3 of the Most Compelling Car Conspiracy Theories


CIA assassinations, industry meddling, government spying – do you buy in?

car conspiracy theories
Site of Michael Hasting's car crash (Wikipedia)

The pull of conspiracy theories can be strong: when an unexpected and tragic event occurs, especially one that crosses lines most of us would have never imagined could be crossed, believing that someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings for some greater purpose (even a nefarious one) can bring some psychological relief. The world isn’t random; instead, it’s run by shadowy figures with their own best interests at heart. And, conspiracy theories are part of our nation’s fabric: “Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us,” writes The New York Times.

Conspiracy theories have haunted the automobile industry since its inception. The theory that GM and other automakers killed the streetcar 80 years ago is still discussed regularly. And many other car-related conspiracy theories still haunt car enthusiast chat rooms and comment pages. Some theories are more compelling than others and give our better judgment a run for its money. Three of our favorites:

1. The CIA Remotely Crashed Journalist Michael Hastings’ Car

The theory:

Investigative journalist Michael Hastings died in 2013 when his connected car—a 2013 silver Mercedes C250 coupe—crashed into a tree in broad daylight while traveling so fast that the engine was found 100 feet from the vehicle. Rumors immediately began swirling that the crash was anything but an accident and was caused intentionally because of a story Hastings was investigating about intelligence agencies. All corners of the internet were fascinated by the conspiracy theory.

The facts:

The deadly crash was a single-car wreck in the middle of the day and occurred shortly after Hastings sent an email titled, “FBI Investigation re: NSA.”

Why the conspiracy theory is compelling:

Richard Clarke, Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism told the Huffington Post that the crash was “consistent with a car cyber attack.” Clarke added that he believes intelligence agencies have the ability to remotely hack cars—something we’ve seen evidence of in less upsetting situations—but that the L.A.P.D. wouldn’t have the ability to prove it.

Why it’s not:

Hastings’ family doesn’t believe in the conspiracy theory. His wife told CNN she believes what happened was a tragic accident, and his brother suggested he was in the midst of a manic episode. Though toxicology reports found trace amounts both prescription marijuana and crystal meth in Hastings’ system, the coroner ruled them not a factor in the crash, writes The Sun. Hastings reportedly suffered from both post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan and from bipolar disorder.

2. The Government Will Use Driverless Cars to Spy on Us

The theory:

We won’t link to some of the more dubious corners of the internet espousing this theory here, but suffice to say many factions on both sides of the political spectrum are wary of anything that both tracks and remembers their comings and goings.

driverless car technology

The facts:

Autonomous vehicles will, by design, record, track, and transmit an incredible amount of information. All of the information can be autonomized, but conspiracy theorists don’t often trust the promises of big business or big government. And, it’s true that the government is now largely behind driverless cars.

Why the conspiracy theory is compelling:

Insurance companies that initially insisted their telematics programs wouldn’t be used to track bad driving behaviors have begun to reverse those stances. And though driverless vehicle data could be autonomized, that doesn’t mean it will be. It stands to reason then that people who believe the government is always looking for ways to spy on citizens might go after driverless vehicle data.

Why it’s not:

The only evidence here is fear of the what-if: so far, neither the government nor automakers have used details from connected cars to spy on citizens. And, in fact, lawmakers have been passing legislation to protect citizens from the government accessing their private data while using connected cars.

3. Automakers Sabotage Electric Cars

The theory:

Automakers purposely make electric cars unappealing both visually and performatively so that consumers will continue to prefer gas-powered vehicles.

The facts:

Well, many electric vehicles do have a particular look to them (although we can’t exactly state as fact that that look is not, on the whole, best described as cutting-edge or stylish):

chevrolet ev ugly
Chevrolet EV (Image: NPR)

Why the conspiracy theory is compelling:

That most electric cars aren’t aesthetically pleasing might be the biggest evidence in favor of this conspiracy. And, since not all electric cars look so distinct—see Tesla for evidence—it’s easy to question why automakers decide on particular styling choices for electric cars. The soon-to-hit-the market Model 3 will apparently be sold at a similar price point as other popular electric cars, yet it looks sleek and modern, not squarish and slow.

But perhaps the most compelling bit of evidence is that electric vehicles aren’t a new: they’ve actually existed for more than 100 years, but mysteriously have still not taken off with the public.

Why it’s not:

It seems that automakers have determined that people who want an electric vehicle aren’t in it for the looks, and so design “takes a back seat” to function, as Bloomberg writes. Furthermore, electric vehicles cost more to build, so making them affordable means skimping elsewhere, particularly with design and comfort features.

“The investment required is so huge that manufacturers panic, which makes them very defensive when it comes to design,” an anonymous automotive designer told The New York Times. “If you design a car, or anything else come to that, hoping not to offend anyone, how interesting will it be? Not very.”

Do you buy into any of these conspiracy theories? Any evidence we’ve missed? Share your thoughts (and your own theories) in the comments!