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Jurassic Car Park


By Stuart Wolpert

Published Oct 1, 2016 8:00 AM

UCLA researchers look at car models through the lens of evolutionary biology.

Ford Shelby Mustang. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Henry Ford famously said his customers could have any color car they wanted, “so long as it is black.” American cars have, of course, changed a great deal since then, but the reasons why one model endures while another dies off are not always cut-and-dried. Now a UCLA-led team of scientists is using the tools of evolutionary biology to shed some light on this moving target.

In an effort to understand how technologies diversify, the researchers studied 3,575 car models produced by 172 manufacturers between 1896 and 2014.

The now-extinct Plymouth Barracuda. Photo courtesy of iStock.

“American automobiles represent one of the most iconic examples of technological innovation in the 20th century,” says Erik Gjesfjeld, a postdoctoral scholar in the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, who led the team. “Cars are exceptionally diverse but also have a detailed history of changes, making them a model system for investigating the evolution of technology.”

According to Michael Alfaro, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior author of the new study, Gjesfjeld’s big insight is that analyzing the technological record for automobiles is very similar to the way biologists analyze the paleontological fossil record. “In many instances, it is superior; we find in only a handful of cases a fossil record this complete,” Alfaro says.

The study’s co-authors are Jonathan Chang ’11, a UCLA graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology; Christopher Kelty, UCLA professor of anthropology and information sciences; and Daniele Silvestro, an assistant professor of computational phylogenetics at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.

Among the findings: In the last 30 years, the total number of cars on the road has increased, but American manufacturers have introduced fewer new models than the number of models eliminated, resulting in less diversity among the models. Before World War II, many models lasted fewer than three years. Now most last more than eight years.

Just as evolution has helped to create both long- and short-lived species, the same is true for cars. Long-lived models include the Chrysler Town and Country, Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang, all of which have been produced for more than 50 years.

Alfaro says the research is “potentially transformative”; many cultural and technological data sets could be analyzed in a similar manner.