Saturday, August 8, 2009

We're all driving clunkers now.

Hanging out in our office the last few weeks you would have heard an amazingly diverse number of viewpoints on the government's Car Allowance Rebate System or Cash for Clunkers as the media has hyped it. Gear heads pull out pictures of 15 year old BMWs and long orphaned Alfa Romeo Milanos lined up on death row and lament the cruel chemical death awaiting them. Some even produce shaky videos of the deed and post them to youtube. Auto sales people tell tales of deals lost when they were unable to navigate the clerical obstacles one might expect from a Federal program. Republicans on the radio spin it as evidence that a national health plan is doomed. Industry pundits predict that today's boom is only the prelude to another slump. No one seems happy and yet 250,000 deals blew through the first billion dollars in less than a week.

The view from here is that the program has worked pretty much as designed. There is no doubt that local car dealers were in a bad way the last few months. A burst of activity like this will keep some of them on their feet for a little longer. Maybe the sales would have been made in the near future anyway but new car buyers are generally pretty well heeled. If the object is to encourage spending and increase consumer confidence with some positive economic numbers, then getting vetted buyers to open their wallets now is probably a good thing. Putting some big ticket items into local sales tax coffers will be welcome news to most cities. Collectors are not likely to miss all of those 12 year old Explorers and Cherokees. Their former owners certainly won't. And while the average increase in fuel economy is only about 10%, any move in that direction is positive.

Looking soberly at the automotive mind set it seems clear that even a 100% increase in fuel economy won't save the planet. In fact if those cars existed they might make the problem worse. Nothing like a 10mpg SUV to discourage unnecessary driving. What we have is a design problem. Collectively were rooted in the pre WWII romance of the automobile as magic carpet; a dream that reached it's fruition in the Interstate Highway System and an America that moved to the suburbs. But there's no magic left when the carpet moves from dream to necessity. We live in a culture designed around the automobile as appliance where for most people, most everywhere, living without one is tedious, time consuming and difficult. Until that changes were all driving clunkers.

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