The Truth About Cars and Dogs

by C.T. Heaney

It is a commonplace among dog fanciers that the age of a dog can be roughly correlated to human age in a 7-to-1 ratio. We speak often of our pets' 'dog years', thinking of our 2-year-old terriers as rambunctious teenagers and our 10-year old basset hounds as stately old ladies and gentlemen. We say it's been 'a dog's age' since an event occurred: about seven years ago, or perhaps one year that felt like seven. It's much rarer to speak in the same way about cats, since cat lives don't seem to map properly onto the human aging scale in the same way. Cats become adults faster and remain 'middle-aged' much longer than humans. Constructing a 'cat years' scale would require a more complicated algorithm, one not necessarily conducive to quick mental math, and thus far less useful as a social metaphor.

I own neither a dog nor a cat. But I own a car. And what I want to know is, are cars more like dogs or cats? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a more or less linear correspondence between 'car years' and human years based not on the car's actual age, but on its mileage. It's typically expected nowadays that an automobile that's not in a major accident will last at least 150,000 miles, and many well-built and well-maintained cars, even from mediocre manufacturers, will nearly reach, or even exceed, 200,000 miles. Yet it becomes very rare to see cars that last more than about 250,000 miles; maintenance costs begin to surpass the cost of simply junking the car and buying another one with far fewer problems. 300,000 is about the upper limit that any person can reasonably expect from even the best-built and maintained vehicles; it's extremely unlikely and indicative of sheer chance as much as design or care.

300,000 miles will therefore be our benchmark for the end of the natural life of a car, corresponding to 120 years in a natural human life (a milestone reached by only a handful of people in recent history). Life expectancy in most developed countries hovers around 80 years old, matching more or less perfectly with a 200,000-mile ordinary life expectancy for passenger vehicles. Assuming a linear relationship, then, every 50,000 miles on a car would correspond to 20 years of human life; every 2,500 miles you drive ages your car a year, and you should be changing your car's oil about every two to three car years (despite what Jiffy Lube tells you). It may be objected that city miles age cars differently than highway miles, but that's true of people as well; if you only drive in congested city traffic, your car may break down much earlier than one used for tens of thousands of miles of 55-mph country road trips, just as your health will probably suffer from high-stress jobs and burger/shake combos more than it will from peaceful, quiet living and grain diets.

According to this schema, I am the proud owner of a sturdy and surprisingly well-mannered 71-year-old 1997 Subaru Impreza sedan. Prior to this, I had purchased (for - and I am not joking - $75) a 96-year-old 1986 Toyota Corolla, which received no life support and met its demise on an offramp immediately following a four-hour freeway drive. It was 98 at the time. On my recent vacation in Hawaii, I rented three vehicles: a sprightly, playful 7-year-old 2011 Nissan Sentra on the Big Island; a chubby but unusually efficient 10-year-old 2011 Jeep Patriot on Maui; and a sputtering, asthmatic 42-year-old 2004 Dodge Neon on Kauai, which soldiered on cantankerously despite vociferous concerns for its own well-being.

Summer of 2011, at age 65
The life expectancy of Japanese, Korean, and Swedish cars seems to be reliably longer, on average, than that of American cars, while these autos in turn enjoy longer life expectancy than cars manufactured in Soviet-bloc and developing countries, such as Ladas and Tatas. There will always be exceptions, of course; we all know of pack-a-day geezers and alcoholics who hit 95 as sharp as a straight razor, as well as relatively young folks who fall victim to cancers and unusual conditions well before their time. The tail seems quite a bit longer for cars than for humans, if only because our capacity to replace parts on machines we've designed far exceeds our ability to switch out organs and extend telomeres on bodies whose inner workings we still understand rather poorly. A recent news story recounted the story of a ninety-three-year-old woman who'd kept her '64 Mercury Comet in working order for an astounding 576,000 miles - 229 in car years. Apparently, there's a fellow with a record-setting 2.8 million miles on his '66 Volvo, making the car a Methuselan 1,120 years old.

Clearly, this is ridiculous. I am committing what is known as the 'pathetic fallacy'--the ascription of human qualities to non-sentient beings. It may be silly to anthropomorphize cars in this way (am I not, rather, canimorphizing them?), but it's something mankind feels compelled to do with automobiles, or for that matter anything else even remotely humanoid. After all, they're designed to look kind of like people, with obvious eye and mouth analogues, and they seem to develop individual personalities in the way they respond to their owners and to environmental conditions. They seem more alive, more personable, than, say, goldfish or hamsters, if perhaps not as much as dogs or cats. And people want their cars to be their friends - they name them, talk to them, imagine that they communicate through the dashboard interface and the rumble of the engine, pretend that they have sexual urges. Web cartoonist Chris Onstad was spot-on in observing, "People obviously want to think that their cars can nail each other. That is a given."

I've often complained to friends that they treat their pets better than they treat the people in their lives. They sometimes have tremendous concern for a dog's or a cat's physical space requirements, need for companionship, and emotional health - well beyond the care they show for their neighbors and friends. This seems incongruous for two simple reasons: One, these are people you know, and therefore it seems logical to assume that they should matter to you as members of a shared society; and two, they are people, and we tend to think of humans as fundamentally deserving of certain dignities which are not afforded the other beasts. Yet we are all familiar with pet owners who lavishly spend time and money on their charges, to the point where it seems only reasonable to posit that perhaps some basic need for friendship, or parenthood, is being met by proxy. Films such as Children of Men and Z.P.G. have explored the notion that, if we lost the right or capacity to breed, we would have to fill the void with animals or inanimate objects that reminded us of progeny. The pathetic fallacy, in these cases, is being lived out literally, as a coping strategy, or a path of least resistance.

So perhaps extreme pet-ownership does not deserve my derision; perhaps the pathetic fallacy is itself a human impulse, one that all but the most callous of us participate in to some degree or another. Given our natural sympathies toward each other (if we do indeed have them), it is only a matter of time before we visit them upon creatures, or objects, that merely resemble the fully human in appearance, behavior, or function. I don't generally have this problem; I rarely anthropomorphize dogs, cats, birds, otters, trees, pet rocks, stuffed animals, Pokemon, toddlers, stereos, buildings, ships, volcanos, or most other things that are commonly described in ways that might lead one to believe they are human. It does occur with computers, since they do things like talk back to me ("Are you sure you want to open this document?") and disobey me ("That operation is not allowed.") in ways that make me want to punish them for their insolence.

My car doesn't have a name. I buy 87-octane gas and do minimal maintenance; I have no intention of spending time or money fixing the dented bumper or the hairline crack in the windshield. I listen to her, watch her vitals on the dash display, and think that I am being told something, but I am never under a delusion that this is anything other than an analogy. Yet I still feel, totally irrationally and at the same time utterly reasonably, that we have been through a lot together, that we have seen some great times and some great places, that we've made it through some crazy roads that we weren't sure we were going to conquer. I pat her on the steering column now and then, and I thank her when I get worried she's going to break down and she doesn't. I think she'll hit 80 like a summer breeze; she's rusting pretty bad in some spots, but with heart like hers, I have to believe that reaching 100 isn't completely out of the question. And I'll say one thing for sure: I'll be real, real sad when she shuffles off this mortal coil.

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