Some of us ambled up the road at a leisurely pace, braking every now and then. Others waited for the lane to clear and gunned it. All of us were trying out new cars on a stretch of road next to one of the assemblies of car dealers that is replacing the isolated car showroom and the “automobile rows” out along the strips. I was car shopping last week, and got to see a whole different side of suburbia. I also got a different perspective than what you might receive from the Detroit Auto Show that is garnering the headlines right now.
Let’s start with the car. As a cocoon of technology that surrounds you, the modern car offers an environment that brings machinery and the body into close contact. That meeting is not always pleasant. One of my pet peeves is that car companies lavish all their attention on the car’s exterior, which you really only contemplate in any detail during the buying process. They then leave the interior, where you spend all your time, to a combination of engineers, cost cutters, and failed interior designers who festoon them with a mismatched collection of displays, dials, strips of metal or (fake) wood; curves that swoop and die; and bulges that blob out into plastic cancers. Truth be told, things have improved since the last time I went shopping. The sweeps are more controlled and the bulges softer. There is still too much trim, however, and the worst issue now is the kudzu of controls that new technology brings into the car. Sir Jonathan Ive, we do not need another iPhone, we need an iCar that makes sense of all this information.
From the perspective of your car, the landscape changes. There has been a compression in sedans (the vehicle kind to which I am currently condemned) that has narrowed the view, making especially rear windows ever smaller. I suppose the thinking is that your rear-mounted camera takes care of that perspective, but I am afraid that we are seeing a development analogous to the spread of both signs and sound abatement walls: reality disappears behind information and barriers that separate us from each other and the landscape through which we move. Only those in trucks or SUVs place themselves above all this, lording it over the lowly sedan-bound with their big box equivalent of the super sized appearance of everything from McMansions to retail establishments.
Then there is the landscape of car dealers and what they do to their surroundings. Traditionally, such establishments, once they escaped from downtown, became that part of the suburban strip that really elided the difference between the road and the building, as the beasts native to the former romped all the way from the curb into the latter. Car dealerships have no shame: They are proud of the complete dominance of gas-guzzlers over our environment.
Now the dealerships are being corralled into circles not unlike cul-de-sac neighborhoods and office development. These behemoths hide behind other retail developments and only show signs of themselves on the adjacent highway. Clarity and honesty, however repellent in some ways, is giving way to containment and concealment. Within the auto zone, you are lost in a sea of cars and logos, the intensified essence of suburbia overwhelming you as you search for your future escape vehicle.
Then they give you one to drive (the idea of accompanying you on the trip seems to have gone the way of most other service touches) and you explore a part of suburbia you probably don’t know. You enjoy roads that curve, wait for the straight-aways, and find ways to steer back to your destination. It is an intense moment of testing, in which you immerse yourself in your potential future cocoon and use it to its fullest in its natural habitat.
Then you return the car, confront economic realities, and get ready to remove the beautiful object from its heightened context so that it can become a part of your daily reality, cutting you off from your world once again.