Still At It

royalty graphic

In 1953, at a closed-door Congressional confirmation hearing, GM President Charles Wilson acknowledged his habitual equation of his employer’s profit-making endeavors with the overall welfare of the society in which it was based. Asked if he could even imagine a conflict between these two phenomena, Wilson, via a leaked transcript, infamously admitted he did not and could not:

I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country. Our contribution to the Nation is quite considerable.

Wilson’s shift of tenses reveals that, even among cronies, he knew there was something troubling in the equation. Yet he did shift squarely back to the present tense in his final sentence: We are big, so you will take what you get.

Despite the smoldering times, this elite equation of car corporations with the national interest has not altered one iota since 1953.

Here, indeed, is what new Ford CEO Jim Farley unashamedly told Automotive News today:

We have an important job to do not only for Ford but for our country and for the Ford family.

You see? Ford = Ford family (major stockholders) = United States.

So, as always, run that up your flagpole, folks.

Hydrogen Cars

Ever wonder why automobiles aren’t running on hydrogen fuel cells?

The answer is complex and also part of the long skein of sponsored fantasies about flying cars and, now, tunneling cars.

But the most important reason was explained recently by Richard Truett in Automotive News:

There is one part of the fuel cell that no automaker company ever talks about: high-volume production. That’s because most of the fuel cells built for automobiles today are hand-made by technicians.

photo of fuel cell technician

As of 2018, Toyota was building about seven Mirai fuel cell vehicles per day, all by hand.

The news Tuesday of General Motors’ deal with startup truckmaker Nikola provided no details about the technology GM plans to embrace to crank out fuel cell stacks quickly and with zero defects. The stack, you will recall, contains membranes and thin metal plates, and much like the cells in a battery pack, the more the cells are stacked in a fuel cell, the more electricity it will produce.

In manufacturing terms, this is as close to brain surgery as we’ve ever seen in a powertrain component. Not only is there no room for manufacturing tolerances — every internal component must fit and align perfectly for the cell to produce the correct amount of electricity safely — but the production site has to be free of dust, dirt and anything else that could contaminate a fuel cell membrane.

It is going to take a huge and economically viable fuel cell to produce enough electricity to move a fully loaded Nikola semitruck down the road at highway speeds. It won’t be economically efficient to assemble the stacks in these trucks by hand.

Automotive News, September 08, 2020

This, of course, also raises the question of what happens to fuel cell arrays in automotive collisions. The elementary facts there can’t be good, either.

You aren’t going to be seeing these things any time soon.

“That Doesn’t Just Happen”

The quasi-official explanation for the existence of cars-first transportation in the United States is an extension of American Exceptionalism: “Americans are having a love affair with the automobile,” it is said, is all there is to know about the making and meaning of mobility in this, the best of all possible societies.

Now, one important sub-axiom of love affair doctrine is the presumption that capitalists, being mere order-takers, have played no independent part in the extraordinary, continuing paving of the continent. “What would you folks like,” our heroic Henry Fords are said to always ask. “Oh, cars…hmm. Cars, you say? Oh, yes,…cars, cars, of course! — excuse us, we hadn’t thought of that. Tell us more, so we can give you what you desire!”

This would surely still be the main explanation an organization such as the Ford Motor Company would give, if any public servant were ever so brazen as to inquire into the insane trend toward escalating manufacture and sale of pickup trucks.

Why is this suicidal thing happening, oh dearest Ford? “Well, it’s what the people demand!,” you can hear them say.

Consider, then, this image, which shows an advertisement Ford Motor is now running in the trade magazine Automotive Age:

Ford ad

You could spend hours decoding the few dozen words in this one. But, still, consider the plain meaning of the first two sentences:

F-Series trucks have been America’s best-selling truck for 43 years running. That doesn’t just happen.

No, indeed. It does not.

Liquid Fuels of the Future!

Joe Biden has announced his climate plan!

As anybody who understands power in the USA would’ve predicted, it is actually a plan to perpetuate, rather than move away from, the catastrophic-but-profit-gushing reign of our #1 GHG emitter: automobiles.

If you doubt this, consider this multiply revealing plank of the plan:

Doubling down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels are now closer than ever as we begin to build the first plants for biofuels, creating jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, ocean-going vessels, and more.

Yes, “and more.”

This is just a complete and absolute whopper, as well as a dead give-away that the other stuff in the plan about requiring “electric” cars and trucks is also prevarication. If we’re going all-EV, Joe, why do we need a bunch of “new” liquid fuels?

“Alternative” liquid fuels, of course, are also less, not more, green than gasoline, notwithstanding the slick propanda campaigns of Exxon Mobil and its corporate cousins, which are apparently about to pay their dividends, by greasing this particular rail.

The assertion that “advanced biofuels are now closer than ever” is simply a straight, unadorned lie. Whoever wrote that line has a very large karma problem coming.

Cracks in the Ice

image of cracked glacier

None other than The New York Times is now running pieces calling cars “death machines,” with references to evidence supporting that long-suppressed point. This is a genuinely new and good thing.

One of the many important facts explained by Farhad Manjoo, the piece’s author, pertains to just how deeply we’re down in this thing.

Despite the quasi-famous effort of Robert Moses to help bankers find ways to reinvest their clients’ surplus wealth* by adding automotive facilities to it, New York City remains, by far, our nation’s least car-dominated major metro area, with predictably good, if counterintuitive, implications for its comparative green-ness.

But, the comparative basis is still very much comparative, after all. As Manjoo explains, even Manhattan is wildly, crazily give over to automobiles:

In addition to the 2,450 acres of roadway in Manhattan, nearly 1,000 more acres — an area about the size of Central Park — is occupied by parking garages, gas stations, carwashes, car dealerships and auto repair shops. There is three times more roadway for cars on Manhattan as there is for bikes. There’s more road for cars than there is sidewalks for pedestrians.

And this holds, despite the fact that less than half of Manhattan’s households own a car!

Something is very rotten in this not-Denmark of ours, and the reality is starting to reek badly enough for it to be catching a few new nostrils, at very long last.

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*From Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, p. 730:

Jack Madigan, who had spent weeks trying to peddle Henry Hudson Bridge bonds around Wall Street in 1936, was astonished when previously aloof bankers began inviting him to lunch in their private dining rooms in 1946 — until one, Stewart Becker, president of the Bank of Manhattan, casually remarked over dessert, “You know, Jack, we’ve got more money than good uses for it.” Then he [Madigan] understood. Returning from Becker’s table, he told Moses that the banker was asking to be allowed to buy as much as possible of the next Triborough bond issue — and the bartender’s son [Madigan] added that he would never have to go hat in band to bankers again; from now on, bankers would come to him.

Car Culture, Indeed

The forces of reason and human progress have done a particularly lousy job of explaining the immense problems inherent in cars-first transportation, which remains, despite the times and for very deep reasons, a central project of corporate capitalism.

When such forces have dipped their toes into the pool of analysis, they have often done so by observing that, in America, we have a “car culture.” This, of course, is a tautology. The question is why we have a car culture.

Here, well-meaning folks have either parroted the longstanding — and hugely preposterous — quasi-official dogma that “Americans are having a love affair with the autmobile” is all there is to know about this key subject, or we have simply fallen silent, leaving such petulant falsehoods unchallenged.

I mention all this because one of the things that’s happened in the process is that, having chalked the topic of cars up to the realm of the inexplicable, the self-same forces of reason and progress have also stopped paying attention to how automobiles do indeed act and react as elements of American culture.

Consider, for example, yesterday’s multiply-gobsmacking announcement, by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, of “the most powerful SUV ever.”

Where would this corporation be without the continuing hold of toxic masculinity, nationalism, cowboy mythology, and sheer childishness? And, conversely, what would happen to those declining but still very pertinent trends among us “Americans,” if our main industry and #1 sponsorship source weren’t carefully perpetuating things like this?

We don’t know and generally don’t ask, in large part because the forces of reason and progress don’t pay any attention to such matters.

Ah, the 120-Year-Old Question

thinking skeleton image

The New York Times today reports that urban officials around the nation are spending time rethinking transportation, now that SARS-CoV2 has hinted at what a wasteful clusterfuck cars-first transportation really is.

Here is what Randy Clarke, “president of Capital Metro, the Austin [Texas] public transportation system,” tells the Times he’s pondering these days:

“How do we make a system that’s more equitable and sustainable, and give people more options besides cars?”

That, of course, was the pertinent question roundabout 1902, when, a year-and-a-half before chartering the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford was gushing to his brother-in-law that “there is a barrel of money in this business.”

Or, somewhat more generously, in 1917 or 1918, during U.S. involvement in World War I, when automotive road construction had not yet triumphed as the master plan for our spaces and places.

Unfortunately though for Randy Clarke and his peers, by this point, no technocratic answer to this always-epochal (and still-never-democratically-asked) question exists. We have long since built our entire, continent-spanning society in such a way as to compel maximum automobile use. The facts now are very much on the ground.

If we are ever going to undo this still-heavily-sponsored (read: business-dictated) mistake, it is going to take a gigantic, aggressive, and clear-eyed Green New Deal. Nothing else stands a chance of making a meaningful difference.