Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Economics of Auto Ownership has Changed for the Good, and Yes, Government Can Take Some of the Credit

Just Don’t Tell Conservatives – It Would Crush Them Like What a Junkyard Does to a 1986 Plymouth

It used to be that the odometer on a car didn’t have six digits.  When you reached 99,999 miles it simply turned over.  The reason six digits were not necessary is that nobody used to reach 100,000 miles on a car.  And if you did, your checkbook had recorded things like “ring job” and “valve grinding” and all sorts of unpleasant costly items.

The New York Times reports something that we all know (well except for Mr. Romney and his wife’s two Cadillacs), cars are now routinely going over 100,000 miles, and cars with 200,000 miles on them are not uncommon.

Cars that have survived for a million miles or more have been widely documented, of course, but those tend to be exceptional cases. What’s different, and far more common, today are the online classified ads offering secondhand Hondas, Toyotas and Volvos with 150,000 or 200,000 miles — or more — not as parts donors but as vehicles with some useful life left.

What has changed?  Well technology for one, cars are better built with better materials.  Competition is another, it used to be there were only three car companies that mattered in the U. S., GM, Ford and Chrysler.  But government has also played a role.

“The California Air Resources Board and the E.P.A. have been very focused on making sure that catalytic converters perform within 96 percent of their original capability at 100,000 miles,” said Jagadish Sorab, technical leader for engine design at Ford Motor. “Because of this, we needed to reduce the amount of oil being used by the engine to reduce the oil reaching the catalysts.

“Fifteen years ago, piston rings would show perhaps 50 microns of wear over the useful life of a vehicle,” Mr. Sorab said, referring to the engine part responsible for sealing combustion in the cylinder. “Today, it is less than 10 microns. As a benchmark, a human hair is 200 microns thick.

And another factor for longevity also involves government intervention in the private sector.

Another factor is that cars from the ’60s and ’70s were susceptible to rust and corrosion — many literally fell apart before their engines and transmission wore out. But advances in corrosion protection, some propelled by government requirements for anticorrosion warranties, have greatly reduced that problem.

A third factor, omitted from the Times report is truth in odometer regulations.  Decades ago everyone knew that when you bought a car whose odometer said 50,000 miles the real number could be 150,000 miles.  Today with strict regulations against turning back odometers, and services like Carfax that compile government required reporting on an auto a person can buy an older car with confidence (and with money).

So yes, despite what the ultra right wing would have you believe, government regulation, when it is intelligent and reasonable and rationally based can make a difference.  Sorry Conservatives, we know that has to hurt. 

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