ďIf GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1000 MPGĒ Ė Bill Gates
Iím a car nut. Iíve always loved automobiles, of all kinds, shapes and colors. I love the technology in modern cars and the lack thereof in older ones. Iíve owned many cars; not because Iím a car dealer, but because I grew up with 1,000 Matchbox and Hot Wheels toy cars, and I have a short attention span. At last count, Iíve owned 23 cars: the oldest built in 1965, the newest in 2002. Hmm, maybe itís time for one of those new hybrids.
I started driving in 1980. Coincidentally, I started working that year, so that I could afford all those cars. From 1980 until 1990, I worked in a grocery store. For much of that decade, I was paid The Minimum Wage as dictated by the Federal Government.
Iíve owned my share of muscle cars and full-sized pickup trucks, but Iíve also owned cars that were quite economical to operate. You see, I started driving at the height of the 1979 energy crisis. The world price of oil peaked at $35/barrel. (At the time, I wasnít buying oil by the barrel, lacking the storage in my momís basement.) By 1983, the nominal price of a gallon of gasoline (that is, the price it was in 1983 dollars, unadjusted for inflation) was $1.31. Now the minimum wage in 1983 was $3.35/hour. So I would like to introduce a new economic concept: measuring costs in real-minimum-wage-labor-hours (RemLabHrs ). Because in 1983, when I was 18, that was the most important thing to me: How many hours would I have to work to afford enough gas to go see my girlfriend. And I bet thatís whatís important to young guys in 2009.
In my new form of measure, 1983 gasoline cost 0.39 RemLabHrs /gal. That is, I would have to work 5.5 hours to fill my 14-gal tank (not counting income and Social Security taxes). The minimum wage is now $7.25/hr, and I just paid $2.67/gal for regular gas. Todayís young Lotharios are working 0.36 RemLabHrs /gal to go see their girls. Wow, only 5.2 hours worked to fill the tank these days! And since cars get so much better gas mileage today than 25 years ago, kids today should be rolling in loot.
But wait. Remember all those cars I had? Especially the economical ones? In particular, Iím thinking of my 1978 Honda Civic Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber (CVCC) with a 5-speed manual transmission. While I donít actually remember the exact mileage I got back then, fortunately the US Government remembers for me: 40.87 mpg hwy / 31.29 mpg city. (These are EPA figures, but I remember getting close to this out of my car.)
Nearly 41 mpg is pretty impressive. Itís even more so when you consider the technology involved. Despite the fancy CVCC name, the 1978 Civic was carbureted with points and a distributor cap. No high-tech fuel injection or computer controlled ignition or variable valve timing here. Surely todayís new cars Ė particularly the hybrids Ė will return much better mileage.
But they donít, really. The new Honda Insight Hybrid is (I think optimistically) rated at 43 mpg hwy / 40 mpg city. For our purposes I think a better comparison is the 2009 non-hybrid Honda Civic, which returns an abysmal 34 hwy / 26 city. But it gets worseÖ in the throes of Katrina hysteria, gasoline shot up to over $4.00/gal. At the post-Katrina prices, and with the 2005 Minimum Wage of $5.15/hr, filling the tank cost a whopping 8 hours of teen labor. Pundits, some congressmen, Al Gore, and others who make far more than The Minimum Wage see nothing wrong with artificially keeping gasoline at $4/gallon or more via taxation (of course they would balance the RemLabHrs equation by increasing The Minimum Wage).
What is going on here? We have all this new technology in cars, quite expensive technology really. The MSRP for the base model 2009 Honda Civic is 2,139 RemLabHrs versus about 1,500 RemLabHrs for the 1978. For all that extra labor that Lothario has to do to buy the Honda today, shouldnít he get it back by getting 60+ mpg?
There are many variables at play here. Curb weight of the 2009 is almost 600 lbs more than the 1978, primarily due to NHTSA safety requirements and consumer desires for better performance (better handling requires stiffer construction, which generally means heavier bodywork) and more space befitting todayís more volumetric Americans. The 2009 Civic sports a 140hp engine vs. 60hp for the 1978, again reflecting consumer desires for performance. The modern engine must also battle against choking emissions-control devices, sacrificing increased MPG that comes from freer-flowing exhaust (the 1978 Civic CVCC was one of the few cars that did not require a catalytic converter to meet the emissions requirements of the time, and could even burn leaded or unleaded gasoline).
So the fuel economy of todayís technology-laden cars, even the hybrids, isnít significantly better than 1970s era cars. We are being conned by claims of new technologies to achieve better fuel economy. The auto industry had its Moore's Law window over 100 years ago. The only technology (if you want to call it technology) available today to improve fuel economy in conventional cars is weight reduction, and those savings are quickly consumed by government-mandated safety/environmental equipment and ďinnovativeĒ features carmakers jam in every year to keep us on the treadmill of periodically upgrading our vehicles.
Lothario is being conned too. Over the years, the government increases the minimum wage, but it more than takes it back in economy laws, standards, rules, taxes designed to meet the governmentís visions for safety, environmental impacts, fuel conservation, etc. The government doesn't want us to drive the cars we want and is taking away our freedom to do so. To prevent many of us from buying affordable, big, fast, noisy, polluting cars, they plan to force all of us into buying expensive, small, slow, quiet, exhaustless cars with seatbelts, airbags and tracking devices (for future social engineering measures). Denying us our freedom to choose leads to homogeneity of the citizenry Ė desired by Marxists everywhere Ė but robs us of our individuality, and as we have seen, our prosperity.
What is our modern-day minimum-wage Lothario to do? He must work 600 more hours to pay for his ride, and he must work 8 hours per week to fill it with gas. And he hasnít even bought cigarettes yet: 0.19 RemLabHrs /pack in 1978 vs. 1.2 in NYC starting this Wednesday. You read that right: Lothario will be working twelve hours per forty hour workweek just to buy cigarettes. Expect teen pregnancy rates to plummet as he spends all his time working just to pay for the 18-year-oldís basic necessities. At least he can still buy cheap beer (62 minutes of work per six-pack back then, but only 41 today), at least for now.
(By the way Ė if you didnít smoke, drink, drive too fast, and chase members of the opposite sex when you were 18, please see me for a personal explanation of how you missed out on the whole life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness thing. And meanwhile lighten up on your kids, míkay? They're RemLabHrs-challenged.)
Daniel Britton, The Technothrope, is a video game developer, former aerospace engineer, militant Southerner, and part-time philosopher-for-hire. He got his start as a car nut stealing copies of 1960ís-era Car & Driver from the school library.