At least in Europe and the US, the car industry has been associated with states for more than a century. During this period, automobiles clearly became central to transportation practices and, more fundamentally still, the organization and regulation of geographical and social space. In so doing, the Freedom of carmakers to produce relatively unregulated cars, as well as that of car-drivers to use them as they see fit, has been consistently defended in terms of values and thus politics (Gusfield, 1981). Just as importantly, however, this industry has long been associated with ‘industrial’ production and thence the generation not only of private and national wealth for owners of capital, but also of substantial numbers of jobs. Put succinctly, and as the massive public subsidies given to carmakers since the 1970s testify, the value of Security, defined as security of employment as much as of transportation and production, has long been mobilized to legitimize production in this industry. Moreover, alongside a progressive concentration of the industry which, paradoxically, has entailed many mergers and joint ventures that cross national frontiers, makes of car continue to be associated with one particular state: Renault with France, Volkswagen with Germany, Volvo with Sweden, etc. In this way the symbolism of each nation-state has permeated practices of finance, production, marketing, and consumption, and vice versa. Moreover, specific definitions of the values of Freedom and Security, as well as their mutually sustaining relationship, have been institutionalized throughout much of the world.

Notwithstanding the highly value-laden political significance attached to the car industry and the very usage of automobiles, the 1970s also saw the beginnings of a questioning of its dominant product: cars with internal combustion engines. Sparked by the first ‘oil crisis’, but also by increasing concerns over the environmental impacts of vehicles fuelled by hydrocarbons, for a short period carmakers and governments began to invest in alternative engines, and in electric vehicles in particular (Callon, 1979). However, when oil prices dropped, these initiatives quickly lost both commercial and public support. Indeed, due to reformulated concerns over ‘climate change’, energy provision in general, then the global financial crisis of 2007-08, it is only over the last decade that renewed and sustained interest in electric vehicles has re-emerged. Based upon original research conducted by Axel Villareal,[1] this section is devoted firstly to retracing more precisely how and why this type of vehicle came to be politically reinvented and, in France but also elsewhere, an object of ‘economic patriotism’ (Clift & Woll, 2012). Secondly, I then go on to explain why this reinvention has not brought about the reinstitutionalization of the car industry which looked a distinct possibility in 2008-09. The key analytical claim made here is that if some proponents of electric vehicles certainly worked intensely to both redefine and mobilize the value of Security from an angle of environmental sustainability and re-hierarchize Equality as an intervening (and thus equally important) value, they singularly failed to convince key sets of actors to share this political shift. Put bluntly, whereas the commercial failure of electric vehicles is generally ascribed to ‘technical’ or ‘functional’ issues (such as battery capacity or recharging), using Villareal’s research, I show that the causes of this failure have been deeply political.

  • [1] More precisely, Axel researched and wrote a PhD thesis on this subject under my supervision between 2009 and 2014 (Villareal, 2014). This dissertation drew heavily upon observation ofactor meetings, analysis of press coverage, and more than 100 semi-structured interviews. Axelgave me permission to use his findings in this book and has kindly commented upon whatfollows. However, I bear total responsibility for the claims made here and the interpretation ofhis work upon which they are based.
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