built around driving? Sure, the Interstate promotes faster driving but cars themselves promote a different kind of life, one lived at faster speeds. Small towns can force people to look a little more closely with reduced speed limits and speed traps. But, they cannot force them to stop or to care or not just stop at a fast food joint and filling station and get back to the road quickly.

Once Americans had cars in large numbers, they wanted to go places. The open road offered opportunities. Some will want to drive and take their time. Some will want to get places as quickly as possible. Others just need to get from Point A and Point B to do what they need to do on a daily basis. Some of the car commercials I see today make me laugh as they try to say that a sportier exterior or 50 more horsepower transform the daily commute; how many people today really love driving?

Or, how many Americans really like small towns? They may hold it out as an ideal but the population shifts in the last century – both shaped and echoed by the Interstates – have been to metropolitan areas, particularly suburbs. Radiator Springs might be nostalgic and an interesting place to visit. But, it is not the place many would choose as they prefer other amenities including the jobs present across metropolitan regions.

All together, Radiator Springs and its ilk would not likely spring back to life just because the Interstate disappears. Indeed, it is revived in part by the end of the movie because people can get to it via the Interstate and they are drawn initially by the celebrity of Lightning McQueen. Now, Radiator Springs can be a tourist destination and some residents may even rue the day when new residents want to move in and new development threatens what the community once was. Here, cars are both the problem and the answer and without a broader discussion about cars and driving, Americans may just be stuck between wanting places like Radiator Springs to survive and the need to drive quickly to the next opportunity in life.

More obnoxious in the suburbs: Prius with Coexist sticker, oversized pickup with Blue Lives Matter flag in the bed, or car with super-loud muffler?

Cars are not just cars; they are an embodiment of who Americans are. Even as suburbanites like cars, here is a quick description of three noteworthy vehicles that might raise some suburban hackles:

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-The Prius driver with the Coexist sticker on the back. Not only are they already signalling their green bona fides with their car choice, they accentuate their tolerance for different religious groups. Prius drivers are not thought of as being aggressive but the bumper sticker suggests they are interested in trumpeting tolerance or pluralism.

-The large pickup truck with the American flag and Blue Lives Matter flag proudly waving from the truck bed. These are not usually small trucks; they tend to be big versions that tower over other vehicles and can afford the loss of fuel efficiency to show their pride in country and police.

-The vehicle that makes itself heard through an intentionally loud muffler. This is not the occasional car that needs a muffler repair; this is a vehicle that added the sound so that it could be heard a mile away on a quiet night. Seeing the green light at a traffic light is an aural experience with these vehicles.

Other options for vehicles that might irritate suburbanites:

-The cool Tesla drivers. They can’t show off their autopilot features in stop and go suburban traffic but the quiet, sleek vehicles make their own statement.

-The upgraded SUV drivers. They do not just have a CRV or Rav4; they have the latest Lexus version or the Porsche Cayenne or a luxury Escalade.

-The person who lives on a nice street who drives the rusting clunker. I know many of your below-the-radar American millionaires drive their Toyota Camrys or Honda Odysseys into the ground but there are expectations about what a vehicle should look like paired with particular residences.

-Anyone who drives strictly slightly below the speed limit. This has less to do with the vehicle and more with the driver but the cool factor of the car isn’t going to save someone from the ire of drivers.

Do Americans actually like to drive or do they say this because much of American life requires driving?

Do Americans actually like driving? Or, do they just do it a lot?

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Many Americans must drive on a regular basis. They need vehicles in order to get to work, obtain groceries and other goods, take advantage of recreation opportunities, and get to school. Many communities are designed around roads and emphasize moving large numbers of cars through areas at fast speeds. Americans have a system that privileges driving.

Americans might cite numerous aspects of driving and cars that they like. Driving is its own unique challenge requiring skill and attention. The driver is responsible for maneuvering a several ton vehicle. There are rules to be followed and ways to make driving more interesting. The average person does not have many other means to match the feeling of speed that a car can offer. Vehicles themselves can spark interest, ranging from their styling to their upkeep to their different features.

Additionally, driving has cultural meanings attached to it. From the beginning of cars, Americans loved the mobility and freedom they offered. Cars are more individualistic than mass transit. Vehicles represent progress with people behind the wheel. Cars and driving skills say something about their owners.

With an infrastructure that emphasizes driving and features of driving that Americans like, perhaps these two are simply intertwined today. Cars and driving are just part of the American way of life. Perhaps American drivers do not need to even like driving; they just have to tacitly support the structure that keeps driving as the primary mode of transport. Liking driving could then a resignation to the status quo or finding joy in what they are going to do anyway. Or, it could genuine joy at sitting behind the wheel. Changing this love of even or even acceptance of driving would take significant time and/or effort given how Americans feel about driving.

Brand loyalty and two nearby households with 3+ Subaru Outbacks

I understand the concept of brand loyalty. We own two Toyotas. But, I still find it interesting when I go by two nearby homes that have either 3 or 4 Subarus parked outside.

https://www.subaru.com/vehicles/outback/index.html

To have a driveway full of the same car suggests a strong commitment to this model. Is it the styling? The reliability? Some sort of special deal for people who loyal to the brand or an employee discount??

Cars have been sold for decades with the idea that they reflect some important traits of their owner. Purchase a particular brand and model and it helps define you. Or, a car and add-ons could provide clues about your personal life and possessions. Owning multiple Subarus makes a statement in a way that having different kinds of vehicles does not.

I wonder if there are more Outbacks inside the garages though many suburbanites do not have space given all the tools, sports equipment, and other items to store.

Taxing cars by miles driven already going in two states with more moving forward

With larger numbers of new kinds of cars using roadways, states are moving ahead to shift away from a gas tax to fund roads:

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The Oregon task force put the state at the forefront of the new approach, known as a road-user charge or a vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) tax. The state launched a voluntary program in 2015. Legislators in Salem are considering a bill that would make the program mandatory for new vehicles with a fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon or higher starting in 2026…

Utah’s program was launched last year and has enrolled more drivers than Oregon’s. A dozen states are considering legislation this year to update, launch or study programs, including California — where the governor wants to end sales of gas-powered cars by 2035 — and Wyoming…

Officials in Oregon say objections can be overcome as the public becomes more familiar with the new systems and research debunks concerns that some drivers, especially those in rural areas, will be disproportionately affected…

Oregon’s tax rate of 1.8 cents per mile is equivalent to the 36-cent gas tax paid by a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon. Someone driving about 11,500 miles a year would pay about $207. That leaves owners of hybrids paying more than they otherwise would. It would be a good deal for drivers of large SUVs or pickup trucks, but in 2019, the legislature limited enrollment of new vehicles to those that get at least 20 miles per gallon.

This has been years in the making; see earlier posts here and here. The gas tax will generate less revenue as states and carmakers move away from gasoline engines. Something will need to change.

How drivers respond will be interesting. Will this discourage driving? Move people more quickly or less quickly to new technologies? Encourage fleets of electric cars rather than individual ownership?

And the ripple effects are hard to anticipate. What does this do with the trucking industry which is responsible for delivering many critical goods? Does this lead to better maintained roads? Will this encourage more interest and funding for mass transit?

Or, the funding could smoothly transition over time and Americans continue their love of and support for driving. And this and others changing aspects of driving could simply change the whole experience of driving without eliminating driving, ranging from commuting patterns to visiting gas stations and fast food places to road trips.

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

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Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.

Learning to drive in the snow requires practice and caution

With cold and snow in much of the United States, a car dependent society runs into more difficulties driving. What it does it take to learn how to drive in the snow? Practice and caution. Let me explain.

As a newer driver, I had opportunities to gain valuable practice in driving in snow and bad conditions. I remember one time driving home from work on a school night at about 8 PM after several hours of snowfall. The road was completely covered but the path of the road was discernible amid trees and other markers. Hardly anyone else was out. I made it home by driving slowly.

Around the same time and working at the same place, I found myself leaving for work at 6:30 AM one winter morning. I did not give the car much time to heat up so when I pulled out of our subdivision on to the main road, the rising sun hit my not-clear windshield and made it impossible to see out the front. I stopped, rolled down my window, and slowly drove forward a short distance until I could pull over, let the car warm up, and have a completely clear windshield.

These were potentially risky situations. They were also learning experiences. Pair these experiences – and numerous others – with a few clear rules for driving in snow and icy conditions. First, do not follow anyone closely. Give yourself more space between vehicles. Second, brake slowly in case you start slipping. This means you need to start slowing down earlier. Third, adjust your speed for conditions. Watch how other vehicles are doing and how clear the roadway is.

Wintry conditions are not always possible to handle but are often manageable with practice and caution. These guidelines are less helpful if drivers have fewer opportunities to drive in such conditions. And even following these guidelines is no guarantee; a driver cannot control the actions of other drivers and surprises can arise (such as unseen ice). Even as we ask new drivers to practice certain maneuvers and skills, perhaps we should add snow and ice experience to that mix. Or, maybe it should be a bonus certification required for some parts of the country and recommended elsewhere.

Limited solutions to ensuring more long green light stretches of suburban driving

After occasionally finding stretches of hitting all green lights on major suburban roadways, I wanted to consider how these experiences might become more common. Is it possible? Here are some strategies alongside my sense of whether these would help.

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  1. Synchronizing traffic lights. Los Angeles did this a few years ago to help traffic flow. As a kid, I recall sitting in the car in Chicago and hearing tell of how Clark Street on Chicago’s North Side was set up this way: follow the speed limit and a driver should hit multiple greens in a row. This could be harder to accomplish across a range of municipalities and the various traffic volumes intersecting with the main road. Additionally, this might not help much if there is just too much traffic on the road.
  2. Providing more lanes, more driving options. Americans tend to like this strategy: more lanes, more roads equals more space for vehicles, right? Research suggests otherwise: if you add road capacity, drivers will tend to fill that up. Americans like driving in the suburbs and this is not a long-term solution. In fact, road diets may be more helpful: reduce capacity and it pushes drivers toward other options. Furthermore, expanding roads in an already developed suburban area can get quite expensive and may be controversial.
  3. Encouraging more mass transit use, more walking and bicycling, and less driving. If there are simply too many cars, limiting trips would help ensure smoother driving experiences. All of these options are tough sells in the suburbs. It is hard to provide mass transit in a decentralized landscape and wealthier residents are unlikely to use it. Residential neighborhoods might be set up for biking and walking but connecting to other uses – grocery stores, schools, businesses – is often not possible or is dangerous.
  4. Having more employees work from home. This may be temporary due to COVID-19 but could be a long-term solution for traffic and congestion issues. Of course, there may be more people living in the suburbs due to COVID-19.

This suggests that there may be some short-term solutions but the bigger issue would take more time and effort: American suburbs are built around driving.