How do we go from here?
: The consumption of the car and the pursuit of a low carbon automobility

  • Jonathan Edward Kershaw

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Although the environmental imperative compels us to search for a low carbon system of mobility, contemporary society seemingly necessitates a low carbon automobility. The costs and impracticalities of low carbon vehicles are well documented, and although the cultural and semiotic nature of the car means that it has always been more than just a means of transport, less is known about how socio-cultural mores regarding the car might impact upon the transition to low carbon motoring.

    Because cars carry people, then they inevitably carry experiences and meanings too. However, a shift from conventional internal combustion-engined vehicles to more low carbon forms of propulsion, such as electric or hybrid vehicles, suggests that the nature – et ergo our experiences and perceptions – of the car will necessarily change.

    It is therefore desirable to investigate the contemporary ‘consumption’ of the car, not only as personal transport but also as status symbol, cultural artefact and experience, to assess how such a socio-cultural consumption might apply to low carbon vehicles and so ascertain the subsequent potential for a holistic low carbon automobility as part of a sustainable transport policy.

    A suite of methods was employed to investigate if or how contemporary automobilities can aspire to a low carbon automobility, or whether the everyday socio-cultural ‘consumption’ of the car might preclude a transition to low carbon vehicles. The notions of affect and/or non-representational theory were appropriated as a philosophical framework to look beyond a seemingly default postmodern ‘car-as-representation’ approach to the consumption of the car and so begin to explore a deeper, perhaps even subconscious, regard for the car. In addition, opinion was sought from stakeholders within the low carbon vehicle sector as to the technologies within, the prospects for, and the efficacy of, UK low carbon vehicle policy and its facilitation thereon, and also with a sample of EV drivers as to their experiences of electric cars.

    Responses to an initial online questionnaire appeared to deny any status or regard for the car beyond its utility. However, subsequent semi-structured interviews with motorists conducted (mostly) in their cars contradicted these findings, with a variety of expressed feelings – pride, empowerment, fortune – suggesting a deeper, subconscious regard for, reading of, and connection with, the car than is immediately apparent. Similarly, the utility of the electric car was transcended, this time by feelings of ‘greenness’ and ‘calm’ expressed by EV drivers. A stated amenability and aspiration by those interviewed for low carbon vehicles contrasted with an aspiration for sporty and prestige cars, suggesting an ingrained or innate idea as to what constitutes a truly desirable car. The more cultural facets of the car explored during focus group discussions established a connection between a car’s cultural representation and its meaning.

    Interviews with low carbon vehicle stakeholders suggest that while UK low carbon vehicle policy is broadly effective, is not as efficacious as it could be, in that itinerate market-led aspirations lack the fixity and certainty, in terms of both infrastructure and policy, that investors and consumers require, especially given a high entry price, the promise of lower running costs notwithstanding.

    In establishing where ‘here’ is regarding the consumption of the car and the implementation of a low carbon vehicle policy, this research provides a new perspective upon the appetite and potential for a transition to a future low carbon automobility, and shows the efficacy of appropriating the notions of affect and non-representational theory to a more holistic consumption of the car.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorNigel Berkeley (Supervisor), David Jarvis (Supervisor) & Jason Begley (Supervisor)


    • low carbon
    • automotive
    • transport

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