Are Today's Cars Much Better than 50 Years Ago?

There are three major dimensions, aside from safety, in which cars are better.

Short answer: Yes.

My reason for asking is this paragraph from a recent Tyler Cowen post:

I walked to my (non-fancy) car and turned on the ignition right after watching the movie. It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program. In this sense technological progress has been immense. That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.  Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies.

I’m challenging the second-last sentence and to some extent the last sentence:

That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.

Tyler and I agree on safety. The increase in safety has been immense. In 1969, there were 53,543 vehicle fatalities in the United States, a rate of 5.04 fatalities per million miles driven. By 2016, that was down to 37,461 fatalities; the rate per million miles driven had plummeted to 1.18, a drop of over 76 percent.

But we disagree about the quality of cars. Of course, Pillar of Economic Wisdom #7 says the value of a good or service is subjective. So if Tyler doesn’t value the cars of today much more than he values the ones almost 50 years ago, who am I to object?

Still, I think there are three major dimensions, aside from safety, in which cars are better:

  1. Durability. It was common in the late 1960s and through the 1970s to have cars that didn’t last 100,000 miles without major problems. Now, cars that go well over 100k miles without major problems are commonplace.
  2. Functionality. Power steering, ABS brakes, and power windows are almost standard. Transmissions are better. Fuel economy is way better. Cars are more comfortable.
  3. Entertainment. Radios and CD players are way better because in 1969 you didn’t even have CD players. You can hook up your phone to your car stereo system and play music. You can use Spotify and other cheap ways of playing your own music. You have CiriusXM radio as an option. Also, if you want to make a phone call from your car and not take your hands off the steering wheel, that’s easy to do on many cars.

Cowen continues:

Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies.

See #3 above.

I can see one main way in which cars are worse: they tend to look the same. They’re kind of boring looking. Maybe that’s what Tyler had in mind.

For that, by the way, blame the feds. Their fuel economy regulations cause car companies to choose more aerodynamic designs than otherwise. (Of course, the upside is that you get more fuel economy.)

This article was reprinted with permission from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}