Friday, April 6, 2012

Driven to the Standard

"And now," as they say on Monty Python, "for something completely different!"

On this Good Friday, we're going to take an odd turn and talk about cars.  And specifically, how next year may be an extremely confusing one for car buyers.

The 2013 model year promises the debut of a whole new stable of mid-sized family sedans from various makers.  And while that might sound like good news for auto enthusiasts, just look at, well, what all these new cars look like:

They're not ugly, are they?  But don't they all look the same?

I know each generation of cars that Detroit and Tokyo churn out tend to be homogenized in their aesthetics, but for this upcoming model year, it looks like every manufacturer's designers were reading off of the same script.  Sameness down to the short trunk lid, the little flip up in the C-pillar window, the hatchback-looking rear window, plus horizontal taillights, a linear flair low on the side doors, squared muffler caps, and short front snouts.  OK, the Lincoln has a simple triangular C-pillar window treatment, and the Nissan has rounded muffler caps, but can you even tell which one might be the Lincoln?  The only thing that helps distinguish the Nissan are the pulled-eyebrow-shaped taillights that have become something of a Nissan signature.

For the record, the top car is a Chevrolet Impala, followed by the Lincoln MKZ, then the Nissan Altima, and ending with the Toyota Avalon.  All new for 2013.  Different taillights, yes, and front fascias for each car that display some individuality between them, but other than that, they're long, low wedges on wheels with very few distinguishing characteristics.

It's uncanny!  Or... is it?

I realize what these designers are doing.  They're all referencing the same scientific data acquired from years of aerodynamic modeling and testing, and they've all arrived at the same point in the evolution of automobile design where everybody has reached the same conclusions:  low ground clearance, short trunks, acres of rear windshield, and plenty of bulbous sheetmetal designed more to appease the wind than create distinctive identities.

Our government has mandated ever-stricter fuel economy standards, and the only way car manufactures will be able to meet them is by adhering to the hard science of minimalist aerodynamics, and this is obviously the result.  As time goes on, and as standards get even stricter, and as the buying public gets more acclimated to cars that look more like blobs splurted out of a tube of toothpaste, the shape of cars will probably continue their shapeless metamorphosis to the edgeless, creaseless egg-looking prototypes we used to see only in futuristic movies or really weird concept show cars.

Like many other things in our society, car design is on a race to the lowest common denominator, and by the looks of things for 2012, we're nearly there.

Actually, Jaguar has already pulled ahead of the pack, with its flagship XJ sedan looking just like these four cars starting last year.  Only it's bigger than all of these, and costs up to twice as much.  And considering that, at least in my own estimation, none of these cars look any better than the 2009 Honda Accord I currently own, I'm seeing less and less incentive to go car shopping anytime soon.  And why pay more, when even top-of-the-line cars look just like ones that cost far less and carry all of the basic safety equipment mandated by the government?

So maybe I misspoke when I began this essay by saying that customers will have a confusing time trying to distinguish between these cars when they start arriving in dealer showrooms.  Maybe instead of confusion, people will figure that since looks don't matter anymore, and nothing will stand out from the crowd, why bother paying for a status symbol nameplate?

Silly me - I know why people will still by the status cars.  Sorry - I had a momentary lapse in reality.

What's even more real, however, as I've been studying the photos of this winter's car shows around the world, where the lack of distinguishing characteristics between the automakers has been pronounced, is the spiritual application that can be drawn from this conformity.

Couldn't our process of sanctification as believers be compared - however loosely - with the scientific processes automotive engineers have been following as they've worked over the years to make cars more fuel-efficient?  If my assumption is correct, and that increasingly strict fuel standards are forcing all carmakers to settle on the same basic design standards that they know will achieve those standards, then Uncle Sam may achieve something it didn't set out to achieve, but has caused to happen anyway:  the wholesale standardization or unification of the design of the four-door family car.

As we fix our eyes on Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in ways which honor Him and benefit our faith walk, we may still exhibit certain differences between us, like skin color (paint color), eye color (headlight design), personality (option packages), ambition (drivetrain), ethics (brake lights), and spiritual giftedness (engine type).  But shouldn't we start looking like the standard prototype?  Not visually, since no man has seen God and lived.  Yet just as all of these cars are becoming the same by the standard we use to, say, immediately identify cars from trucks, or older-model cars from newer-model cars, shouldn't we look different to the outside world?

Maybe that's too much of a stretch.  But on this Good Friday, as we contemplate the sacrifice our Savior made for us, the fact that we are called to be like Him - instead of Him being called to be like us - can't be too inappropriate a reminder.  None of these cars are manufactured by car makers who can order the government to make its standards fit what's already being produced.  Well, I suppose they try - just like we do - but look how successful they are at it.

The good thing about Christ being our standard is that He's perfect, unlike government standards.

Plus, He's already paid the price - a price we could never pay.  Even more expensive and costly a price than the most tricked-out Jaguar.

My dear Redeemer, and my Lord, I read my duty in your Word,
But in your life the law appears drawn out in living characters.

Such was your truth, and such your zeal, such deference to your Father's will,
Such love and meekness, so divine, I would transcribe and make them mine.

Cold mountains and the midnight air witnessed the fervor of your prayer,
The desert your temptations knew, your conflict and your victory, too.

Be now my pattern, make me bear more of your gracious image here,
Then God the Judge shall own my name amongst the followers of the Lamb.  - Isaac Watts

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