Piston Slap: Gas cars’ future and The Jay Leno Effect

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Hagerty Community member snailish writes:

I don’t have the contacts or research to put this together, and it’s obviously not your usual Piston Slap or Venom Vellum kind of angle, but your writing exemplifies a thinking person. And that is something I think has been mostly absent from “the future of vehicles” coverage. (Why, thank you so much! —SM)

The Volvo “Carbon Footprint Report”* contained some really interesting information, but my new thought is directly related to the old cars. So I am expected to use my commuter car for roughly 10–12 years; instead I use an older vehicle (older than 12 years, so it has already done its expected commuter life) to get around that. Those of us with casual-use old cars older than 12 years should be well in the carbon negative zone. All this brings me to some concerns:

  1. I’d like to see the old-car hobby endure.
  2. I’m concerned about the developing legislative environment.
  3. I’m concerned that the media narrative is really only looking at tailpipe emissions rather than “overall less carbon.”
  4. I’m not opposed to EV conversion, but current costs make that not viable for most.
  5. I think the old-car world may be missing a defense argument

* a break-even analysis of modern EVs —SM.

Sajeev answers:

You bring up some very valid points that most of the media (be it mainstream or automotive) has neither the interest nor the motivation to discuss. I do not believe your concerns are imminent, because America’s economy and infrastructure is too diverse/messy to enforce restrictions on fossil fuel–powered vehicles on a short-term time table. Make that any time table, no matter on which part of the political spectrum you may reside.

With those qualifications in mind, let’s discuss your five points:

  1. The old car hobby will endure. The gasoline car/horse analogy that Jay Leno suggested, and my EV charging vs. the need to rebuild water infrastructure, are real avenues for its survival. Call it The Jay Leno Effect: specialty cars of the Leno variety will mimic horses in polo clubs. My infrastructure issue suggests random old cars will still have a life in zip codes where improvements have yet to be prioritized. I see this happy medium working for decades, if not centuries. (Provided future generations actually find cars relevant.)
  2. I don’t see any politician punishing disadvantaged people by forcing them into an expensive new(er) EV, as governments often need to put their money elsewhere. The only real threats I see are government incentives to motivate the citizenry, like Cash for Clunkers. But in general, America loves its history, and antique cars will be a part of it … just like they are right now.
    1. Necessary aside: Regarding Cash for Clunkers, let’s not forget that used cars are too profitable for dealerships these days. Many franchised car dealers sell more used cars than new, and they were doing so years before the pandemic. Government incentives would have to exceed the old clunker’s value to the dealership, otherwise the dealer will “offer more for your trade” and keep such cars in the ecosystem, selling them on the side or to buy-here-pay-here car lots. I don’t see a proliferation of EVs changing this, and you can bet the dealer lobby will have something to say if needed.
  3. Journalism has been watered down in recent decades, and the bigger picture of a total carbon footprint just doesn’t attract eyeballs like a shiny new product made by a famous company. It’s real easy to greenwash a manufacturer for “doing the right thing,” and it’s truly difficult to give a nuanced discussion on overall benefit while getting any appreciable amount of fans/clicks.
    1. Necessary aside: Journalists need to consider the densification of urban areas and their impact on car ownership, as urban settings will become more like Manhattan and less like Atlanta. Even the smaller Michigan city that became a haven for automotive journalism is getting denser. Simply put, cars aren’t as central to our lives as we thought they would be, back in the 1940s and 50s. Car ownership is getting unsustainable in some—though not all—places.
  4. While I like EV conversions of classic cars for their higher performance and promotion of cleaner air in urban areas (boy, would it be nice to smell fresh air in the city, like I did when there were lockdowns), I am generally terrified of their crashworthiness. It depends on the car and the quality of the conversion. Where exactly will 800 pounds of battery wind up when a Chevy Tahoe plows into an EV-converted classic?
  5. You may be right, that the old-car world faces increasing pressure to justify itself, but the defense argument is natural, given our current socioeconomic state. The sad reality is that new-car ownership is out of reach for many, and we can rightly place blame on automakers/the supply chain/regulations and on economics. I’m sure even more factors come into play in specific zip codes. While some politicians will be motivated to offer painfully large government subsidies to get people into newer EVs, I doubt political discourse at a national level will support that strategy on a larger scale. State and local? For sure, and a good idea when paired with regional densification.

One final point to add, as I suspect the electric-utility lobby will only grow over time: EV’s future degree of influence will motivate both sides of the aisle to find a reason to love battery-powered cars. But by the time that happens, so many gasoline-powered vehicles will be legit classics that The Jay Leno Effect, together with the grassroots power of the SEMA Action Network, will come into play and save all that remain.

As EVs continue to improve (i.e. dual-chemistry packs, more chargers at Walmart, etc.), the appeal of gasoline will wane over time. Those who want the thrill of an internal-combustion motor will buy older cars, just like “we” did when we once fetishized America’s pre-1975 V-8-powered cars, ostracizing their emissions-friendly counterparts. The fading appeal of modern gas engines isn’t a big concern, unless you’re a huge fan of modern 2.0-liter turbocharged compact utility vehicles.

If so, please accept my apology. Maybe The Jay Leno Effect can make those cool, too.

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    You kinda asked the right questions, too – or at least presented the correct concerns. Sajeev pretty much nailed his responses. I think there is an elephant-in-the-room, sort of mentioned, but probably a bigger point than has been made, and that is the aging out of we boomers who are currently the largest segment of owners who are keeping “classics” at the fore. Yes, there are younger folks who love and drive them, but at some point, there is a point of diminishing returns. Sajeev touches on a really salient “if” when he says, “Provided future generations actually find cars relevant.”
    That, to me, is the totally unpredictable wild card. All of the points made by the esteemed Mr. Mehta that indicate that Old ICE Cars can/will continue for decades (or centuries!) will melt away if there just isn’t enough DESIRE within the public to keep them. I wouldn’t have foreseen most of the changes in attitudes toward certain consumer items and behaviors between my parent’s generation and my children’s, but I’ve certainly observed many of them – some brought about by technology, and many by just societal shifts. Who knows how the next two generations will view automobiles in general, let alone classics? Maybe even EVs will fail to energize my children’s grandchildren…

    I would like to add that younger generations will find cars (any type of personal vehicle) relevant if they live in lower density parts of America. Which is the beauty of living in this wonderfully diverse country.

    I mentioned zip codes in the article, and that will be our bellwether. We know all zip codes are not created equal, and that ain’t never gonna change. 🙂

    Unfortunately in this age of 20 second videos, nobody wants to put in the effort to get at cold facts. The only sources of “information” become people with an agenda. I would love to see a real scientific cradle-to-grave analysis that strts with raw material sourcing to disposal of a car and its parts at the end of its life.

    BTW, my concern for my NA Miata is not gas or legislation relating to it. It’s level 4 automation which will require ALL cars to be able to communicate. Unless affordable human interface kits become available for “legacy” cars, THAT may be the thing that takes old cars off the road.

    Have a look at the Volvo analysis: https://www.volvocars.com/images/v/-/media/Market-Assets/INTL/Applications/DotCom/PDF/C40/Volvo-C40-Recharge-LCA-report.pdf

    I doubt classics (i.e. OBD-I and earlier OBD-II vehicles) will be a large enough blip on the radar to be required in that type of legislation. If it becomes mandatory for all road going vehicles, I would not be surprised if someone makes a module that meets the data requirements and connects to a 12V battery with ease. But I doubt politicians care about such minutiae.

    Thanks for taking the time to put in the links. I think only the Yale study referenced is talking about what I am talking about.

    If you are buying a new vehicle and the only deciding factor is emissions then electric wins, I’m not questioning that (though Toyoda’s point about “just commute in our hybrid in EV mode and we use way less resources to convert the world to less-carbon transportation” probably has merit… but that becomes a massive discussion too as you start factoring in the faster adoption rate that could happen in Toyoda’s scenario)

    Volvo’s study (to my recall) wasn’t saying the same thing as Yale’s. Shrugs.

    If I don’t buy a new vehicle at all… I am saving that carbon. My old vehicle uses carbon based on the fuel type it uses, and any repairs needed to keep it going.

    If my commute is less than the average expected commute that is also a savings.

    I can’t put real numbers on that. My wondering is “what are those real numbers?” The Volvo study gave the impression (when thinking about things from this perspective) that you might be looking at years of zero carbon from using an old vehicle, especially if your amount of driving was less than average.*

    *But I’m not recalling if the Volvo study even factored in mileage. The standout part I was remembering was the “7 years for EV to hit zero emissions vs. the new ICE”. If Volvo wasn’t factoring in, and Yale’s comments about tailpipe emissions being the bulk of the carbon then I suspect you wouldn’t math out to much zero carbon… but then that still might make the Sundays only cruiser emissions zero –which could be a big deal to the hobby.

    My only consolation is that since Mississippi is often at the bottom of a lot of lists, we’ll be the last in the EV and auto-pilot transition. We still don’t have emissions testing, and a couple of years ago even did away with annual inspections!

    Counterpoint to that is Washington state. We don’t have emissions or inspection testing, and we’re apparently on track to ban new ICE car sales by 2030 (or 2035… can’t remember. Can’t afford a new car, so doesn’t matter)

    Its always nice to see just how diverse, how not cut-and-dry, different regions of this wonderful country are when it comes to the automobile.

    Thanks, Sajeev. The only reason this may be different is that level 4 cars will need to communicate with each other for things like mergering and intersections, etc. You know the industry lobby will not want to have to plan for both other level 4 and “grandfathered” driver controlled cars, and will eventually get their way for “safety” reasons. I just hope you are right about a universal module being available as an alternative.

    That’s true, but autonomous driving has bigger fish to fry for the foreseeable future. (Dealing with bad weather, incomplete infrastructure, cost, durability, and styling for applications that care about it, etc.) And the lobby isn’t dumb enough to even suggest a politician should rip “non compliant” car keys out of people’s hands. I just don’t see this as a credible threat, on either side of the political spectrum.

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