As many of you readers know, I drive a 2001 GMC Sierra 1500 pickup truck with a 4.8-liter V-8 engine. Im not a heavy driver, with 83,000 miles at the eight-year mark, but I do appreciate the utility of a pickup and the comfort of having a back seat to carry such precious cargo as my grandson or my golf clubs.
Over the years, my light truck has performed very well and given me excellent mileage on the highway, over 20 miles per gallon. According to the EPA, it is rated at a combined 16 mpg (new method), which qualified it as a clunker under the terms of the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act of 2009. That made it eligible for the federal governments Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), commonly called cash for clunkers. By trading in my Sierra towards the purchase of a new car, I could have enjoyed a hefty rebate, paid for by the taxpayers and sent from the government directly to the auto dealer.
The program was to run for the three months before Nov. 1 or when the funds were exhausted, whichever came first. In fact, it was such a roaring success that the $3 billion allocation was blown in about four weeks. Instead of running to Nov. 1, CARS ended on Aug. 24.
For those who dont recall the details of the CARS program, it went something like this:
The clunkers owner was required to leave his or her trade-in vehicle at the dealership and sign over its title at the time of the deal.
Only purchase or lease of new vehicles qualified.
Generally, trade-in vehicles must get 18 mpg or less. Some very large pick-up trucks and cargo vans had different requirements.
The vehicle must have been less than 25 years old on the trade-in date.
Trade-in vehicles must have been registered and insured continuously for the full year preceding the trade-in.
The driver didnt need a voucher; dealers would apply a credit at purchase.
Participants did not have to agree to pay back the dealer the CARS credit amount, even if the government later rejected the deal.
The program required the scrapping of your eligible, working trade-in vehicle. The dealer also was to disclose an estimate of the scrap value of your trade-in, and that value, however minimal, was to be in addition to the rebate.
It was under this last point that a unique new lubricant came into play. When a vehicle was traded in under the CARS program, the dealer was required to replace its engine oil with a 40 percent sodium silicate solution and to run the engine at low speed until it seized. That usually took under 10 minutes.
For the non-chemists out there, sodium silicate is glass. Once the fluid was circulated, engine heat dehydrated the solution, leaving the solid sodium silicate behind. The solids quickly abraded the bearings, making the engine unusable, while all the ports, lines and parts where oil normally flows were left coated or plugged. After that, the vehicle was auctioned to a licensed auto-parts recycler for ultimate disposal.
This is a great plan to get vehicles with poor fuel economy off the road permanently. However, its causing a lot of pain for the recyclers who make a good portion (40 percent) of their business off selling used engine parts. If they dont move pretty quickly, they wont be able to salvage radiators, alternators, transmissions and so on, as every CARS vehicle must be crushed within 180 days of the time it is received.
I foresee other problems developing as a result of this program too. If parts are not available for older engines at their local recycler, many people will be unable to repair the vehicles that did not get traded in under CARS. Historically, as vehicles get older, new parts become more difficult to obtain and parts from junked vehicles are used to fill the void. When I was younger, we used to rebuild engines and transmissions from parts obtained in this way. Now folks who would be more than willing and able to keep an older car or truck running for a few years more will potentially be in the position of not being able to get replacement parts of any sort.
There is also the problem of the classic car buff who cant find a part for his pride and joy. Suppose one owned an 86 Ford Mustang SVO with a 5.0-liter V-8 – a muscle car, as it were. If that were me (and I wish it was), I probably wouldnt be able to find any engine parts for it after the CARS program. Besides, it hurts me to think that anyone would turn in a 86 Mustang as a cash-for-clunkers sacrifice.
And how does this program affect the engine oil industry? More problems. Taking older engines off the road reduces the need for higher-viscosity engine oils, such as SAE 10W-30, 10W-40 and 20W-50. In spending $3 billion to remove older vehicles from the road, the government disposed of some 690,000 such engines.
Using my higher mathematics skills, I calculate that the loss of these engines means roughly 2.9 million gallons of higher-viscosity engine oil will be displaced by lower grades (SAE 5W-30, 5W-20 and/or 0W-20). Not a huge amount, when you remember that U.S. passenger car engine oil sales amount to about 700 million gallons per year.
However, it does accelerate the shift to lower-vis base oils for engine oil formulations. The continuing push to lighter base oil cuts causes more refineries to crack heavier feeds to gain the necessary pool viscosity. That means a reduction in the quantity of high-vis base oil for other applications, such as railroad and natural gas engine oils as well as other industrial and gear lubricants.
Another market that might be adversely affected is the aftermarket oil additive business. One of the key targets for these products is the higher-mileage oil burner engine. As engines get older, their tolerances increase to the point where oil consumption goes up, due to oil getting past the rings or valve guides and being burned in the combustion chamber. These are the so-called blue smokers that we occasionally see on the road. However, most of the oil loss actually goes out around seals and leaks onto the ground. If the aftermarket additive contains a polymer-based viscosity index improver (as most do), the oils thickness is raised and the leakage is reduced.
With many older, looser engines gone, the oil additive market will see a dip. Granted, not every one of those old engines used an oil treatment, but lets assume that maybe half did, at the rate of one 12-ounce bottle at each oil change. That means over a million oil treatments will not be needed, and at 12 oz. per treat, were talking over 100,000 gallons of lost sales.
Then there is the market for higher-mileage engine oils, which are specifically designed for vehicles with 75,000 or more miles on the odometer. This product class enjoys a healthy markup over conventional engine oils, and has been a good seller for most major oil marketers. Remove a bunch of clunkers from the highways – all of them ideal customers for this oil – and you should expect a dip in sales for these value-added products. As the remaining vehicles in the fleet age, this volume will rise again, but it could take several years to recapture the sales volumes and profits currently enjoyed. This is an engine oil market to watch.
A few months back, I wrote about unintended consequences. To me, the CARS plan is full of unintended consequences. I really think that no one gave any thought to what impact this program would have on markets and recyclers. Government officials saw it as a way to get less-fuel-efficient vehicles off the road, and to create jobs at dealers and automakers.
However, they didnt see the trap that it creates for owners of these now-defunct vehicles. When drivers traded in their wheels, they got a new car – and a new car payment every month. With the economy as sluggish as it is, this debt could put cash-strapped participants into a tighter financial box.
Cash for clunkers also piled stress on automobile dealers, as it essentially required them to make a loan to the customer until reimbursed by the government. In early September, the reimbursements were moving rather slowly, and dealers were carrying these loans for more time than they would like. That put them in a bind financially.
I never planned to cash in my truck for a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and I suspect that a great many people like me also took a pass on the CARS deal. So the question is: Have we done ourselves any favors here, or are we just spinning our wheels, yet again?