Book Review: Carjacked—The Culture of the Automobile & Its Effects on Our Lives

By Charles Krome

(Note: The authors provided me with a review copy of this book.)

More than 50 years ago, commenting on the launch of the Citroën DS, French philosopher Roland Barthes was moved to write “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

And if you buy into that kind of analysis, you can consider Carjacked, by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez (no, no relation to you know who), an effort to dispel that magic. The thing is, people aren’t usually too geeked to see their fairy tales destroyed, so even though the book made a minor splash in the automotive media when it was published back in January, it really hasn’t gained much traction in the mainstream—which is probably a good thing for the auto industry.

That’s because the book is a very effective deconstruction of the huge negative impact the “car system” has on peoples’ lives, physically, financially and mentally. Now, at this point, I’m going to separate the authors’ criticisms into two separate categories: On the one hand—and this shouldn’t come as a surprise—it turns out that manufacturing and driving in today’s mainstream vehicles are exceedingly unhealthy for almost everyone. For example, the authors indicate that 41,509 people were killed in car crashes in in the U.S. in 2007. In the authors’ words, that’s “the equivalent of a nearly fully loaded passenger plane going down in flames every single day of the year.” But that’s also just the tip of the ol’ iceberg here.

As the authors detail, for the family members and loved ones of people who have been in accidents, as well as for survivors, car crashes have some serious ripple effects in terms of mental health issues, money problems, broken marriages and assorted other personal tragedies. And while this all sounds anecdotal, the book does cite various studies and journal articles and sources like that. Which, I know, doesn’t make it perfect—but it is damn convincing.

Then there are the toxic chemicals, including the ones that are used to make interior plastics and continue to bleed into vehicle cabins. Of course, the production workers are exposed to those same chemicals and more on the assembly line. And come to think of it, so are we, every time we inhale.

Needless to say, the Iraqi war makes an appearance, too.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to argue with what Lutz and Fernandez are saying here about the deleterious effects of the car system—but the authors also try to take this to another level by indicting the whole system of personal transportation in general. Take the issue of obesity in America. The authors cite research to show that when people have cars, they’re more likely to use them even for very short trips that they could otherwise walk. This is something switching to EVs won’t address. Similarly, the authors imply that doing away with most private transportation could also have a big effect on things like the country’s current unequal/inequitable income distribution: Just imagine if people didn’t “have to” spend thousands of dollars on a new car and could use that money to save for retirement, put their kids through college, and so forth. All that money would then be freed up to be used on “better” things.

But this is exactly where the book runs into trouble. The authors take a neo-Marxist approach to embedding the car in the system of production, with the vehicle itself, along with the way it is bought and sold, all part of a tool to extract money out of people by “satisfying their needs,” even/especially if those needs are created specifically for the purpose of getting people to consume the commodities (i.e., spend their money).

If you give any credence to this philosophy, you can see that, yes, the car may be the commodity par excellence of the system of production/consumption, as Lutz and Fernandez detail. But it’s still just one among many, each inspiring fetishistic tendencies among their enthusiasts. And on that level, cars are no different from those other commodities developed in response to what Theodor Adorno has called the “culture industry.” That is, would the money people stop spending on cars really go to those better things or just to some other commodities, like big-screen televisions?

Or, sort of alternatively, should we get rid of something like the “fashion system” as well as the car system? After all, since all clothes serve the same function—something the authors say about cars—wouldn’t people be better off if they stopped spending extra money on any kind of stylish clothes and used the leftover money to save for retirement, put their kids through college, and so forth?

The bottom line: As much as I love cars, I came away from this book more convinced than ever that we need to radically change the type we buy and the kind of energy we use to power them. But I’m just not able to buy into the idea of privileging other commodities above private transportation in general.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting…going to be one of the first books I read when I get my Nook for Christmas.

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