BLOG – There’s only one way to read about automobiles and national identity: with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” playing in the background. Springsteen is one of the country’s most iconic automotive enthusiasts, and Americans are just as enamored with his cars as his music. In December 2016, the famous ‘57 Chevy from “Born to Run” sold for $350,000 on eBay.
But celebrity is neither the beginning nor the end of the story of Americans and their cars; it’s just a point of entry. If drivers cared only about the glamour of their vehicles, we’d have transitioned to a society of sleek driverless cars long ago. Instead, even in this era of robust technologies like anti-lock braking systems, drivers make the extra effort to learn advanced driving skills. A driver’s ability to maintain control of their vehicle, for example, even if the anti-lock brakes fail, not only keeps the roads safer, but it also suggests that one’s ability to control a car means more, psychologically, than meets the eye. To delve into the heart of the matter, we have to start much earlier than Springsteen’s heyday. We have to do some time-traveling back to the early days of the industry, and what better place to start than Muncie.
Nostalgia and Evolving Industry
The industrial revolution was good to Muncie, Indiana. It started with the discovery of natural gas reserves in the late 19th Century, which sparked the town’s manufacturing spirit and led to all sorts of high-energy-use companies choosing Muncie as a home base. This is the era, for example, that brought the Ball mason jar factory to town. But it didn’t stop with glass. Once Muncie proved its hearty manufacturing spirit, the automotive industry moved in.
This is where things get interesting. Gearheads might be familiar with the so-called “Muncie Transmission,” a Muncie-built GM part that developed a cult-like following with off-roaders and four-wheelers because it’s especially good at handling rough, rocky terrain. For GM factory workers, the automotive industry became more than just a paycheck; it was a real source of pride and accomplishment. The sort of job you could brag about to your family.
Although Muncie makes an especially poignant example of the early roots of automotive pride in the US, it’s far from unique. All around the country, kids whose parents worked in automotive manufacturing grew up to love cars, and I mean love them. For these families, a car is way more than a mode of transportation; it’s a nostalgic nod to simpler times. There’s no better example of this than Toyota’s recent unveiling of the real-life Tonka truck. It’s still just a concept car, to be fair, but more often than not concept cars reveal kernels of truth about what’s going on in drivers’ hearts and minds.
With this groundwork laid, it then comes as no surprise that the manufacturing decline of the Great Recession in 2008 led to all sorts of unexpected political ramifications in Muncie and beyond. Trump politics, a very targeted brand of identity politics, spoke directly to people who were reeling from the losses of their jobs as well as a piece their collective identity. And this is where things get complicated.
Anger, Automation, and Finding Balance
Towns like Muncie are in the midst of a confusing, polarizing time in their social evolution. Many people who started their careers in industries like automotive manufacturing identify most strongly with those elements of the town’s character. Newer and younger residents, though, see more value in increasing educational and health-related opportunities for the city. When there are only so many industries a place can attract, and only so many jobs those industries can offer, it’s just natural that tensions arise.
One of the cruxes of the evolving automotive industry and its impact on the US workforce is, of course, automation. It can be argued that using automated machines to build cars is merely the next step in streamlining the manufacturing process. But perhaps we’ve taken it one step too far. Robots can’t (yet) solve problems, only people can do that, and when the human capacity for creative thinking isn’t used to its fullest potential, eventually something gives out.
In Japan, the country with the most industrial robots in the world, a handful of Toyota factories are rehiring human employees to increase the company’s long-term productivity. Their goal is to train employees who understand the full scope of the work, rather than delegating them to a single mindless task on the assembly line, which often leaves them helpless to problem-solve when the machine breaks down. Manufacturers are beginning to recognize that just as humans have their strengths and weaknesses, so do machines.
The most valuable machines are the ones who perform tasks humans are just unable to compete in an efficient and precise manner. CNC machines, for example, can shape raw materials into finished components like dashboards relatively quickly. The task of routing natural or synthetic materials and thermaform into a perfectly-formed dash — with precise cutouts for the odometer, gas gauge, and so on — would be all but impossible for a person to achieve in the same amount of time.
There are many different aspects of how cars and the automotive industry impact everyday life in America. One thing that is becoming quite clear is that in the big picture, machines are only part of the equation. If the industry continues to move in the direction it’s going, automotive jobs of the future will rise to meet the needs of workers by honoring their intellect and challenging their creativity. In turn, the American love of cars will continue to grow and evolve.