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The upside of the staggering GM recalls

Maybe they’ll finally shake our faith in a transportation system so heavily dependent on cars

July 10, 2014 6:00AM ET

General Motors’ latest recall of another mega-batch of defective vehicles has brought the total of potentially unsafe vehicles the company has recalled globally this year to a staggering 29 million. Public questioning of what went wrong has centered on GM company culture and practices. While there is much to say and do about lax regulation of car safety, both at the corporate and the governmental level, two larger safety questions have gone unasked.

The first: How safe is any car? GM has acknowledged 16 deaths, and Reuters has identified another possible 58 due to specific ignition and airbag defects in GM cars. These tragic losses, which have sparked fear and outrage, represent just a handful of the nearly 34,000 people killed last year in crashes in the U.S. and a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million killed worldwide, according to a United Nations count. In other words, the risk of dying in a defective vehicle pales in comparison with the risk of dying in — or by — any vehicle.

But humans are notoriously bad at assessing where risk lies. We feel less safe getting on a jet, where the chances of dying are minuscule, than getting into a car, which remains the most dangerous thing most Americans do every day. Exposure to an onslaught of happy, family-friendly car marketing — in magazines, on the street and online (with those ubiquitous pop-up video ads) — makes it harder for us to adequately, or accurately, assess our chances of dying on the road. A transportation system that has made driving compulsory for most Americans provides yet more motivation to, when presented with dark statistics, look the other way.

Cars, it is true, are safer than ever due to the addition of equipment such as anti-lock brakes, automatic stability control, front and side airbags and rearview cameras. But the bottom line is that a perfectly engineered vehicle, loaded with the latest safety innovations, still kills. One reason why is that these new models are also increasingly loaded with might be called anti-safety equipment: in-car infotainment systems that keep drivers and passengers connected to the Internet, television and phones. These highly profitable distractions are being built into cars more quickly than regulators can assess the mayhem they are likely to cause on the highway.

As auto safety has progressed, we’ve begun to believe that it isn’t the car that is unsafe — it’s the driver.  Drivers are dangerous: They speed, they drink or take drugs, they drive sleepy or while distracted, they flout traffic rules. So the recent promise of self-driving cars is both exciting and comforting. Over the past few years, hopped-up headlines have announced that self-driving cars are about to change our lives, dropping crash rates and medical and insurance costs, raising fuel efficiency, cutting traffic congestion and even enabling the blind to drive. But this brings us to the second question the GM recall debacle should be sparking. How much faith should we have in the much-touted promise of the driverless car?  

The actual safety impact of the GM recalls may be that they'll further erode confidence in the United States' car-based culture.

The self-driving car does have its critics. They note that consumers may not want them, perceiving them to be less fun to drive or wary of the possibility that hackers will break into their systems. Others predict they will be too expensive for all but the rich to afford. Still others are troubled about whether regulators will stay on top of technical developments well enough to protect the public interest. Polls show that many Americans remain skeptical of this anticipated car technology, though more on privacy, rather than safety, grounds: 80 percent worry about hackers, 75 percent that companies will collect data on them from the vehicles’ software and 70 percent that data will be shared with the government. The news media, technologists, investors and the auto industry, however, are widely enthusiastic about its prospects.

The self-driving car is just the latest manifestation of our belief in the techno-fix — that new technology will solve the problems created by old technology. But if we can’t trust manufacturers to produce cars today without glitch or error (or cars that can reveal and self-correct glitches or errors), why would we rely on them to do so tomorrow? One proffered image of the self-driving car is of thousands of vehicles speeding in tandem down a highway while drivers nap, read or text. If a faulty ignition part can cause an individual car to crash, a mass tragedy would seem to await the first faulty self-driving crash.

It shouldn’t be hard to remember the promise, repeated over the past few decades, that the electric car would solve a host of problems created by automotive technology: It was the techno-fix to greenhouse gas emissions, foreign oil dependence and rising asthma rates. The reality is that years of breathless car industry hype have produced very little. The famous Nissan ad in which a polar bear emerges from a melting Arctic to hug the proprietor of an electric vehicle may have been intended more to give the company a public relations boost than to actually sell cars: Fewer than half of 1 percent of cars sold today are electric. But for the auto industry, marketing safer and environmentally friendlier vehicles (regardless of actual sales) has an upside: It helps keep the car relevant, a key symbol of social status and a leading indicator of technological progress. The marketing of these priorities, though, produces cultural obstacles to public investment in more sustainable, healthy and efficient ways of getting around.

The GM recalls could save lives. But their actual safety impact may be that they’ll further erode confidence in the United States’ car-based culture and a car- and oil-based political economy. There are plenty of signs that this erosion is underway: a later average licensing age among youth, a strong demographic shift among young adults to cities and especially to the transit-rich and walkable parts of urban areas such as Chicago, Boston and Milwaukee (and even Atlanta and Albuquerque), the rise of car-sharing apps and other ways in which social media make alternative modes of mobility easier, and the stagnant wages and increasing income inequality that put cars further out of the reach of many.

Faith in GM may be shaken, but what should really be shaken is faith in the viability of a transportation system so heavily dependent on cars. When we stop comforting ourselves that we can solve old car problems with new cars, we will speed progress on non-automotive solutions to America’s mobility needs. 

Catherine Lutz is an anthropologist at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. She is the co-author, with Anne Lutz Fernandez, of "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives."

Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former investment banker and marketing executive. She is the co-author, with Catherine Lutz, of "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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