We’re constantly being told that we’re on the cusp of revolutionary change in the transportation landscape in the United States. But are we really? Or are we merely rolling down the same path that we began to follow at the dawn of the automotive age? Historian and automotive journalist Dan Albert explores the issue in his book Are We There Yet? (W.W. Norton & Company; 386 pages; $26.95 hardcover; Release date June 11, 2019).
Albert is the car critic for n + 1 magazine, a print and digital magazine of literature, culture, and politics. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Michigan. He applies his academic and cultural chops to the landscape of the automobile in America with impressive results. The well-researched and annotated book is subtitled “The American Automobile, Past, Present, and Driverless.” It is a smart, well-written look at the subject, full of insights based on research into contemporary and historical sources, generously peppered with Albert’s personal experiences, reminiscences and opinions. Albert is a car guy, an academic who gets his hands dirty maintaining and repairing his own vehicles when possible. He has a way of bringing automotive history to life that is very readable and relatable, and speaks with the authority of a historian who has a healthy respect for the role of the automobile in American society.
Are We There Yet? Book cover.
Are We There Yet? Book cover. IMAGE (C) W.W. NORTON
Many predictions about our driverless future carry the weight of inevitability and rapid adoption of the technology. Auto manufacturers present themselves as custodians of the public good. They represent our best hope for safer, more environmentally sustainable transportation. Albert points out multiple documented case histories that counter this representation, as many manufacturers resisted the inclusion of safety features and emissions controls until governmental intervention and market forces overcame their objections. Even then, some safety features have been modified to accommodate social acceptance. For example, Albert writes about the brief flirtation with seat belt interlocks, which were introduced in 1974. “Drivers wrote their congressmen. Congressmen, knowing how to win votes, responded with no fewer than six different bills. These resulted in Public Law 93-492, signed October 27, 1974, which says that NHTSA cannot require ‘any continuous buzzer designed to indicate that safety belts are not in use, or any safety belt interlock system.’ To this day, it is illegal for a buzzer to sound for more than eight seconds. That’s democracy in action.” It took another ten years before New York became the first state to pass a mandatory seat belt law.
Albert is not afraid to confront safety advocates in addition to auto manufacturers. “Although I count (Ralph) Nader among my heroes, he is not perfect,” writes Albert in the book. He decries Nader for focusing on the Chevrolet Corvair, a niche vehicle, while avoiding public censure of the Volkswagen Beetle, which “had the same design flaws. Had he instead made the Beetle the main character of Unsafe at Any Speed, the political struggle for auto safety might have taken a different course.”
Author Dan Albert.
Author Dan Albert. PHOTO (C) JARED CHARNEY
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
Grads of Life BRANDVOICE
How The Second Chance Business Coalition Powers Second Chance Employment
UNICEF USA BRANDVOICE
UNICEF Stands With Dreamers And TPS Recipients
UNICEF USA BRANDVOICE
An Ebola Outbreak Rages In Democratic Republic Of Congo
Albert can be irreverent, as he is when pointing out that George Will “mansplained that ‘liberals love trains’ because they hate freedom” in Will's 2011 Newsweek article. “When the average person or innocent commentator misinterprets the political and sociological impact of the Interstates, she or he should be educated. When a Pulitzer Prize-winning pundit with a PhD in politics and a resume that includes six years as editor of the National Review misrepresents the Interstates to present a pernicious interpretation of the American automobile and American politics, he should be derided. The goal of such representations is to beggar mass transit by defining it as un-American and socialistic in contradistinction to the great American automotive freedom machine. How dare anyone challenge my love of country or car because I want to ride a superfast train from Boston to Washington?” wrote Albert.
Are We There Yet? takes a linear, chronological path through American automotive history, and concludes with Albert’s bittersweet concession that we may indeed be on our way to new relationship with transportation. “When we embrace driverless cars, we will surrender our American automobile as an adventure machine, as a tool of self-expression, and the wellspring of our wealth and our defense,” he wrote. “We will be left with machines unworthy of love and unable to fill the desires our driven cars now do.”
As a fellow car guy and automotive journalist, I hope that Albert is wrong – but I suspect that he isn’t. I recommend Are We There Yet? to anyone who wants to take the journey through our shared automotive history with a smart, opinionated guide.