Rotten eggs on the road?

A car is a means of transportation. This is obvious. What is less obvious however is that the car shows specific sensory or even olfactory qualities: A car uses smelly petrol or diesel. Driving a car even turns the vehicle into an openair-design machine. At the end of the day emissions scent the environment. On the other hand, drivers increasingly care about the odors in the interior of a car. And the users leave their olfactory traces in the car. Thus, the interior smell preserves the use of the car. The car serves as an “olfactory diary” as Caro Verbeek called it. This provisional list of facets demonstrates the car as an olfactory artifact.


In my talk at yesterday’s edition of Odorama at Mediamatic in Amsterdam I explored different facets of the car as an olfactory artifact. Some of the material I presented has recently been published in an essay. This is the reason why I would like to focus this post on the concluding passage of my talk:

The epistemology of car smells.


Knowing smells

In everyday language epistemology refers to knowledge. However, the point is not the common knowledge about the smell. Instead, an epistemology of car smells refers to what smell actually know:

The smell of rotten eggs for example points at the catalytic converter. Normally, the gasoline that fuels a car contains sulfur. The catalytic converter takes this by-product and converts it into odorless sulfur dioxide. In this respect, the smell of rotten eggs signals a technical problem with the catalytic converter.

Similarly, a whiff of maple syrup could point at leaking coolant since coolant contains ethylene glycol, which smells sweet but is actually very toxic. Moreover, how-to pages on the internet mention a number of other smells that car drivers might notice: the smell of fire & brimstone, a burning moldy newspaper, a locker room or burned carpet smells.

Smells as symptoms

What these smells have in common is that they can be a symptom of an underlying problem with the car. These car smells activate the nose as an diagnosing device. What is interesting about how-to pages addressing car smells? Why do I talk about this as a scholar on scent and smell culture?

A healthy car is odor-free

We live in an widely de-odorized world. According to the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman ”modernity declared war on smells”. In this respect, it is worth reading how the how-to pages address the car smells: ”A healthy car should be emitting no smells“. In other words a car that emits smells needs treatment because smells “may mean your car is sick“! Isn’t it striking how agency and personhood is attributed to the car? And we all know that hospitals have also served as a means to surround fleeting smells with a fence. Even a car should conform with the the social norm of a deodorized world!

Smell is a cognitive power

One easily thinks of the knowledge about smell (e.g. knowledge about olfactory families etc.). It is less common to think of smell as a cognitive quality or perhaps even power. Yet, smell is a cognitive power in its own right. An epistemology of car smells makes the point that smells can be knowing smells. Given the ephemeral materiality of smells it is difficult to think of smells as objects and agents. In fact, “knowing smells” might take the point too far. Yet, there is a growing literature on the epistemic (i.e. knowledge) qualities and services of a visual practice, a photograph or a tube in the laboratory.  By the same token smelling a burning molding newspaper in the car can be considered a knowledge practice. It is this underexplored type of knowledge practice that makes car smells an interesting topic in the emerging smell culture discourse.

The auto mechanic as a smell expert

In times of growing specialization and differentiation one thinks of perfumers as the and perhaps even the most privileged smell specialists: A perfumer knows the smells, a perfumer can name the smells, a perfumer might even be able to analyze and synthesize the smells. This is all true. No doubt about this. But it is also true that olfactory expertise has always been an integral part of professional knowledge cultures: In the middle ages monks used smells to diagnose an illness (e.g. Duft 1972). Other professions and everyday practices also hinge upon sensory work including smelling (Curtis 2008; Hockey 2009). Given the increasing relevance of objective measurement technologies it is certainly valid to speak of a crisis of legitimacy with respect to the sensory work of diagnosis (Maslen 2016). Yet, the examples of car smells demonstrate the lasting relevance of smelling as a knowledge practice. Smell is part of the knowledge in numerous professions and crafts (including the auto mechanic).

Let’s continue to think about crafts and professional practices along this line of sensory practice.

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Curtis, B. (2008). «I can tell by the way you smell»: Dietetics, Smell, Social Theory. The Senses and Society, 3(1), 5–22.
Duft, J. (1972). Notker der Arzt: Klostermedizin und Mönchsarzt in frühmittelalterlichen St. Gallen. St. Gallen: Fehr.
Ferdenzi, C., Licon, C., & Bensafi, M. (2017). Detection of sickness in conspecifics using olfactory and visual cues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(24), 6157–6159.
Hockey, J. (2009). «Switch on»: sensory work in the infantry. Work, Employment & Society, 23(3), 477–493.
Maslen, S. (2016). Sensory Work of Diagnosis: A Crisis of Legitimacy. The Senses and Society, 11(2), 158–176.

Image source:
Photographs of Odorama by Caro Verbeek, Giulia Menicucci & Saskia Wilson-Brown &
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