Last time we had a big, big problem with cars, computers came to the rescue. This was after the second embargo, in 1979. The long gas lines scared us and we thought this was the end of an era, the end of the car as fun. Time to repent and mend our profligate ways, time to rid ourselves of our addiction to Foreign Oil. The dour Jimmy Carter was right for these penitent times.
We know what happened: the car flourished as never before. More models, more brands, faster, safer, bigger, smaller (not too often), more fun. The main culprit for this break with our vows? The computer.
First, computers made design faster, totally virtual. Then, databases, network and more software integrated the heretofore separated, if not adversarial, design and manufacturing processes. Then, computer struck again and invaded the cars themselves, sneaking into engine management systems, steering, braking, suspensions, climate control, entertainment, displays, navigation, correcting drivers’ mistakes, protecting them with restraints and airbags. Recently, the tech servicing my car proudly told me he’d loaded a new revision of software in my (car’s) transmission.
Many mistakes were made on the way, we had splendid failures, but, in the end, cars did get more reliable, safer and more fun than they were thirty years ago.
But computers had help. With contrition came penance in the shape of CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy number. In order to foreswear our dependence of Foreign Oil, our cars had to use less gas. Gas guzzlers got taxed with the tax of the same name, and our government told car manufacturers they’d have to pay huge fines if their output didn’t meet the mandated fuel economy number.
Begotten by lobbyists and raised by our elected officials, the CAFE regulation was true to its genes and nurturing: it featured a loophole big enough to drive the proverbial truck through it. Pun intended: light trucks got exempted from CAFE. You see, we can’t punish our farmers, our country needs them and they need their trucks.
This exemption gave rise to our addiction to SUVs. Arguing they were light trucks, using the same chassis, Detroit made tons of money building CAFE-exempt vehicles with big engines, four-wheel drives, all manners of creature comforts, seating 5 to 9 people, with trunks to match. More