Forget for a minute the hand-wringing in India over declining vehicle sales. Worldwide, a car is no longer a cultural icon of desire for emerging generations. The numbers are there to prove that. According to a report from Germany’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR), the world car market is about to take its biggest hit since the financial crisis of 2008, with sales declining by more than 4 million in 2019 alone. In India too, sales have been declining at an alarming rate, forcing car manufacturers to cut production and shelve plans for add-on capacity.

What’s more, there’s nothing to suggest that a revival is even likely. That’s because there has been a fundamental shift in the way we see a car. For too long, the car as an object of desire was framed on the basis of human attraction. Marcel Duchamp, the painterly eviscerator of our obsession with eroticizing machines, ever faster and sleeker, shows us that the final stage of this disease is where they become our lovers. The car, a totem pole of this desire, has been overturned by the gig economy, where aesthetics must give way to functionality. Stripped of its sensuality, the car is fighting a battle for survival.

So, even as large parts of the world believe that electric cars are the answer to vehicular pollution and Tesla is the route map to going green, one nation seems unimpressed with Elon Musk’s endeavours. Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s minister for environment and water resources, told Bloomberg a few days ago that the country is prioritizing the use of its trains and buses instead of purchasing Teslas. Responding to Musk’s criticism that Singapore was being slow in adopting electric cars, Zulkifli said: “What Elon Musk wants to produce is a lifestyle. We are not interested in a lifestyle. We are interested in proper solutions that will address climate problems."

Those solutions have been emerging in the form of shared mobility, as well as better mass transport. If money can buy you a ferrying service, which allows you to travel without worrying about parking, fuel and even finding your way around, why would you feel the need to buy a car? Particularly when owning one confers no great social status and may well mark you out as a climate-change denier.

The fact is, nobody ever needed the number of cars that we have on our roads. The US has nearly 800 vehicles per thousand people, while even the much less affluent Kazakhstan has 200 and Botswana 120. These are staggering numbers when you take away the proportion of the population that can’t drive for age or health reasons.

The car stopped being a functional tool long ago, turning into an aspirational toy for rich boys and symbols of having made it to the middle class for the less well-off. By the 1960s, with cars increasingly being marketed as status badges, the bigger the car, the better was its aura. No wonder cars of that time came replete with gaudy tail fins and pounds of chrome, never mind the amount of fuel they guzzled. By the end of the 1950s, they had become a “rite of passage" for young Americans, with most states in the US laying down 16 as the minimum age for driving.

The oil crisis of 1973 knocked some sense back into car making, and Japanese manufacturers showed the way to better built and fuel-efficient cars that lasted longer. At some point, this had to catch up with car sales. According to IHS Markit, an information services firm, the average age of light vehicles in operation in the US has been rising for the last 17 years, largely on account of better technology and overall vehicle quality improvements.

Indeed, it would be fair to say that barring minor tinkering with the product’s look and feel, there has hardly been any breakthrough feature that can be attributed to traditional carmakers in decades. Author Ashlee Vance, in his 2015 book Elon Musk, writes: “Carmakers looking to put a modicum of effort into their ads have been hawking the exact same things for decades: A car with a bit more room, a few extra miles per gallon, better handling, or an extra cup holder. Those that can’t find anything interesting at all to tout about their cars turn to scantily-clad women, men with British accents and, when necessary, dancing mice in tuxedos to try and convince people that their products are better than the rest."

Check out recent ads for new cars in India, and it is striking how closely they resemble Vance’s stereotypes. And, while the vacuum created by this innovation drought directly led to the breakthrough of driverless cars, even if these ever achieve serious numbers, they can never become the kind of objet de désir that, say, a Ferrari or a Lamborghini was.

Significantly, in the US, along with the decline in car ownership, drivers’ licence ownership has also seen a drop, and while numbers for India would be growing, that’s only because of the large number of drivers joining the Uber and Ola pools. Anecdotal evidence suggests zillennials in India (those in the age group 18-24) no longer brandish their driving licence as a trump card. In any case, as socializing shifts online, their Tinder profile matters more than the make of the car they drive.

In that sense, it is the smartphone that has overtaken the car as a must-have for the young, which explains its enduring sales even as most other consumer products face a severe slowdown.

Sundeep Khanna is an executive editor at Mint

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