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Why the trend toward mean-looking cars?

Normally, car design is one of the farthest things from my mind. But as I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, I recently bought a new car. So I’ve been noticing things that I normally ignore.

The thing I noticed while looking for a new car — and the thing I continue to notice as I drive here and there — is a trend in car design that I find both ugly and disturbing. From Cadillacs to Camrys, from family SUVs to sportier cars, nearly all cars these days look like warrior robots. It’s the Transformers look.

Whatever that says about us, it can’t be good.

I try to stay off the interstate highways. Going on the interstates feels like going to war. So maybe that has something to do with people’s love of cars that look like assault vehicles. But surely something else is going on. Judging from, say, the Camry’s design, it would appear that the Transformers look strongly took hold around 2015, though there were hints of it in the preceding years. Is it just that car makers recently figured out that aggressive designs sell? Not to mention that the Transformers movie franchise had already market-tested aggressive designs? No doubt it helped that we’ve been in a period of cheap gasoline. Big cars are in.

I came across an article from 2008 with the headline, “Science Shows People Prefer Angry, Aggressive Cars.” I’m afraid they do.

I also came across a scientific white paper from 2002 with the title, “Tin Cans or Assault Vehicles?: The Role of Crashworthiness and Non-Aggressiveness in Vehicle Safety Design, Promotion and Regulation.” This paper makes the point that, when considering a vehicle’s safety, people put no value on whether their car is likely to kill or injure someone else. They only think about their own safety. They (Americans, anyway) believe that big cars are the safest cars. The paradoxical consequence is that the greater number of heavier, less maneuverable vehicles on the road makes the roads less safe for everyone.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that aggressive car design is not just ugly, it’s ethically repugnant. Though I’m aware that there is no causal relationship, aggressive car design also coincides with disturbing new trends in highway safety. The long U.S. trend toward safer highways may have reversed in 2015. It’s still too soon to be sure. But ten states had frightening increases in highway fatalities between 2015 and 2017. In Rhode Island, the increase was 87 percent. Today’s vehicles have fantastic new safety systems, but it seems that these safety systems are being offset by driver distraction (phones, for example) and higher speeds. Europe, I believe, continues on a trend toward safer highways. Let’s not forget that most Europeans drive much smaller cars than Americans. If we Americans all drove smaller cars, we’d almost certainly all be safer.

Is it possible to be a conscientious objector and stay out of the highway wars? Not entirely, of course. It’s almost impossible to imagine a car-free lifestyle in this day and age, unless you live in a major American city with proper public transportation (there aren’t many of those). If I were still working rather than retired, and if I had to commute on today’s freeways, I’d probably feel differently about whether I should drive a bigger, more powerful car. But even if I did drive a bigger car, I’d prefer that it not look like an assault vehicle.

For whatever reason, I ended up with a car that looks like a mouse. I certainly felt like a mouse a few weeks ago when I drove on Interstate 40. Even with the speed control set exactly at the speed limit, a never-ending train of aggressive-looking and aggressively driven SUVs would bear down on me from behind, get a little too close if they were in my lane (the right lane, of course), and then race by like predators pursuing meatier prey than my mouse. I believe that the driving behavior of some of the drivers intentionally expressed contempt not only for my small car, but also contempt for any object that impedes their God-given right to guzzle gas and drive 20 mph over the speed limit. It put me in one of my people-hating moods.

One of these days, I promise, I’m going to come up with a blog post that finds some reasons for liking contemporary Americans. Most days, I can’t think of any. When Americans are on the road, they’re at their worst.

And you knew a political angle was coming, didn’t you? When an aggressive driver in an aggressive-looking SUV is bearing down on my mousy car on the interstate, I get a Republican vibe. Is there any data to support that? It’s hard to know for sure, for lack of data. But, as with all grim statistics, red states do have higher traffic fatality rates. Whether there’s a causal relationship or not, there still has to be something meaningful in that. And, yes, Democrats and Republicans have very different taste in cars, and it’s just what we liberals would expect. Only a eco-liberal would drive a car like mine, and they don’t like my kind.

It doesn’t surprise me that, in an era of weaponized and ugly politics, people drive weaponized and ugly cars.

Another Transformers car. They all look alike to me.


  1. Jo wrote:

    Not only are so many of them ugly, can no longer identify the manufacturer.

    In 1965, I drove from Greensboro to Los Angeles in a straight-gear Plymouth Valiant with no AC. Great trip and I cannot recall being harassed on the road one time. Fast forward to 1993, drove a small motor home from N.C. to Tucson, AZ with 3 sisters along. Again, great trip and no road incidents. Now, I drive around the Chapel Hill area and can’t wait to get back home. Rude drivers everywhere it seems. Longer trips are 200 miles to S.C., mostly on the interstate. Not a pleasure at all. We have 2008 and 2010 small vehicles, with fairly low mileage and would never consider buying a big car.
    You made a good choice with your new car.

    Friday, June 8, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Henry wrote:

    I purchased a Subaru Outback in 2011. Still have it. I use it to haul, fish (fly fish catch & release) & drive it everywhere. Because I fish and need a AWD, a “SmartCar” or any other economical vehicle couldn’t work for me. That said, I truly understand the aggressive demeanor of todays hi-ways – it seems if I do 65 they go 75 and so on, so I just try to stay in the right lane unless merging cars are coming on. When I return to my somewhat rural home from visiting my children in the Bay Area, I usually am exhausted, and immediately try to nap because I need to recharge. My girls ask why I don’t drive down more often, I try to explain why, but it doesn’t get through. Being I am older too (78), has a lot to do with it, I am sure.

    Saturday, June 9, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Outbacks are great cars!

    The most terrifying drive of my life was San Francisco to Sacramento at night. It was the trip that made me finally give up and get glasses. The eye doctor said, “Your vision is pretty good, but you just can’t see FAST in low light.” That was exactly it. It was as though I was surrounded by fast-moving objects but I just couldn’t track them. The PTSD was so bad that for a year or two I was afraid of driving at night. But I came to realize that, at least on familiar roads, I don’t mind driving in the dark.

    It has been 10 years since I saw you, Henry, but you look so much younger than that!

    Saturday, June 9, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Henry wrote:

    My head of hair and beard are now solid grey/white, waaa. I did wonder earlier how long its been since you escaped Keep creating, its fun for me to watch.

    If you drove it today (SF to Sac)…the terror would return, I swear for some reasons folks just have to get there yesterday. It is insane.

    Saturday, June 9, 2018 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

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