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.