What’s Wrong with Old Cars? The Appeal of Electric Conversion

The other day someone told me that a Tesla is just a toy for those rich folks who identify with the ‘environmental movement.’ I’m sure that’s true for some and not for other buyers of the leading electric car today. They certainly are not cheap, nor are most innovative products. It does have some slick design features. At the other end of the automotive spectrum, what about all those old cars heading for the crusher? Really, we must bust the extraction-production-consumption-waste trajectory of the industrial era. One way to do that is ‘restore and re-use.’

It is now commonplace to hear someone say, “We live in a digital age.” I doubt that very many who say it fully grasp what that means. You tell me. All I know about that is that in one way or another, digital electronic devices and the algorithms that drive them control more and more of the processes and products of the modern industrial-consumer economy.

Everyday operations of living in the world are now intermediated by microelectronic devices, which have not evolved over millions of years as living systems have. Most were cooked up in a matter of months by teams of overpaid hackers in Silicone Valley. We, and they, think we are in control of many of these devices but they set the parameters within which we have to operate, and they are not fully de-bugged.

We spend more and more of our time accommodating to the requirements of digital devices—resetting passwords, reconfiguring, rebooting, upgrading, updating, pressured to buy the latest version even though the old one has far more ‘features’ than we need. Novelty is a powerful marketing device. We debug, defend against malware of infinite variety, etc., etc. Frankly, I neither need nor want ‘my data’ to reside in ‘the cloud.’

The trend, of course, is to make us all as dependent on the corporate structure of control of the digital world as possible, thereby giving the hi-tech corporations ever more control over our economic and recreational lives. The inevitable result is that we become more and more detached from ‘the real world,’ and more and more entangled in the digital world of imaginary existence, detached culturally if not physically from the biosphere upon which we depend for survival.

A friend recently said to me, “I would like to get back to analog cars.” He was expressing the angst that comes with all the digital gadgetry and human-action stealing automation that has invaded the world of automotive design and the products they expect us to buy for wellover fifty thousand dollars in so many cases. (I bought my first house for less than half of that amount in 1970. Well, that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.)

The God of Labor-saving Devices

I read a book awhile back titled, The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax. The author described a variety of experiences and research that led to his conclusion that people are getting fed up with the digital world and are returning to the comfort of working with analog ‘devices.’

It is certainly true that microelectronic devices can and do facilitate the automation of many everyday processes in business and industry, as well as in our everyday lives. These devices spare us from some of the inconveniences of living in the real world. Well, by disengaging us from the realities of our environment, they detach us from Nature itself.

We are deluded into thinking that we can somehow live in the world while ignoring its inviable requirements. In this context, ‘getting back to nature’ is not going camping; it is recognizing the limits of human existence in the natural world because we are a finite part of it and we must acting accordingly to continue on this planet. That we have not done. And no, we cannot escape to Mars with a few billionaires in their fantasy rocket ships.

Can an Electric Vehicle Be an Analog Device?

Interesting question. Technically, yes, but partly no. What the obsessive digital technophiles do not understand is that we need not digitize the entire world to achieve “human progress.” Yet, it would make sense to utilize some of their capabilities selectively.

Measured choices in the application of any technology is far more beneficial than simply adopting every new gadget simply because it is the latest ‘innovation’ or invention of the whizz kids of Silicone Valley. Sadly, we have not learned to prudently select and apply technologies only where they are useful to us, instead of automatically and uncritically allowing them to feed the destruction of our habitat.

Here is where the technical possibilities of Electric Vehicles (EVs) meet the road of choice in the real world. Frankly, I do not want a self-driving vehicle. I grew up in the Southern California car culture in which driving was fun—it was even cheap back then. On the other hand, I recognize that the proliferation of cars and the overwhelming inefficiency of traffic jams of single-occupant cars on freeways is rather absurd.

Few Choices Remain

Okay, I do not really want to give up my automotive mobility. Yet, we have designed a world where cars are necessity for so many who might otherwise forego the expense. We must change that because our habitat—planet Earth—cannot sustain that level of individual and commercial mobility. Public transportation can ease that dilemma. So can keeping manufacturing (and agriculture) as close to the consumer as possible.

Like many, I live in an area where it takes 30 minutes and too much gas to get to town. They call it ‘rural residential’—not farms but not your typical suburban development either. The suburbs have a similar problem. Unlike organically developed towns in Europe and elsewhere, walking to the grocery store is out of the question in most American suburbs.

Some of that can be relieved by public transportation. But many U.S. cities were designed for cars, not people. That can be repaired, at least to some extent. When I lived in the center of Florence, Italy for awhile, we walked everywhere. We had no car until we rented one to drive around Tuscany to visit the medieval hill towns. Whether for groceries, an afternoon gelato, or out for dinner, we had no need for a car.

Nearly every city in the U.S. is designed for the convenience of vehicles. We are forced to get around in a car, taxi, or Uber, even more so in suburbs. Motor vehicles, streets and highways are a major contribution to the climate emergency. Much of the problem of the global corporate economy of endless growth is that it has overshot the capacity of the Earth System to sustain it. Massive personal and commercial transportation is a major contributor to the crisis.

That is why at least two major changes are necessary. First, automotive mobility must be curtailed and efficient public transportation enhanced. Second, the cars that remain must not be propelled by internal combustion engines. Electric vehicle seem the logical choice. Second, however, we must curtail industrial production itself in order to shrink that extraction-to-waste process. So, instead of crushing old cars, why not refurbish, restore, and electrify many of them instead of overproducing so many of the overly digitized Teslas and the many other competitors now coming on line?


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