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Jun
07

The Perfect Storm – Can Our Car-Based Culture Survive?

This is clearly going to date me, but as I was getting my driver’s license, gas prices were jumping from about $0.40/gallon (that’s right – only a zero before the decimal point) to an astronomical $0.75.  At the time, many thought that the high prices would destroy America’s open road driving experience, ripping apart the very fabric of America’s car-based culture.

As we know, this didn’t happen.  We adapted, we changed, we downsized (somewhat).  We did everything in our power to refuse to give up the very definition of our modern cowboy mentality – our trusted multi-cylinder steeds, carrying us individually to wherever the hell we wanted to go whenever we wanted to.  Cars in the US are far more than vehicles, they are extensions of us as individuals.  They are our fortress of solitude, our embodiment of ego, our reliable companion and, in a pinch, a place to reenact Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light.  Ok, Ok, I’ll love you forever . . .

Well, if the increase in gas price from $0.40 to $0.75 weren’t enough to change our relationship with our cars, maybe $4.00+/gallon is.  But wait.  We’re American’s and we’re not going to give up our cars, damn it! 

We may not have a choice.  The current situation is beginning to look like the perfect storm, and trying to keep our love affair with the car alive may end up requiring a Herculean effort, if it’s even possible.  Not only are oil prices going straight through the roof, but it’s happening in an era where are cars are gaining weight rapidly.  Even compact cars are putting on enough weight to generate their own gravitational field.  Crash protection, pedestrian safety, airbags, redundant braking, navigation systems, sound deadening, leather-clad seats – all add loads of weight, and expense to a vehicle.  It’s why even little cars are having a hard time getting past the 30mpg barrier consistently.

OK, so that’s the one-two punch – gas prices combined with increased mass.  But here’s the kicker enabling the perfect storm.  The price of steel has nearly doubled since January.  The price of oil is a big factor (after all, it is steel and it’s heavy stuff to ship and creating it takes a lot of energy), but China and India are buying up steel like it was crack.  Something I remember from freshman economics . . . supply and demand . . . or something like that.  The bottom line is that the cost of steel required for an average car these days has gone up by about $500.  Yes, that’s the increase per car.  If that weren’t bad enough, the high price of steel also affects the prices of other metals used in cars.  Aluminum is also going up in price.

So there you have it.  Cars are not only way more expensive to fuel these days, they’re also a lot more expensive to build.  My guess is that the trends on both counts are not looking good, either.  Somethin’s gotta give here and it may be our car-based culture.  Can we still afford to maintain our relationship with our vehicles?  Do we have to find another friend?  The back seat of a bus is just not as romantic as the back seat of a Chevy Bel Air.

Shit.

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 June 7th, 2008  
 Will  
 Stuff with a Motor  
   
 19 Comments

19 Responses to The Perfect Storm – Can Our Car-Based Culture Survive?

  1. Pingback: The Driving Elf » Showering in a SubwayCar

  2. Pingback: Auto Support » The Perfect Storm - Can OurCar-Based Culture Survive?

  3. Pingback: The Driving Elf » Water PoweredCar- Convert yourCarto run on water

  4. Don’t worry Will… Those prices don’t date you too badly. Gas was marginally over $1 a gallon when I moved to the states and I like to pretend that wasn’t too long ago.

    Growing up in the UK left me permanently MPG sensitive, which is why I still have never owned an SUV (even though I’ve liked a number of them). When gas was under $2 a gallon, my relatives used to make fun of my grumbling about $0.25 increases, but the recent run on gas prices has been bad enough to almost elicit sympathy from my family back home…

    I currently drive a 2.0L turbo Passat. In the UK that would be a big engined car. I can almost hear you snicker that it’s not a V6 or 8. But it’s an Audi designed engine that gets lots of torque while hitting pretty good has mileage. With 28k miles on the clock, the built in whatsit tells me I’ve averaged 27.9 MPG, and I do a fair number of short trips…

    But my point is this: for the last three months I actively been avoiding taking almost any trips that aren’t critical. Last year I would routinely drive to Chapel Hill for good pizza. It’s about 27 miles, but the pizza is really good. I won’t do that now — I’ll suffer the local less impressive alternatives. Now I can’t imagine that I singlehandedly drive Pepper’s Pizza business, but the agregate impact on smaller businesses like theirs must be huge. I’m guessing there’s some lag time — you have to pass through the “oh, we really shouldn’t… well go on, just this once” phase before reaching the “what else can we do in Chapel Hill to justify this” phase, followed by the “it’s just too expensive to keep doing this” phase.

    I wonder how many other folks are reaching phase 3 at this point, and how many businesses will collapse because of it?

  5. Don’t worry Will… Those prices don’t date you too badly. Gas was marginally over $1 a gallon when I moved to the states and I like to pretend that wasn’t too long ago.

    Growing up in the UK left me permanently MPG sensitive, which is why I still have never owned an SUV (even though I’ve liked a number of them). When gas was under $2 a gallon, my relatives used to make fun of my grumbling about $0.25 increases, but the recent run on gas prices has been bad enough to almost elicit sympathy from my family back home…

    I currently drive a 2.0L turbo Passat. In the UK that would be a big engined car. I can almost hear you snicker that it’s not a V6 or 8. But it’s an Audi designed engine that gets lots of torque while hitting pretty good has mileage. With 28k miles on the clock, the built in whatsit tells me I’ve averaged 27.9 MPG, and I do a fair number of short trips…

    But my point is this: for the last three months I actively been avoiding taking almost any trips that aren’t critical. Last year I would routinely drive to Chapel Hill for good pizza. It’s about 27 miles, but the pizza is really good. I won’t do that now — I’ll suffer the local less impressive alternatives. Now I can’t imagine that I singlehandedly drive Pepper’s Pizza business, but the agregate impact on smaller businesses like theirs must be huge. I’m guessing there’s some lag time — you have to pass through the “oh, we really shouldn’t… well go on, just this once” phase before reaching the “what else can we do in Chapel Hill to justify this” phase, followed by the “it’s just too expensive to keep doing this” phase.

    I wonder how many other folks are reaching phase 3 at this point, and how many businesses will collapse because of it?

  6. While there’s no question that there are and will be short-term disruptions, I think you miss the dynamics of this. First, the heavy cars issue and the cost of steel both point in the same direction: use less steel and/or more lightweight materials. I don’t know how much of this is driven by regulations vs. risk-averse consumers, but certainly people are going to be looking less at the safety features and more at the MPGs when they buy. It’s already impossible to sell SUVs and pickups for anything above firesale prices.

    Second, with the cost of gasoline as well as airfares going higher, there is no way for the hotel industry to avoid lower rates. They are just not going to have the demand, and lower rates will make the overall cost of a trip more attractive.

    Third, the people this really hits hard are commuters. I think various adaptations will take place over the next few years – people will tend to move closer to their jobs, more telecommuting and other innovations in remote work will finally come to pass.

    All that said, I do think that superfluous driving will be viewed as more of a luxury/guilty pleasure than it ever has been. Maybe in the end that will cause us to *appreciate* it more.

  7. While there’s no question that there are and will be short-term disruptions, I think you miss the dynamics of this. First, the heavy cars issue and the cost of steel both point in the same direction: use less steel and/or more lightweight materials. I don’t know how much of this is driven by regulations vs. risk-averse consumers, but certainly people are going to be looking less at the safety features and more at the MPGs when they buy. It’s already impossible to sell SUVs and pickups for anything above firesale prices.

    Second, with the cost of gasoline as well as airfares going higher, there is no way for the hotel industry to avoid lower rates. They are just not going to have the demand, and lower rates will make the overall cost of a trip more attractive.

    Third, the people this really hits hard are commuters. I think various adaptations will take place over the next few years – people will tend to move closer to their jobs, more telecommuting and other innovations in remote work will finally come to pass.

    All that said, I do think that superfluous driving will be viewed as more of a luxury/guilty pleasure than it ever has been. Maybe in the end that will cause us to *appreciate* it more.

  8. Does it matter if it’s $10/gallon? We’ll still enjoy our sports cars, and we’ll still not care about the “carbon footprint” of it all. When they actually regulate industry and semis, wake me up.

    In the meanwhile, I did put an order down for a Fisker Karma. Tesla’s up the street from here, but a complete shame of a car.

  9. Does it matter if it’s $10/gallon? We’ll still enjoy our sports cars, and we’ll still not care about the “carbon footprint” of it all. When they actually regulate industry and semis, wake me up.

    In the meanwhile, I did put an order down for a Fisker Karma. Tesla’s up the street from here, but a complete shame of a car.

  10. Nick,

    I think there are loads of people who are thinking just like you. In fact, I’m shocked at how quickly attitudes have changed – even (or especially) my own. As you say, the trickle down will be a big deal. I think there will be many changes – that is, there will be failures because of it as well as an equivalent number of opportunities.

    27 miles for pizza is a real commitment whether gas is $1/gallon or $4/gallon. You, obviously, have a more refined pizza palette than I 😉

  11. Nick,

    I think there are loads of people who are thinking just like you. In fact, I’m shocked at how quickly attitudes have changed – even (or especially) my own. As you say, the trickle down will be a big deal. I think there will be many changes – that is, there will be failures because of it as well as an equivalent number of opportunities.

    27 miles for pizza is a real commitment whether gas is $1/gallon or $4/gallon. You, obviously, have a more refined pizza palette than I 😉

  12. Dan,

    Like you, the price of gas isn’t going to force me to change my lifestyle much. I’m speaking about changes in the broader sense, of course. My belief is that even many of those who see $4/gallon as a mere bump in the road still will adjust their thinking about how they use their vehicles and our car culture will change.

    In the mean time . . . a Fisker Karma, huh? I’ve read about ’em. Have they started shipping yet? What’s the range of those babies?

    Congrats.

  13. Dan,

    Like you, the price of gas isn’t going to force me to change my lifestyle much. I’m speaking about changes in the broader sense, of course. My belief is that even many of those who see $4/gallon as a mere bump in the road still will adjust their thinking about how they use their vehicles and our car culture will change.

    In the mean time . . . a Fisker Karma, huh? I’ve read about ’em. Have they started shipping yet? What’s the range of those babies?

    Congrats.

  14. Dave,

    Agreed. The economy that is based on car usage and travel will reshape itself around $4/gallon. There will be pain in the transition and many new opportunities will be created – somewhat matching the magnitude of failures that will occur. In the end, though, I believe that the culture that the old economy created will be a casualty of the change.

    You live in a holier-than-thou, green city that already made the mental shift under the guise of saving the planet or reducing global warming (or some other drivel) ages ago. The rest of the country (aside from, perhaps, Cambridge and Berkeley) is being forced to make the shift for financial reasons now. It’s gonna have a major cultural impact.

    Note, I didn’t say it was bad, wrong, or catastrophic in any way. My only point is that it will change and I’ll miss the old car culture.

  15. Dave,

    Agreed. The economy that is based on car usage and travel will reshape itself around $4/gallon. There will be pain in the transition and many new opportunities will be created – somewhat matching the magnitude of failures that will occur. In the end, though, I believe that the culture that the old economy created will be a casualty of the change.

    You live in a holier-than-thou, green city that already made the mental shift under the guise of saving the planet or reducing global warming (or some other drivel) ages ago. The rest of the country (aside from, perhaps, Cambridge and Berkeley) is being forced to make the shift for financial reasons now. It’s gonna have a major cultural impact.

    Note, I didn’t say it was bad, wrong, or catastrophic in any way. My only point is that it will change and I’ll miss the old car culture.

  16. On the bright side, perhaps the change in the culture will be a positive – people will view cars less as a necessity and a way to get to their jobs, and more as something fun and pleasurable. Perhaps, but not likely.

    I wonder whether the Subaru-driving holier-than-thous in Boulder will realize that Subarus have among the worst gas mileage of any fleet, and start dumping them? Look for a lot of Priuses stuck in snowbanks next winter.

  17. On the bright side, perhaps the change in the culture will be a positive – people will view cars less as a necessity and a way to get to their jobs, and more as something fun and pleasurable. Perhaps, but not likely.

    I wonder whether the Subaru-driving holier-than-thous in Boulder will realize that Subarus have among the worst gas mileage of any fleet, and start dumping them? Look for a lot of Priuses stuck in snowbanks next winter.

  18. in conclusion, cars are our “main necessity”.. that’s why even though prices had gone bigger and bigger, still we survive and demand for cars.

  19. in conclusion, cars are our “main necessity”.. that’s why even though prices had gone bigger and bigger, still we survive and demand for cars.

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