Doug Gordon: Hi, everyone. I’m Doug Gordon, and welcome to a special edition of The War on Cars. It is summer, so we’re taking a very quick break to recharge our batteries, work on some exciting projects and prepare our new episodes with the next one coming real soon. In the meantime, we wanted to share this bonus episode we originally released in June for our Patreon supporters. It’s our interview with Bob Sorokanich, the former editor in chief of Jalopnik, the news site about cars, the auto industry and transportation. He was also the long-standing deputy editor of Road & Track. Pretty big crossover event here.
Doug: My co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek and I had a great conversation with Bob. He’s a really nice guy, a very thoughtful commentator on all things transportation. And it’s the kind of thing you will get access to each month if you become a Patreon supporter of the podcast. You can go to TheWaronCars.org and click “Support Us.” And starting at just $3 per month, you will get bonus episodes just like this one, as well as ad-free versions of regular episodes, invitations to live events, merch discounts and we will send you stickers. Enjoy our interview with Bob Sorokanich.
Doug: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon, and I am here with my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear.
Aaron: How’s it going?
Doug: It’s going great. First of all, we got to say if you are listening to this, that means you are a Patreon supporter of the podcast. So thank you very much.
Sarah: Thank you.
Doug: We have a very special guest for this episode. Bob Sorokanich is the former deputy editor of Road & Track magazine. He was until very recently the editor-in-chief of Jalopnik, the news and opinion site about cars, the auto industry and transportation in general. We will get to this later. But he actually hired me to write something for them. So Bob, welcome to The War on Cars.
Bob Sorokanich: Thank you for having me. Great to be here.
Aaron: You know, we should just make clear up front that this is not a hostage situation. Bob is here on his own volition.
Bob Sorokanich: [laughs]
Aaron: Bob, you understand you’re free to leave the studio at any time?
Bob Sorokanich: And I reserve that right.
Aaron: Okay, good. Good.
Doug: It is podcasting, but Bob, blink twice if you need rescuing.
Bob Sorokanich: I was gonna say nobody can see me blinking right now. I’m blinking furiously.
Aaron: Bob is not wearing an orange jumpsuit. His wrists are not zip tied.
Doug: I thought maybe we could talk about a sort of cars-related thing: the air quality in Brooklyn last week. We’re all—Bob, you live pretty close by, so you were affected by this.
Bob Sorokanich: Right by War on Cars headquarters.
Doug: Yeah. How did you fare with our big air quality emergency?
Bob Sorokanich: I did all right. I definitely stayed indoors for, you know, several days at a time. I actually went to the Metropolitan Opera one night, and I was amazed that the opera singers, like, were able to still sing through, you know, an airborne event. But yeah, it was—it was ominous. And, you know, I’m not going into an office anymore, so I was just sitting at home all day that day when it went from gray to, like, a really, like, apocalypse movie orange. Very bizarre!
Bob Sorokanich: The last time I’d seen that was in Southern California during the fires. And, like, it’s weird to see that on the East Coast.
Aaron: Can we just—can we just back up for one second here?
Aaron: Okay. What’s going on here with Bob and Doug?
Aaron: Why—but Doug, why do we have the editor of Road & Track and Jalopnik in our studio right now?
Doug: Yeah, so I …
Aaron: What’s going on?
Doug: That’s a great question, yeah.
Bob Sorokanich: It’s a crossover episode with The War on The War on Cars.
Sarah: This is your side piece?
Aaron: [laughs] Are you—are you two-timing us, Doug?
Doug: Yeah. I host a podcast called The War on The War on Cars. Yeah.
Bob Sorokanich: Like us on Instagram.
Aaron: But how did you guys meet? Like, how did this come to be?
Doug: A long time ago, you reached out to me, and we met for coffee because you live in the neighborhood. And at that point, you were not at Jalopnik. You were …
Bob Sorokanich: That’s when I was at Road & Track. Yeah, this was pre-pandemic.
Bob Sorokanich: That’s how far back this goes.
Doug: Yeah. And I think it was just like I realized that you were in the neighborhood, and I’d seen The War on Cars stickers everywhere, and I—you know, I’d followed a little bit of what you all had been working on. So we met up for coffee. You gave me some stickers. I brought them back to Road & Track headquarters, and which raised a lot of eyebrows, you know, a War on Cars sticker on my work laptop where I write car reviews.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah. And it just kind of—it flourished into the beautiful thing that it is now.
Doug: Well, right. And then you did hire me to write a piece for Jalopnik, which was all about the #BANCARS slogan, which we can get into in a little bit. But then very recently, Bob, you just left your job at Jalopnik, and Bob emailed me and basically said in not so many words, like, “Yeah, I can come on now. That would be great.” Not that you couldn’t have come on before.
Aaron: Yeah, were you forbidden before?
Bob Sorokanich: No, I just—I just feel like, you know, now I can speak a little more freely about car media, and I’m not immediately being recognized as, like, you know, talking as the editor-in-chief of the most influential car news website on the internet. So I’m a free agent.
Doug: You don’t have a PR department or something like that and have someone approve everything you’re saying?
Bob Sorokanich: I also have a lot more free time now.
Aaron: This bonus episode is a real testament to Doug’s diplomatic work, frankly.
Doug: We’ve got to build a big tent here on The War on Cars.
Sarah: It’s sort of like Reagan and Gorbachev or something.
Bob Sorokanich: Ooh, I like that. I like that imagery.
Aaron: Huge summit.
Sarah: But I have a—I have a burning question. What kind of car do you drive?
Bob Sorokanich: So I have a Mini Cooper.
Bob Sorokanich: A 2008 Cooper S, six-speed manual, of course. It’s my city kick-around car. I also have a motorcycle. I have a Royal Enfield Continental. Basically, the Mini is a fake British car built by Germans, and the Royal Enfield is a fake British motorcycle built in India, so I love a fake British vehicle.
Aaron: [laughs] Got it. And why is—the six speed thing sounded important to you.
Bob Sorokanich: Manual transmissions are just, you know, something that car people hang onto.
Aaron: Stick shifts, you mean.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah, yeah.
Aaron: Got it. Got it.
Bob Sorokanich: It’s a point of pride. If I didn’t mention that, somebody would—somebody would go in the comments on your podcast and ask.
Doug: It’s so funny that Aaron, you seem to have no idea what he was talking about when you are the car owner of the three of us. I used to drive stick, and I really liked it.
Aaron: Look, we’re trying not to turn off the Patreon subscribers. This is a bonus episode.
Bob Sorokanich: I feel like I just got some dark lore here.
Sarah: Well, I do—I do then have to have a follow-up question, which is: so EVs can’t have manual transmissions, am I right?
Bob Sorokanich: They can, but it would be a contrivance. So the whole reason why combustion vehicles have multi-gear transmissions is because a gasoline or diesel engine only makes enough power to get the car moving in a very narrow operational range. So it’s like on a bicycle where you have all of the gears to make it easier to go slow and also to go fast. An electric motor doesn’t need that. An electric motor does just as good of a job at a very slow speed as it does at a very fast speed. So you could have an electric vehicle with a manual transmission, and some—there are companies that do EV conversions of classic cars where they keep the stick shift. But it’s sort of like it’s adding a layer of complexity that you don’t need. And it’s one of the—it’s one of the reasons why electric vehicles are more efficient is because you don’t need all of that extra componentry because the motor can handle basically any speed you would want it to handle without a gearbox.
Sarah: Right. Okay. But that’s sad for people who like to drive that way. I’m sorry.
Bob Sorokanich: It sounds like you’re being facetious, but it is genuinely true that people are mourning the death of the manual transmission as we move to EVs.
Sarah: No. I mean, I am being serious that it’s sad. I mean, we just have to let go of things as they change, so …
Bob Sorokanich: Right.
Sarah: But I but it is sad, and I do think that from my perspective as somebody who likes driving a stick sometimes, and I think it puts you more in touch with what it is that you’re doing.
Bob Sorokanich: Absolutely, yeah.
Sarah: And I think it makes you more aware of the car as a physical object in space that can hurt people, that you need to pay attention to, and it keeps your attention more focused.
Doug: You also can’t have your phone in one hand.
Aaron: Right. Or food. I mean, that whole—I mean, one of my favorite slurs for cars is “a living room on wheels.”
Bob Sorokanich: Mm-hmm.
Aaron: And when you’re driving a stick shift, you really don’t feel like you’re in a living room on wheels. Like, you’re in a car.
Bob Sorokanich: I knew we would find common ground, I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly. One minute in.
Sarah: [laughs] I know. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.
Doug: We’ve solved the war on cars. That’s it. Thank you, everybody.
Bob Sorokanich: We did it. All right, let’s everybody drive stick shift and bicycles.
Aaron: See you later.
Bob Sorokanich: No, but I think there is a commonality there, where if you are somebody who loves riding a bicycle, you’re—you have a better understanding of how that machine works because you need to know how the gears work, because you need to know, you know, okay, I’m gonna downshift to get up this hill, and then I’m gonna go into my high gear for level—you know, level riding. It’s very similar, and it is that mechanical connection, and it does give you a lot of sympathy for the machine and understanding of how the machine works. And if you’re operating the machine with some sympathy, you’re not detached from the experience.
Sarah: Sympathy for the Machine is a great title for something, but I’m not sure what yet.
Doug: Well, it’s funny because I think also, you know, it’s like the ultimate tactile experience, which is vanishing from cars entirely.
Bob Sorokanich: Absolutely.
Doug: Like, touchscreens for everything from adjusting your climate to the radio and your music to even signaling now is really—people are losing that tactile sense, which is adding to the distraction and adding to the, as Aaron was saying, living room on wheels feeling.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah. And it messes with your ability to drive responsibly because, you know, I sent you a video that I did on this about how you see so many people at night driving with their headlights off because they don’t realize that they need to turn the headlights on, because in a lot of modern cars, the dashboard is illuminated day or night. That always used to be your indicator, “Oh, it’s getting dark. I can’t see the speedometer anymore.” That was your subconscious indicator to turn on your headlights. And now that cars have these illuminated dashboards because they look slick, that’s the only reason why they have them is because they look cool, you’ve taken away this century-old subconscious reminder to turn on your headlights.
Bob Sorokanich: And I mean, every time I’m out walking the dog, I yell at people, you know, “Turn your headlights on!” I’m the neighborhood crank about this. My girlfriend gets so embarrassed. But it’s one of those things where we’ve designed something that makes it harder for us to operate the vehicle safely, and it’s all just done for aesthetics. It’s all done because, you know, some luxury car maker did it 15 years ago and now everybody needs to do it to look cool.
Aaron: I feel like that’s, like, almost everything in the modern car is like that. Like the huge front ends of SUVs and pickup trucks right now, you know, my understanding is like, there’s no actual engineering need for that. Like, we don’t need a hood to be five or six feet off the ground, it’s just that’s just pure marketing, it’s pure aesthetics and it’s to intimidate.
Bob Sorokanich: It’s a little more convoluted than that.
Bob Sorokanich: So we have to separate, you know, talking about heavy-duty vehicles versus crossovers. You know, crossovers are SUVs that are built on the platform that’s usually shared with a family sedan. The heavier-duty vehicles, the pickup trucks and the SUVs that are meant to tow heavy trailers or haul around heavy, heavy cargo often need a bigger space for a radiator to keep the engine cool. There’s a standardized test that pickup truck makers do where they’ll tow, you know, a heavy trailer up a steep grade in Arizona in, like, 100-plus degree weather. So you’ve gotta have that giant radiator to keep the engine from overheating during this incredibly stressful test. But there’s also a lot of, you know, vehicle design that’s meant to make an aggressive vehicle look aggressive or a macho vehicle look macho. So there definitely is an aspect of that.
Bob Sorokanich: There’s one other aspect here that I think is a little less well understood. Modern vehicles have to be designed for pedestrian impact safety. And so what you do is you have an airspace between the exterior nose of the vehicle and the mechanical stuff underneath, and that’s your crumple zone. So if, you know, God forbid, you do hit a pedestrian, the front bodywork deforms to absorb that impact so that it’s less energy transferred to the human body. And this is—this is a very nuts and bolts part of car design, but it is what automakers point to whenever they get criticized for making vehicles that are, you know, bigger and bluffer and less aerodynamic, is that they have to engineer in that crumple zone space for—not only for, you know, regular impact testing, but also for pedestrian impact safety. And that’s why a lot of cars—you know, you look at passenger cars from the ’90s, and they all had these very shrink wrapped sort of soap bar-shaped noses for better aerodynamics. And then the pedestrian rules came in in the early 2000s, and all of a sudden everything got sort of bluff and boxy in the front end. But there is also a fashion side to that.
Sarah: And there is the reality that when the hood is five or six feet tall, it doesn’t matter if there’s a crumple zone on it because you’re getting crushed under the wheels of that vehicle after being knocked down.
Aaron: Or you’re getting hit in the chest and the head.
Aaron: I mean, there’s that whole Detroit Free Press investigation that showed that these vehicles with higher front ends are, like, way more dangerous than the ones with lower front ends.
Bob Sorokanich: And, you know, there’s also the visibility aspect of it where if you’ve got, you know, a child walking in front of you, you can’t see them if they’re within eight or 10 or 12 feet of the nose of the vehicle. That part of it is, to my understanding, very much just driven by aesthetics. And it also plays into a broader thing where vehicles that used to be considered work vehicles, that used to be considered, you know, commercial heavy-duty vehicles are now being sold as luxury lifestyle vehicles and as status symbols. And so that’s where you get into, you know, pickup trucks used to have a nose that was this high and now it’s a foot higher because it looks cool, because it looks tough.
Sarah: That sort of gets to one of my questions about, you know, the marketing of cars is so relentless. I mean, so much money is spent on the marketing of cars and trucks and SUVs. And there’s this constant sort of need to fluff up how exciting and cool they are. I mean, sometimes I wonder if this product is really so good, why do they have to advertise it so much? Like, why is the marketing so kind of desperate in a way? Because you’d think, well, everybody needs a car, we’re all gonna go out and buy cars. Is it just buy this one instead of that one? I mean, it does seem sometimes like the advertising is—it’s desperate. It feels desperate that they’re saying, like, “This is gonna make you cool.” I don’t know.
Doug: If I can jump in before you answer this question, because I think this is the thing that always comes up when I’m arguing with someone and they say, “Well, these giant cars that you’re seeing out there, this is just a preference. Americans have a preference. They want these bigger cars.” And that’s exactly what I say to them. It’s like, why does the auto industry spend billions of dollars on advertising if you just want this? Like, you think they would all be pretty happy to see their stock prices go up if they could just slash their marketing budgets because people just love seven-foot tall hoods that can, like, crush an elderly person with, like, the slightest tap.
Bob Sorokanich: Right.
Doug: How do we get around that?
Bob Sorokanich: So we’ve got a lot of threads to pull here.
Sarah: Pull them.
Bob Sorokanich: First thing: modern cars are more durable and better built than they’ve ever been.
Bob Sorokanich: So it’s not like it was in the ’50s and ’60s when after two or three years your car was basically spent. You know, my grandfather was a businessman. He would put 50,000 miles on his car every year. He would buy a new car every year all throughout the ’60s, because after a year and after 60,000 miles, that car was smoked. That doesn’t happen anymore. The—I don’t know the exact stat on this, but rough numbers, the average vehicle on American roads right now is about 12 years old. That’s older than it’s ever been.
Bob Sorokanich: And a lot of that is thanks to the fact that cars are more durable, warranties last longer, cars don’t rust out like they used to. So if you want to sell new cars, and if your business is selling new cars, you have to make it an emotional purchase. And that’s always been the case. I mean, the auto industry basically invented modern PR and modern advertising, because if you were just buying a car based on how much room it had for how many people you needed to move around, you would just buy the smallest, cheapest, most fuel-efficient vehicle out there. We know that’s not how most people make that decision. I mean, it’s not even how I make that decision, and I have more of an inside view into how automakers sell cars than the average person, and I’m still susceptible to it.
Bob Sorokanich: The aspect, Doug, that you brought up about how automakers hide behind this justification of, “Oh, we’re just making these enormous gas-guzzling three row SUVs because that’s what people want,” I start to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but the existence of advertising and the fact that automakers spend so much of their budget on advertising and marketing every year tells you that this shit works. We can curse on this podcast, right?
Doug: For sure. Yeah, absolutely.
Bob Sorokanich: Okay. This shit works, and it’s why they spend millions and millions of dollars. I mean, I couldn’t even give you a percentage off the top of my head, but marketing and advertising are a huge portion of what an automaker spends every year. When it comes to SUVs and pickup trucks, there’s a chicken-and-egg thing, because it is more advantageous for a car company to build what is considered a non-passenger vehicle, meaning a utility vehicle, meaning a pickup truck or an SUV, than it is to build a passenger car, which is sedans, station wagons, hatchbacks. This all goes back—this is more of an answer than you asked for, but this all goes back to in the 1960s, the federal government finally got around to categorizing vehicle types. And this was at the early days of, you know, emissions controls and fuel economy regulations on vehicles. And so the federal government defined two categories of vehicles: there’s passenger cars, you know, sedans, coupes, station wagons, hatchbacks, and there are non-passenger vehicles. These are considered commercial vehicles, work vehicles, utility vehicles. At the time, they were thinking about pickup trucks and farm vehicles.
Doug: Isn’t this—there’s a whole, like, the chicken tax thing? Am I right about this?
Bob Sorokanich: That’s part of it.
Doug: Like, why should we penalize the farmer who needs to haul chickens? You know, why should they be taxed or have to pay more for a vehicle that they actually need?
Bob Sorokanich: So I’m not—I don’t know that genesis of it. The way that I know the chicken tax is there is—there is basically a carve out. If you’re trying to sell a pickup truck in the US, if it’s not made in the US, if it’s imported to the US, there’s a 25 percent tax on it right from the jump. That’s why Toyota builds all their pickup trucks in the US for the US market. It’s why, you know, name any German luxury automaker, they build their SUVs in the US so that they don’t get taxed 25 percent for being imported to the US.
Bob Sorokanich: When the government made these two categories: passenger vehicle, non-passenger vehicle, they defined a set of rules for what constitutes a non-passenger vehicle. It has to do with ground clearance. It has to do with the frontal clearance. You know, so off-road vehicles have their front wheels very close to the front bumper so that they can climb over obstacles without scraping the bumper. So they defined this box which categorizes a vehicle as a non-passenger vehicle, and they said, “Okay, if it fits this category, we’re gonna be less stringent on emissions, and we’re gonna be less stringent on fuel economy.”
Bob Sorokanich: And so automakers in the late ’80s, early ’90s started to realize that it’s less costly to engineer a vehicle, it requires less cutting edge technology to make a vehicle that can—that can live up to these more relaxed standards for a non-passenger vehicle. That’s why in the ’90s, you know, Ford and Jeep and eventually General Motors all started marketing SUVs as family vehicles, because they were more profitable to make and sell partly because they were more luxurious than a standard family sedan, but partly because they were cheaper to engineer and cheaper to build because they were not required to have the latest and greatest emissions and fuel economy technology. So you create this thing. You advertise it to suburban America as the new fashionable way to bring your kids around. You sort of tacitly create this friction between the minivan, which is considered the dorky family vehicle.
Doug: The loser cruiser.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah. And the SUV, which is considered, like, adventurous and macho and cool looking. And then you can throw your hands up and say, “Well, people love these SUVs! We would be foolish not to make them.” So there’s—again, it’s a business. These are businesses that exist to sell cars. They found a way to make utility vehicles fashionable and more profitable, and they sold the daylights out of them. And they looked around and said, “Well, nobody’s buying the passenger cars. What could we do? We had to kill the passenger cars.” Ford killed every passenger vehicle except for the Mustang, and they created the environ—and not just Ford. All of the automakers that sell SUVs created the environment in which it was less profitable for them to make and sell passenger cars. And then they stopped making and selling passenger cars.
Doug: Can I just pick up on something that you said in there? So we’re talking about sort of the old classic way—and I think my dad was like this—of buying a new car every year, every couple of years, maybe every four or five years. And now you’re saying some of these cars are lasting, you know, 10, 12 years. All I can think of is like, we’re fucked, man, because part of what we are told is that we need to electrify the fleet of vehicles as quickly as we possibly can. And we’re talking about if someone buys a new gas-burning car today in 2023, it won’t be ’til 2035, you know, somewhere around there, that that car will be ready for replacement. Hopefully then buy an electric vehicle. But we have to electrify everything now, basically. By 2030 at the latest in many scenarios.
Bob Sorokanich: It’s—so it’s a tricky thing. A part of why automakers have decided to preferentially make SUVs is they’re a higher-price vehicle and there’s more profit built into them. And so, you know, especially at the higher end, you’re talking about vehicles that can push $60,$ 70, $100,000. You can get an Escalade well over a hundred grand if you’re—if you’re luxurious with your options. The average person probably can’t afford a new car as easily as they could have 30 or 40 years ago, so as an automaker, you’re prioritizing these high-priced vehicles that are going to the person who can afford to, you know, buy a car every two or three years, or more likely lease it and then turn it back in, and the automaker can sell it as a certified pre-owned at their dealership. And that’s how you get the turnover of all of these new luxury vehicles being bought and sold, and that’s how you keep the car sales numbers high.
Bob Sorokanich: The 12-year-old average vehicle fleet number, that’s for everybody. That’s for me driving my—2008—15-year-old car. That’s for, you know, somebody who can’t afford to buy a brand new car and is stuck in the used market buying something that’s five or six or 10 or 15 years old. So that’s part of it where somebody who’s buying an internal combustion vehicle today, that vehicle will probably stick around for 12 years. It may not stay in the same hands for that time frame. It may—it may be sold to a second or third or fourth owner. But you’re right, the broader problem still is there, that we are still selling combustion powered vehicles. And even if we flipped a switch tomorrow and every new vehicle coming out of the factory was electric, you’ve still got an aging fleet of vehicles that’s still out there.
Bob Sorokanich: And I don’t know how we solve that, because there—you know, there are more people who can’t afford a new car than who can. And EVs are expensive right now. It’s hard to fathom how we solve that for people who just need a way to get to work, and just need that five- or six-year-old car that’s still gonna get them to work.
Aaron: Look, so cars—I’m sure you know the stats—they kill more than 40,000 people a year in America. They’re the largest source of emissions that are screwing up our climate. You know, they’ve sort of helped to facilitate this exurban sprawl that’s all across our country and causes numerous harms. I mean, you know the litany of harms. And I just wondered, like, do automotive journalists see these harms caused by the car and the auto industry? Because to me, it’s like—it’s almost like, you know, you could be working at, like, Guns & Ammo, you could be working at, like, you know, the Lockheed Martin magazine, you know, whatever those guy—like the arms dealers …
Doug: Raytheon Monthly?
Aaron: Yeah, Raytheon Monthly. Like—and I don’t mean this to be like an obnoxious question. I’m just genuinely …
Bob Sorokanich: A little late on that one.
Aaron: Yeah, I know. But I don’t want to—I don’t want to make you defensive, I guess is what I’m saying. But I’m genuinely curious, like to me, this product and this industry are so nefarious and yet, like, we just sort of treat them like it’s like any other widget on the American landscape.
Bob Sorokanich: So this is where I think the younger generation of car enthusiasts and car journalists are hyper aware of this. You know, when I was editor in chief of Jalopnik, pretty much every day we would end up writing an article about pedestrian safety, cyclist safety, about, you know, why are cars getting so enormous, and why have SUVs taken over the marketplace almost inexorably. It’s a very real concern. I don’t think that concern is shared by some of the older members of this car journalist community. And in a way that’s understandable. You know, we didn’t really start talking about this in a mainstream way until the 21st century. And if you’re a car enthusiast and you’ve been reading Road & Track for 50 years, this is a new conversation to you. I can say for a fact that pretty much every car journalist that I’ve worked with in a significant way is concerned about this. They’re concerned about the environment, they’re concerned about carbon emissions. They’re concerned with the fact that, you know, despite the fact that cars today are safer than they’ve ever been, road deaths have pretty much plateaued and don’t seem to be getting better. These are real concerns.
Sarah: And pedestrian deaths are going up.
Bob Sorokanich: Absolutely. I include that in road deaths.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, okay. But I mean, I think it’s worth saying that pedestrian deaths have not plateaued, they’re actually going up.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a crisis, and if you’re a conscientious car enthusiast, you have to be aware of these things. And I can’t think of anybody that I’ve worked with that is ignorant to this or that is covering their eyes and pretending that this doesn’t exist.
Aaron: And I mean, to Jalopnik‘s credit, you know, you guys had Doug write an article. I mean, I do think Jalopnik has been way, way better than, you know, the traditional auto magazines.
Bob Sorokanich: A big part of that is that Jalopnik, being an internet publication, can be a little more strident about things, and it’s a younger editorial staff. And that’s kind of—that sounds like a simplistic answer, but that’s a big part of it. I mean …
Aaron: But does it not make the advertisers uncomfortable when you guys go in that direction?
Bob Sorokanich: Not in my experience, because the advertisers only get uncomfortable when you’re saying, you know, “Amalgamated Motor Inc. makes a bad car.” If you’re talking about cars as a whole, Amalgamated Motors can say, “Well, they’re not talking about us.” And I mean, you know, there’s—there’s a very real aspect of this where there are a lot of brilliant minds in the car industry that are trying to solve these problems. You know, there are people whose entire job it is to try to find a way to minimize emissions, to try to find a way to make cars safer, to develop the advanced driving technologies that are meant to help drivers not crash and not hurt pedestrians or cyclists. It’s called the bus.
Sarah: But also …
Bob Sorokanich: You’re not wrong!
Sarah: But also, I mean, there are certain car brands—let’s just name the Dodge Charger—that what another brand might consider to be bad press isn’t bad press because they’re trying to sell the image of a dangerous, frightening, violent image on the road. I mean, that’s what they’re selling. And so if you say, “Gosh, Dodge Charger has some really violent imagery and language in its advertising,” is that really bad for them?
Bob Sorokanich: So that’s a part of the car culture that I struggle with. I love fast vehicles. I love powerful vehicles. I—you know, I would love to sit here and tell you that there’s not a—you know, that that’s not attached to the hooligan excitement of driving fast, but that’s part of the allure for me. And I am also a cyclist. I am also a person who lives in a city. I’m also a person who walks and takes public transit and does not want to get run over. But why do I love sports cars? Because they’re fast, you know? Why do I love driving on an empty, winding mountain road somewhere? Because that’s exciting to me.
Bob Sorokanich: I grapple with this. You know, this is—this is a hard one for me, and I think every conscientious car enthusiast grapples with this. It’s the same—it’s the same feeling that I have about carbon emissions. I know that ideally our personal private transportation should not emit carbon, but I’m not as excited about the EVs that are out there right now as I am about a piston engine, which I can understand, and where I can get very nuts and bolts with the engineering, and get excited about that.
Bob Sorokanich: I think you make a very good point, which is that right now there is an aspect of car marketing that feels toxic, and that feels like—it feels like it’s going the same direction that the gun conversation went 15 or 20 years ago. It’s—you know, there’s more talk now than I’ve ever heard before from the car community about, “Well, they’re gonna—they’re gonna try and take this away. You know, the Democrats want to take away my 6.7-liter diesel engine pickup truck. The—you know, the Democrats want me to ride the bus instead of driving my Dually 2500 Cummins.” And it is disheartening as a car enthusiast who is also a person who living in a society, it’s disheartening to me that the messaging that we’ve seen turn the gun debate into, “I need my AK-47 because somebody told me they don’t want me to have it, and I want to—you know, and I want to show them.” I hate that that’s becoming part of the car conversation now.
Bob Sorokanich: The first eight years that I lived in New York, I didn’t own a car. I loved it. I loved the freedom of it. I loved going elsewhere where the driving is enjoyable and driving and having a great time. I also love that I can read my paperback on the subway. And there’s this false thing in car culture, and it is—the car advertising is tiptoeing up to it. They’re not outright embracing the message, but they’re also not denouncing the message. There is this aspect where the messaging is like, “Somebody doesn’t want you to have this, therefore you better fucking enjoy it,” you know? “And you’ll show them by enjoying it.” And I hate that. I hate how toxifying that is.
Sarah: You talk about this sort of sense that the car culture has, that it’s under threat. And one of the questions I had for you is what is the auto industry scared of? What do they fear the most?
Bob Sorokanich: Regulation. [laughs] And it’s such a simplistic answer but, you know, I’m mostly in tune with the US market, so most of what I’m saying here is relevant to the US market. But any time the US government proposes tightening tailpipe emissions or tightening crash regulations or anything like that, the industry pushes back. And if you look at it from a purely pragmatic standpoint, of course they’re gonna do that. Of course, General Motors in the ignition switch debacle where, you know, so many people died because their cars turned themselves off inadvertently, of course, General Motors was going to try and pin that on the individual driver. That’s how business works. And it’s grotesque, but that’s just what businesses are gonna do.
Bob Sorokanich: And so I come back once again to the utility vehicle thing. The way that the laws are written right now, it is more advantageous for an automaker to build an enormous vehicle because the regulations are less strict on that enormous vehicle. And the automakers and the lobby did a lot of work to make sure that that’s how it’s done, because it wasn’t always done by footprint. Somewhere along the way, I don’t know exactly when, I believe it was in, like, the mid-2000s that—before 2010, the regulations changed from whatever it was before to footprint. And that’s why the footprints are getting bigger.
Bob Sorokanich: I don’t think the auto industry as a whole is afraid of EVs. The auto industry has an opportunity with EVs to create products that are exciting and that are marketable in a way that previous vehicles were not. They love a new marketing angle. I think the EV transition is gonna be tricky, and I think that, you know, there are—there are unsolved problems around charging, around battery durability, around battery technology, around range. That’s engineering, that’s solvable. What the automakers dislike the most and where they put up the most resistance, they don’t want to be told that they need to change how they make or design or sell or market the vehicles. That’s the bottom line.
Sarah: So they’re not the most scared of The War on Cars?
Aaron: I heard that in between the lines.
Doug: Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: I heard that.
Bob Sorokanich: You could make it scarier on them.
Aaron: But no, so if we do, how do we defeat you, you know? but really, the real question is …
Bob Sorokanich: You have to defeat the suburbs.
Aaron: Yeah. So—right. So at the very least, like, how do we make it so that within cities, the cars that are being used in cities, the personal mobility products are smaller, safer, cleaner, just more appropriately designed …
Aaron: Quieter. Like, is there any scenario in which we can have a future where cities have a more city-appropriate type of personal mobility product? And if we want to call it a car, fine, it’s a car. Maybe the auto industry can even make them. I don’t care who makes them.
Bob Sorokanich: [laughs]
Doug: Golf carts.
Aaron: But, like …
Doug: It’s golf carts.
Aaron: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: Yeah. Or, like—yeah, like, you go to Europe, and you go to a major city, and there are plenty of cars driving around and they are a half the size of the ones that we have.
Aaron: Ali, our editor just sent a picture of one. She was in Oslo, and it’s a Renault Twizy.
Aaron: It’s basically like—it’s like a cool …
Bob Sorokanich: It’s a phone booth. It’s a phone booth on wheels.
Aaron: No, it’s like a very cool little, like, two-person golf cart.
Bob Sorokanich: Oh, yeah. I love it. I think it’s—I think it’s such a fascinating engineering solution, because it’s trickier to make a small car small than it is to make a big car big.
Bob Sorokanich: So what do we do? First off, fuel has to be much more expensive. A part of the reason why cars in Europe are tiny and thrifty is because they pay on average three times the price that we pay for fuel. So that’s number one. Number two? Get rid of free parking. If you own a car and you have to pay to park it somewhere, half of the people who own cars will get rid of them in a city because it’s a hassle. I mean, I live on a street where I have to move the car twice a week. You know, even if I’m not driving it, I have to drive it, you know?
Bob Sorokanich: The third thing—and this is the part that’s impossible to solve in a short term way—make it not cool to own a large vehicle. And I do think that will shift. I look at this with a—with about a 30-year view. When the minivan was first invented, it was the most bonkers sales success ever. And Chrysler basically invented the modern minivan, and the modern minivan saved Chrysler. Ford and General Motors looked around and went. “Oh, shit. We don’t have one of these.” And they cobbled together some half baked stuff. And then for 10 years, the minivan was the dominant vehicle in America. And then we got into the marketing of “Well, minivans aren’t cool. Dad can’t drive a minivan. Dad needs to drive a Jeep,” much the same way that I was talking a minute ago about how younger car enthusiasts are hyper aware of the limitations and the drawbacks of car culture, I think the trend will shift where large, ostentatious, oversize vehicles are going to become passé.
Bob Sorokanich: We saw that for a minute when Hummer failed. The 2008 financial crisis all of a sudden, you know, gas prices shot up, hyper-expensive vehicles were no longer as fashionable as they were. Hummer went from being the iconic SUV to being a dead brand. I think this can happen again. And I think it’s—I think it naturally is poised to happen again because SUVs have been the dominant fashion item for 25, 30 years now. Shit doesn’t last that long in fashion, you know? The next thing is bound to be small cars.
Sarah: We were talking about how we were—we did an episode about pop culture not long ago, and we’d been talking about Succession, and how in the early seasons of Succession, they were all in Escalades and Lincoln Navigators or whatever. And there was still some of that by season four, but most of the highest-powered characters were going in sedan, limousine, black car type of things. And maybe that’s the bellwether there for the smallening—the smallening of vehicles. Because, you know, it does drive me nuts when you hear people complaining about parking. You know, if you do have free parking at the curb and they’re saying, like, “Gah, you know, it’s so hard to park now!” Well, not only do more people own cars, but every car is 10 feet longer than it used to be. It’s like, just do the math.
Bob Sorokanich: So there’s an astounding image where there’s—there’s a car journalist and YouTuber Doug DeMuro. He at one point owned a first generation Hummer. This was the literal military vehicle that Hummer then converted for civilian use. And it’s enormous, and it looks like it’s made out of wrought iron. He parked it next to a modern Toyota Camry, and they were just about the same length. And it’s insane, because you think of a Hummer and you think, “Oh, God, it’s as wide as a Peterbilt. It’s—it’s enormous, and you should need a special license to drive it.” And the modern Camry has gotten so big that their shadows are kind of closer than you would expect they would be. And it’s—you know, again, it comes down to marketing. If you’re selling a new version of the Amalgamated Motors vehicle, you don’t want to say in the advertising “It’s smaller!” You don’t want to say “The backseat has less leg room!” You don’t want to say “The trunk has shrunken somehow!” Every car gets bigger with every new generation. And it’s so that you can say, “Oh my God, the Honda Civic has more room in the back seat than a Mercedes from five years ago. Of course, I want to buy that new Civic.”
Doug: I get what you’re saying. Like, if everyone is driving the big black Escalade/Hummer, everyone’s car looks the same, and someone cool comes along and starts driving something smaller, that’s how fashion trends start and then everyone starts doing that.
Bob Sorokanich: I had to get rid of all my skinny jeans because skinny jeans aren’t cool anymore.
Doug: Right. Like, suddenly you look around, everyone’s wearing the same pair of white sneakers, right? How did that happen? With cars, there’s something more, though, going on, because there’s the reptilian part of our brain that says, “I’m going to be unsafe if I am not in the largest, strongest, beastiest car.” And so people might not be as willing to say, “You know what’s cool now? Hatchbacks. Little tiny hatchbacks are really cool. We’re gonna bring those back.” In the same way they might with, like, yeah, skinny jeans are back or, like, bell bottoms are back or something like that, right?
Bob Sorokanich: JNCOs are back. That’s the part that astounds me.
Doug: And so I wonder—and much like with gun culture where it’s like, “Well, the bad guys have bigger guns, so I need a bigger gun,” and there is something going on in our culture that seems to transcend just, like, the fickleness of whatever’s cool. Like, green is in fashion this season. Last year it was pink.
Bob Sorokanich: Right.
Doug: There’s something more primal going on. I don’t know. I—just to play devil’s advocate here.
Bob Sorokanich: I understand what you’re saying. I think the cultural sort of surface-level understanding that a big car is safer than a small car is very entrenched. That’s 100 percent true, and that’s very hard to fight against. But at the same time, you know, it’s also the thing where, like, you were talking about Succession and characters showing up in sedans. If you—if you can get an Uber and it looks like that big SUV and any jamoke on Uber can get that big SUV, that big SUV is not cool anymore, you know?
Doug: Yeah, but then you’re like Deion Sanders who bought that—there’s that picture that went around, right, of him in essentially like a—like, a sanitation truck, essentially.
Bob Sorokanich: Right. With a pickup truck bed bolted to it to make it look like the world’s biggest pickup truck.
Doug: Right. And so, I mean, he’s probably thinking, “Yeah, you know, anybody in the NFL or any pro athlete or any coach can buy an Escalade, can buy an electric Hummer, can buy the Ford F-150 or F-750 or whatever they’re selling now. But I can buy—you know what I can buy? I can buy a fucking garbage truck, and I can drive it the Whole Foods.” And so that’s what I wonder if that might happen instead.
Bob Sorokanich: You know, I don’t know. I think if energy prices get high enough that people have to be worried about them again, whether that’s, you know, fuel for your internal combustion vehicle or electricity for your electric vehicle, I think that could drive people into smaller vehicles. There’s also—and this is such a car journalist trope, but there is the counterargument that yes, a larger vehicle has mass on its side and in a collision, the more massive item always wins. But if you’re driving a smaller vehicle, you have a better chance of maneuvering away from the crash and not rolling over.
Bob Sorokanich: This is—I mean, this is such car-guy shit. Like, “Oh, well, my Mazda Miata can get away from the crash,” you know? And it’s like I said, it’s a meme in car culture. Like, “Oh, the smaller car always wins because you can zip away.”
Doug: Well, no, but I think there’s something—you know, that’s 100 percent true, and if you read Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty, he makes that argument as well. It’s like the easiest crash to avoid and survive is the one you don’t get into in the first place.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah.
Doug: But it’s one of those counterintuitive things, you know, I think much like induced demand. “What do you mean? Like, if I take away a lane of traffic, traffic could actually get better?”
Bob Sorokanich: Right.
Doug: It’s like, “What do you mean? So if I’m in a smaller car, I might be safer?” that I think Americans can’t get their heads around.
Bob Sorokanich: Well—and there’s, you know, again, there’s a—there’s a base level logic to it that’s undeniable. Our infrastructure has been falling apart and unmaintained for 50 years now. Our roads are trash. If I think that a pickup truck can get me home and to work without getting a flat tire on my underfunded undermaintained roads, that’s gonna be a natural choice for me. That’s the part that I think is gonna be hard to counteract is not necessarily I feel safer in this giant vehicle, but I just need to get where I’m going without a trashed wheel stopping me. I worry about getting around in a snowstorm, so I need all-wheel drive. Grandma comes to visit once a year, so I need that third row of seats. That’s the entrenched part and that’s the hard part.
Bob Sorokanich: And I often wonder about that. You know, I drive a little Mini Cooper. I can barely fit four friends in there. And then I think back to the fact that, like, when I was born, my mom drove a Camaro, you know? All of my friends who are having kids now are buying boring generic SUVs because “Well, I need to fit the baby seat.” Like, people survived, you know? People had fun.
Doug: We all went camping in, like, a station wagon.
Bob Sorokanich: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, I think that’s gonna be a harder one to fix, but I also think—I mean, you’ve seen all of the cultural chat around kei trucks, these super, super micro-sized pickup trucks that are now finally old enough to be imported from Japan.
Aaron: I love those trucks!
Bob Sorokanich: Every Gen Z car enthusiast I know is agog over kei trucks.
Sarah: Now that’s a good example of cool.
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah.
Sarah: Like, that’s a kind of cool that—and I do wonder if Gen Z growing up with this very visceral awareness of the crisis that we’re heading into, is going to have a different attitude towards some of this stuff. I mean …
Bob Sorokanich: I think it’s bound to happen.
Doug: I mean, it sucks that we put so much on younger people, “Hey, you guys clean up the mess that we’ve all made.” But I do think there’s a lot …
Aaron: I just don’t think it’s gonna happen on its own. We need some of these other forces like fuel prices or regulation or cities somehow taking control over car regulation from the state and feds and just saying, “Look, like, we’re just not gonna—you know, we’re not gonna allow this type of car on the streets.”
Sarah: Or we’re at least gonna tax the hell out of it, right? We’re gonna tax it at, you know, a much higher rate.
Aaron: It’s not going to be free to store it on the street, you know?
Bob Sorokanich: This is where we all agree, and this is why I came here, because …
Doug: You’re doing great. [laughs]
Bob Sorokanich: And genuinely. And, you know, I volunteered for this not because I thought it was gonna be a fight, but because we all agree. And I—and I can’t speak for everybody, there’s a lot of toxicity in car culture. But I don’t enjoy driving in traffic. I don’t enjoy, you know, having to pay $100 to fill my tank because my pickup truck gets 13 miles to the gallon, you know, as a hypothetical human being. My favorite times that I’m driving are as far away from traffic and congestion as is humanly possible, you know? There is no car enthusiast who sits in gridlock and goes, “Man, I fucking love this!” You know?
Bob Sorokanich: I did a video on this for Jalopnik. I wrote an article about this for Jalopnik. Car enthusiasts should be fighting hand in hand with the people who want to decongestify cities, and the people who want to make driving a pleasure choice and not a survival necessity. Again, not speaking for everybody, but most of the car enthusiasts that I know who are under 40 are all in favor of that, because we all grew up in gridlock. We all grew up watching, you know, the two-lane highway become the four-lane highway, become the eight-lane highway, and traffic never gets better. We all—you know, we’re all at an age now where, oh, man, if I want a nice house, it’s gonna be an hour and 20 minute drive to where I have to go to work, and I’m gonna have to drive 30 minutes to get groceries. Nobody likes that. And it’s almost unfathomable how we ended up in a society like that because nobody really likes it.
Doug: Bob Sorokanich, thank you for joining The War on Cars. You did very well.
Bob Sorokanich: Did we win the war?
Doug: We’re working on it.
Bob Sorokanich: [laughs]
Aaron: With your help. With your help.
Doug: You’re our man on the inside. Now there’s actually—well, now you’re out, so …
Bob Sorokanich: Yeah.
Bob Sorokanich: Well, now I can speak freely about the fact that I actually hate cars and never liked them.
Sarah: Okay. Yeah.