What is a car?

If you’re relaxed and intellectually playful then the question ‘What is a car?’ won’t set your teeth on edge. At first sight it looks puerile. After all, even very young children can identify a car successfully. So what is a car? If pressed, certain features might be identified which cars ‘must’ have. These may include (but not exclusively) an engine, wheels, doors, seats, steering wheel, a fuel supply and so on. Yet even as the list grows a certain unease might begin. After all buses also have these features and they aren’t cars. So what is a car?

Is it necessary that cars have an engine, wheels, doors, seats, steering wheel, a fuel supply and so on? Fans of innovative technology might comment on Tesla cars* which don’t have drivers, making steering wheels redundant. Cars don’t need an engine either as they could be linked to an external power supply. Science fiction films like Blade Runner** feature vehicles which don’t require roads or wheels. Doors? Well access points are necessary as cars are inextricably involved with passengers but older readers might remember The Dukes of Hazzard*** where our heroes didn’t require doors as they leapt into their car athletically. Seats are unnecessary as passengers can stand, crouch or lay down. So the ‘obvious’ list of pre-eminent features of cars boils down to an access point. Why?

Cars must carry passengers. ‘Cars’ that don’t carry passengers are vans or trucks. Buses do carry passengers but there is a critical functionality difference. Cars offer personalised transport while buses provide collective transport solutions. This car carries me where I want, unlike buses which take people on prescribed routes. Even very large vehicles, say Hummers****, can be cars. If it is used typically – going to the shops, on holiday, leisure activities, business journeys etc. – then it’s fulfilling the functionality requirements of a car. Functionality requirements can be transformative. Thus buying a bus and using it is as a car transforms its status: it used to be a bus but now it’s a car. And vice versa. Cars are irretrievably linked to passengers. Cars which can’t carry passengers, because of their design, (say without access points) aren’t cars. Miniature cars can’t carry passengers and therefore aren’t cars. Access points for passengers are a necessary feature of cars and form the first part of the answer to the question ‘What is a car?’

Cars must be able to move. It’s a necessary feature of cars. That doesn’t mean to say that this car, which isn’t moving isn’t a car. Being parked, broken-down or whatever, is purely neutral to its car status. A car is a car until such time as it ceases to be a car. It keeps that status all along. It’s necessary that cars can move. Why? Passengers use cars to go from place to place demanding movement. The sole point of a car is the transportation of passengers, therefore immobile ‘cars’ can be exotic furniture, sculpture, street entertainment or whatever, but they aren’t cars. Establishing that cars require passengers reinforces the conceptual point that cars must be able to move. This is my second necessary point answering the question ‘What is a car?’

Situation-specific technology informs this analysis. The seemingly obvious, if incomplete, list ‘an engine, wheels, doors, seats, steering wheel, a fuel supply and so on’ is entirely redundant within certain technological environments. Cars must be mobile and must have an access point for their passengers. Nothing else is compelling*****. But how do we know when a car ceases to be a car?

Cars cease to be cars when transformed or transmogrified into something else and thereby lose ‘car’ qualities. That car rolling along the road, with passengers, is a car: this car which is now a cube is scrap metal isn’t a car. Cubes of metal aren’t cars. They can’t carry passengers or move. Manifestly total immobility is fatal to the concept ‘car’. Total immobility is easy to accept but what about total depopulation? Cars must be mobile and carry passengers. Total depopulation implies no cars. Even if robot operated car factories carried on making cars after the total depopulation of the world, what they made wouldn’t be cars. They couldn’t be cars because cars need passengers : cars conceptually rely on there being passengers. No passengers, no cars.

So ‘What is a car? Cars are vehicles for moving passengers. ‘Cars’ that don’t move aren’t cars. ‘Cars’ that don’t carry passengers aren’t cars though they could be ‘planes, ships, trains, trucks or vans. ‘Cars’ that follow prescribed routes aren’t cars though they could be buses, ‘planes, ships or trains. Cars are cars if and only if they transport passengers to idiosyncratic destinations.

*Tesla. An innovative car currently being developed
**Blade Runner. Science fiction film 1982
***The Dukes of Hazzard. Children’s TV series 1979-85
****Hummer. Very large vehicle sometimes used as a car.
*****This raises an intriguing point about whether bicycles, motorcycles, sedan chairs or rickshaws are a sub-set of cars?

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2 Responses to What is a car?

  1. odeboyz says:

    I’ll take your points one by one.
    The first is dealt with by my remarks on situation-specific technology. It’s quite clear that roads are entirely incidental to the concept ‘car’ as we speak there are off-road cars; internal combustion engine likewise and the number of people is broadly speaking irrelevant.
    2/3 are just examples of language and neither here or there
    4/5 these seem to be slang (balloon is interesting as journeys could be idiosyncratic like rickshaws etc.)

    Thank you for your comments

  2. Chris Roberts says:

    Google Version for thought.

    a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal-combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people.
    “we’re going by car”

    synonyms: motor car, automobile, motor, machine;
    More informal: wheels, heap, crate, (old) banger, jalopy, limo;

    archaic: horseless carriage

    a railway carriage or (North American) wagon.
    “the first-class cars”
    “they set off up the train to eat in the dining car”

    the passenger compartment of a lift, cableway, or balloon.
    “he was in the lift when the car stuck”

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