Will Government Force You To Junk Your Car?

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GM – and the auto industry in general – were accused some 40 years ago of perpetrating “planned obsolescence” – that is, deliberately redesigning cars each year, usually in trivial, cosmetic ways, in order to make last year’s cars seem “old” – and thus encourage the purchase of the new – and “latest” thing.

Maybe so. In fact, probably so. But it was a psychological – or marketing – effort and not coercive. In a way, it was all rather innocent. No one forced you to buy a new car – or get rid of your old one. If your older car still ran well and looked good (to you) then you could drive it for as long as you liked. And because the cars of that era were much simpler – and largely free of government-mandated elaborate (and expensive) equipment – it was possible for a person with some basic mechanical skills and the interest necessary to keep an older car going almost indefinitely.

Planned obsolescence has matured.

Most people have no idea that modern cars are increasingly designed not merely to be less-than-stylish after a year or two – but to be throw-aways after about 8-10 years or so. This is the point at which the average car’s retail value falls below $10,000 – when the cost to repair/replace certain components becomes prohibitive relative to the value of the car itself.

And the best (well, worst) part is the government will force you to throw the car away.

Tens of thousands of otherwise perfectly sound older vehicles, often with many years of useful service life left in them, are junked every year solely because the cost to replace a deployed air bag (or bags) is too high relative to the value of the car itself. A 2002 Toyota Camry, for example, has an average retail value of around $7,000 right now. If the owner of such a car is involved in an accident – not catastrophic, but sufficient to cause both the driver and passenger side air bags to deploy – the car will invariably be thrown away. Even if the car only has 70,000 miles on the clock and still runs great and could be driven for another ten years or more.

Because while the physical damage to the car’s bodywork might be light – and fixable for a reasonable sum – the costs associated with replacing the airbags will not be reasonable, relative to the value of the car. Often, air bag replacement costs will push the total repair bill to 40 percent or more of the vehicle’s pre-accident market value.

This is the point at which most insurance companies will “total” – that is, throw away – a vehicle. And it’s a threshold that’s alarmingly easy to reach – even if most people are unaware of it.

In the Camry example, replacing the driver and passenger side air bags – which also means replacing the entire steering wheel and (usually) the dashboard – will cost in the neighborhood of $2,500. By itself – before even factoring in the cost of repairing body damage – replacing the air bags and associated components has pushed the repair estimate to the 40 percent threshold. Add $2,000 for bodywork – which these days is a small sum – and you’re at 60 percent. And the car’s toast.

Or rather, it’s toaster fodder.

Think of the probably millions of cars out there with “book values” of $10,000 or less. Each one is in peril – every day – of being junked as a result of modern planned obsolescence. If your car is worth less than $5,000 it’s not just in peril of being junked.

It is guaranteed to be junked if it’s ever involved in an accident that results in an air bag deployment.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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