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Darwinian evolution in the auto industry

Cars were displayed on the lot of a Ford dealer in Zelienople, Pa. Keith Srakocic/AP/File 2013

Next time you visit an auto dealership, consider adopting a different perspective. Instead of thinking in terms of makes and models, imagine the inventory as varieties of species, all vying in a Darwinian world for your wallet.

That’s the take of a new paper, forthcoming in Palgrave Communications, which analyzes changes in the number of car models for sale over the last 100 years in terms of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

“We wanted to identify diversity in cars and show we can look at diversity through time by looking at when a particular model originates and goes extinct,” says Erik Gjesfjeld, lead author of the paper and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.


The idea that you can take ideas from evolutionary biology and apply them to cultural change has been around for a while. In this view, the same kinds of processes that determine the fates of species also apply to elements of culture—be they a consumer product, a style for making pottery, or even a religion.

“You need variation in entities, some kind of selection and competition, and you need some kind of inheritance or transmissions process,” says Alex Mesoudi, professor of cultural evolution at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. “You take those same general principles and you can apply them to cultural change.”

For this current work, the authors looked at more than 3,500 car models found in the eBay parts and accessories database from 1896-2014. They were particularly interested in how the diversification rate of car models waxed and waned over that period—basically, what circumstances led to the number of car models increasing rapidly and what circumstances led to the number increasing slower or even decreasing.


The highest rates of diversification took place in the decades before World War II. These were the years when the car industry was just getting established and it was still unknown what car designs would work best.

“Especially during the 1920s and 1930s, there were companies coming and going, being absorbed, and then some just going out of business,” says Bruce Belzowski, managing director of the Automotive Futures group at the University of Michigan. “In the early days it wasn’t certain whether the technology would be electric or gasoline.”

During World War II the number of car models plummeted, as production resources were reallocated to the military effort. Afterward, the diversity of models began to increase again, but more slowly than in the pre-war years. In evolutionary terms, the process of convergence can explain this slow-down in diversification: After a sorting out period, the car market settled on designs that were in a sense, the best.

“You’ve got selection between different species and companies and the species or companies that happens to have found the highest fitness design in that design space get converged upon,” says Mesoudi, who writes about similar trends in the tire industry in his book, “Cultural Evolution.”

Beginning in the 1970s, rates of diversification turned negative, so that year-by-year, there have actually been fewer models of cars for sale. This winnowing could be regarded in evolutionary terms, though there have also been business changes that explain the decrease more directly. In particular, US companies have taken a cue from their overseas competitors, concentrating on building multiple cars on the same production platform, and building that smaller number of cars better.


“The US companies learned from the Japanese and the Camry, Corolla, Civic domination. Companies are much more standardized now and trying to make better vehicles in each segment rather than trying to make a whole bunch of vehicles in the same segment that compete,” says Belzowksi.

While the number of car models is decreasing, a shock may be coming: electric cars. If they do become a consumer hit, as massive preorders for the Tesla Model 3 suggest they may be, it will be akin to the opening of a habitat — followed by an intense scramble among many emerging species to determine which designs work best in this new environment.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.