Car sharing as an example of post-capitalist cultural change

From a stimulating essay by Catherine Marie Simpson on the decline on car culture:

Catherine Marie Simpson:

“Car sharing shifts the dominant conception of a car from being a ‘commodity’, which people purchase and subsequently identify with, to a ‘service’ or network of vehicles that are collectively used. It does this through breaking down the one car = one person (or one family) ratio with one car instead servicing 20 or more people. One of Paterson’s biggest criticisms concerns car driving as “a form of social exclusion”. Car sharing goes some way in subverting the model of hyper-individualism that supports both hegemonic automobility and capitalist structures, whereby the private motorcar produces a “separation of individuals from one another driving in their own private universes with no account for anyone else” (Paterson 90).

As a car sharer, the driver has to acknowledge that this is not their private domain, and the car no longer becomes an extension of their living room or bedroom, as is noted in much literature around car cultures (Morris, Sheller, Simpson). There are a community of people using the car, so the driver needs to be attentive to things like keeping the car clean and bringing it back on time so another person can use it. So while car sharing may change the affective relationship and self-identification with the vehicle itself, it doesn’t necessarily change the phenomenological dimensions of car driving, such as the nostalgic pleasure of driving on the open road, or perhaps more realistically in Sydney, the frustration of being caught in a traffic jam. However, the fact the driver doesn’t own the vehicle does alter their relationship to the space and the commodity in a literal as well as a figurative way.

Like car ownership, evidently car sharing also produces its own set of limitations on freedom and convenience. That mobility and car ownership equals freedom—the ‘freedom to drive’—is one imaginary which car firms were able to successfully manipulate and perpetuate throughout the twentieth century. However, car sharing also attaches itself to the same discourses of freedom and pervasive individualism and then thwarts them. For instance, GoGet in Sydney have run numerous marketing campaigns that attempt to contest several ‘self-evident truths’ about automobility. One is flexibility. Flexibility (and associated convenience) was one thing that ownership of a car in the late twentieth century was firmly able to affiliate itself with. However, car ownership is now more often associated with being expensive, a hassle and a long-term commitment, through things like buying, licensing, service and maintenance, cleaning, fuelling, parking permits, etc.

Cars have also long been linked with sexuality. When in the 1970s financial challenges to the car were coming as a result of the oil shocks, Chair of General Motors, James Roche stated that, “America’s romance with the car is not over. Instead it has blossomed into a marriage” (Rothschilds, Paradise Lost). In one marketing campaign GoGet asked, ‘Why buy a car when all you need is a one night stand?’, implying that owning a car is much like a monogamous relationship that engenders particular commitments and responsibilities, whereas car sharing can just be a ‘flirtation’ or a ‘one night stand’ and you don’t have to come back if you find it a hassle. Car sharing produces a philandering subjectivity that gives individuals the freedom to have lots of different types of cars, and therefore relationships with each of them: I can be a Mini Cooper driver one day and a Falcon driver the next. This disrupts the whole kind of identification with one type of car that ownership encourages. It also breaks down a stalwart of capitalism—brand loyalty to a particular make of car with models changing throughout a person’s lifetime. Car sharing engenders far more fluid types of subjectivities as opposed to those rigid identities associated with ownership of one car.

Car sharing can also be regarded as part of an emerging phenomenon of what Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers have called “collaborative consumption”—when a community gets together “through organized sharing, swapping, bartering, trading, gifting and renting to get the same pleasures of ownership with reduced personal cost and burden, and lower environmental impact” ( As Urry has stated, these developments indicate a gradual transformation in current economic structures from ownership to access, as shown more generally by many services offered and accessed via the web (Urry Mobilities 283). Rogers and Botsman maintain that this has come about through the “convergence of online social networks increasing cost consciousness and environmental necessity.” In the future we could predict an increasing shift to payment to ‘access’ for mobility services, rather than the outright private ownerships of vehicles (Urry, “Connections”).

The term ‘digital panopticon’ has often been used to describe a dystopian world of virtual surveillance through such things as web-enabled social networking sites where much information is public, or alternatively, for example, the traffic surveillance system in London whereby the public can be constantly scrutinised through the centrally monitored cameras that track people’s/vehicle’s movements on city streets. In his “sociologies of the future,” Urry maintains that one thing which might save us from descending into post-car civil chaos is a system governed by a “digital panopticon” mobility system. This would be governed by a nexus system “that orders, regulates, tracks and relatively soon would ‘drive’ each vehicle and monitor each driver/passenger” (Urry, “Connections” 33). The transformation of mobile technologies over the last decade has made car sharing, as a viable business model, possible. Through car sharing’s exploitation of an online booking system, and cars that can be tracked, monitored and traced, the seeds of a mobile “networked-subjectivity” are emerging.

But it’s not just the technology people are embracing; a cultural shift is occurring in the way that people understand mobility, their own subjectivity, and more importantly, the role of cars. NETT Magazine did a feature on car sharing, and advertised it on their front cover as “GoGet’s web and mobile challenge to car owners” (May 2009). Car sharing seems to be able to tap into more contemporary understandings of what mobility and flexibility might mean in the twenty-first century. In their marketing and promotion tactics, car sharing organisations often discursively exploit science fiction terminology and generate a subjectivity much more dependent on networks and accessibility (158). In the suburbs people park their cars in garages. In car sharing, the vehicles are parked not in car bays or car parks, but in publically accessible ‘pods’, which promotes a futuristic, sci-fi experience. Even the phenomenological dimensions of swiping a smart card over the front of the windscreen to open the car engender a transformation in access to the car, instead of through a key. This is service-technology of the future while those stuck in car ownership are from the old economy and the “century of the car” (Gilroy).

The connections between car sharing and the mobile phone and other communications technologies are part of the notion of a networked, accessible vehicle. However, the more problematic side to this is the car under surveillance. Nic Lowe, of his car sharing organisation GoGet says, “Because you’re tagged on and we know it’s you, you are able to drive the car… every event you do is logged, so we know what time you turned the key, what time you turned it off and we know how far you drove … if a car is lost we can sound the horn to disable it remotely to prevent theft. We can track how fast you were going and even how fast you accelerated … track the kilometres for billing purposes and even find out when people are using the car when they shouldn’t be” (Mehlman 27). The possibility with the GPS technology installed in the car is being able to monitor speeds at which people drive, thereby fining then every minute spent going over the speed limit. While this conjures up the notion of the car under surveillance, it is also a much less bleaker scenario than “a Hobbesian war of all against all”.

The prospect of climate change is provoking innovation at a whole range of levels, as well as providing a re-thinking of how we use taken-for-granted technologies. Sometime this century the one tonne, privately owned, petrol-driven car will become an artefact, much like Sydney trams did last century. At this point in time, car sharing can be regarded as an emerging transitional technology to a post-car society that provides a challenge to hegemonic automobile culture. It is evidently not a radical departure from the car’s vast machinic complex and still remains a part of what Urry calls the “system of automobility”. From a pro-car perspective, its networked surveillance places constraints on the free agency of the car, while for those of the deep green variety it is, no doubt, a compromise. Nevertheless, it provides a starting point for re-thinking the foundations of the privately-owned car. While Urry makes an important point in relation to a society moving from ownership to access, he doesn’t take into account the cultural shifts occurring that are enabling car sharing to be attractive to prospective members: the notion of networked subjectivities, the discursive constructs used to establish car sharing as a thing of the future with pods and smart cards instead of garages and keys. If car sharing became mainstream it could have radical environmental impacts on things like urban space and pollution, as well as the dominant culture of “automobile dependence” (Newman and Kenworthy), as Australia attempts to move to a low carbon economy.”

Source: Catherine Marie Simpson. Cars, Climates and Subjectivity: Car Sharing and Resisting Hegemonic Automobile Culture?M/C Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4 (2009) – Vol. 12, No. 4 (2009)

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