Guest Post: The Demise Of The Car

Tyler Durden's picture

From PeakProsperity contributor author Gregor Macdonald

The Demise of the Car

India’s recent series of power blackouts, in which 600 million people lost electricity for several days, reminds us of the torrid pace at which populations in the developing world have moved onto the powergrid. Unfortunately, this great transition has been so rapid that infrastructure has mostly been unable to meet demand. India itself has failed to meets its own power capacity addition targets every year since 1951. This has left roughly one quarter of the country’s population without any (legal) access to electricity. That’s 300 million people out of a population of 1.2 billion. Indeed, it is the daily attempt of the underserved to access power that may have led to India’s recent grid crash.

But the story of India’s inadequate infrastructure is only one part of the difficult, global transition away from liquid fossil fuels. Over the past decade, the majority of new energy demand has been met not through global oil, but through growth in electrical power.

Frankly, this should be no surprise. After all, global production of oil started to flatten more than seven years ago, in 2005. And the developing world, which garners headlines for its increased demand for oil, is running mainly on coal-fired electrical power. There is no question that the non-OECD countries are leading the way as liquid-based transport – automobiles and airlines – have entered longterm decline.

Why, therefore, do policy makers in both the developing and developed world continue to invest in automobile infrastructure?

Interestingly, instead of investing in the powergrid, India embarked earlier last decade on a massive highway project, known as the Great Quadrilateral. This created a kind of grand, national circular whose “four and six-lane, 3,625 miles run through 13 states and India's four largest cities: New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai (formerly Madras), and Mumbai (formerly Bombay),” according to a 2005 New York Times article. The piece continues, describing the ongoing, 15-year effort (to be completed this year) as “the most ambitious infrastructure project since independence in 1947 and the British building of the subcontinent's railway network the century before.”

Alas, the irony is rich. India conceived of this highway project as oil prices hit deep lows at the end of the past millennium. Now that the highway network is constructed and oil prices have more than quadrupled, it is massive investment in the powergrid that hundreds of millions of Indians so desperately need instead—not road building.

Sunk-Cost Decision Making and the Overfocus on Autos

But it’s not just India that has incorrectly invested in automobile transport. The other giant of Asia, China, has also placed large resources into auto-highway infrastructure.

It appears that at least a decade ago, the developing world made the same assumption about future oil prices as was made in Western countries. The now infamous 1999 Economist cover, Drowning in Oil, reflected the pervasive, status-quo view that the global adoption of the car could continue indefinitely. A decade later, however, we find that after oil’s extraordinary price revolution, the global automobile industry is now starved for growth.

In the same way that Western economies have shed enormous tranches of oil demand so that emerging markets could increase their oil consumption, automobile transport is now either stagnating or in outright decline outside of China. You cannot have a growing automobile industry in the United States when American oil demand is down over 12% since 2005. And you cannot have a growing auto industry in Europe when EU oil demand has shed over a million and half barrels a day – another 10% decline.

Europe’s declining oil demand is particularly significant, given that coming into the last decade, the EU was already a highly efficient user of oil. To have taken off even more demand in the past 5 years shows just how tough high oil prices have become in Europe. The result is nothing less than a devastation of Europe’s auto industry, which has already lost 800,000 jobs and looks ready to lose another 500,000 more according to recent forecasts, as reported by Bloomberg. Meanwhile, here is Time Magazine’s big thematic piece from just last month:

Europe’s Debt Crisis Seems Bad? Look at Its Car Industry

Just how bad are things in motoring Europe? On Wednesday Peugeot reported it lost over $993 million in the first half of 2012 alone. The same day, American maker Ford announced second quarter net income of just over $1 billion world-wide — but a $404 million loss in Europe, where the company now expects total losses to exceed $1 billion by year’s end. Meanwhile, General Motors Europe affiliate Opel-Vauxhall has lost a whopping $14 billion since the start of the century, and is almost certainly facing the same sort of layoffs and plant closures Peugeot has announced.....What’s more, the sector is almost certain to see more bad news on the revenue front. According to the Brussels-based European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (EAMA), new car registration declined by nearly 7% in the first half of the year. All told, projected total sales of 12.4 million cars in 2012 would represent a nearly 20% slide in volume over 2007, when the current string of annual shrinkage began. Forecasts that once saw activity improving by 2013 now push returning health in the sector beyond the recessionary horizon now stretching far off into the European distance....That dismal outlook on the demand side is compounded by concerns over excess supply. Industry analysts say auto manufacturers in Europe maintain around 30% more production capacity than the market will bear.

Captured Governments

Like other dying industries of the past century, the global auto industry has entered decline after having fully embedded itself in the political complex. Regardless of political leaning, federal governments from Europe, to Japan, to the United States have and will continue to do everything possible to save the industry.

US automakers received their first bailout in late 2008 from the Bush Administration. The bailouts continued in the Obama Administration. (Both presidencies that could hardly be more dissimilar, but were united in their assumption of an enduring future for cars). For Republicans -- a party that claims to adhere to free-market principles -- releasing a first payment of over $13 billion to the industry was a classic foxhole-conversion in the midst of the financial crisis. For Democrats -- a party that claims to be concerned with climate change, the environment, and public transport -- the enormous financial support to the industry was only one part of the current administration’s continued embrace of the auto-highway complex.

More broadly, however, global governments are captured by sunk-cost decision making as the past 60-70 years of highway infrastructure investment is now a legacy just too painful to leave behind. Interestingly, whether citizens and governments want to face this reality or not, features of the oil economy are already going away as infrastructure is increasingly stranded. Moreover, there are cultural shifts now coming into play as young people are no longer buying cars – in the first instance because they can’t afford them, and in the second instance because it’s increasingly no longer necessary to own a car to be part of one’s group. See this piece from Atlantic Cities:

Young People Aren't Buying Cars Because They're Buying Smart Phones Instead

Youth culture was once car culture. Teens cruised their Thunderbirds to the local drive-in, Springsteen fantasized about racing down Thunder Road, and Ferris Bueller staged a jailbreak from the 'burbs in a red Ferrari. Cars were Friday night. Cars were Hollywood. Yet these days, they can't even compete with an iPhone - or so car makers, and the people who analyze them for a living, seem to fear. As Bloomberg reported this morning, many in the auto industry "are concerned that financially pressed young people who connect online instead of in person could hold down peak demand by 2 million units each year." In other words, Generation Y may be happy to give up their wheels as long as they have the web. And in the long term, that could mean Americans will buy just 15 million cars and trucks each year, instead of around 17 million.

If future car sales in the US will be limited by the loss of 2 million purchases just from young people alone, then the US can hardly expect to return to even 15 million car and truck sales per year. US sales have only recovered to 14 million. (And that looks very much like the peak for the reflationary 2009-2012 period) 

Indeed, the migration from suburbs back to the cities, the resurrection of rail, and the fact that oil will never be cheap again puts economies – and culture – on a newly defined path to other forms of transport and other ways of working.

Cars and the Environment

Recently, the main focus of the global climate change and environment communities has centered on coal-fired power generation. But it's the transport sector that is ripe for changing, given that declining gasoline consumption is already trending favorably in the same direction.

Recent data from EIA Washington shows, unsurprisingly, that US emissions from all energy consumption has fallen back to levels seen twenty years ago.

As CO2 emissions from total US energy demand fell back to levels in the early 1990s, US oil demand has also fallen to levels last seen in that same time period. And thus the official Washington posture towards US oil consumption remains quite conflicted. Washington wants less dependency on foreign oil, lower CO2 emissions, and cheaper gasoline. On the other hand, Washington refuses to meaningfully shift its Transport budget from highways to public transportation.

Ultimately, global governments will be left standing in the way of a process that’s now gaining momentum and is unlikely to be reversed.

Obsolete Infrastructure

For half a century, the auto-highway complex has been a conduit for political power, and myriad players have self-interested reasons to maintain the system. However, the contraction of motorized transport in the West – a natural outcome of high oil prices and debt saturation – will gain further strength as various states (or countries) simply run out of money to build new roads.

As discussed in California: Bellwether for the Rest of America, the highway-rich landscape of the Golden State (for example) sucks up 90% of its transport budget. But California roads are now among the worst in the nation, costing drivers some of the highest on-road expenses merely as a result of poor surface conditions.

To the extent that states can no longer maintain roads to an adequate standard, infrastructure will become stranded.

We see the same related effects in US airport infrastructure as many regional airports have either seen a huge reduction in traffic or have shut down completely. (The US Postal Service and its current financial difficulties also reflect the emerging trend, as the USPS is obligated to deliver mail to remote locations even as postal revenues drop on the higher cost of – you guessed it – energy and gasoline.)

Eventually, drivers will be asked to pay higher tolls and other fees to maintain roads, as public funds, in a time of flat economic growth, are diverted to other services. This will then compound the transition as the costs of maintaining and running a car go even higher. Every car driver is now subsidized. As the subsidy goes away, more drivers will be forced off the road.

Yes, it is painful for both politicians and the public to acknowledge that much of our infrastructure is no longer needed and cannot be redeployed. The public is only now becoming aware that the energy costs of road-building and road-maintenance have gone through the same price revolution as the price of oil. Governments at all levels find that simply keeping the existing roads operable – and not even in particularly good repair – requires enormous annul sums of capital. And, the per-mile construction cost of new roads is prohibitive.

When the national highway system was originally constructed, of course, oil prices were at an inflation-adjusted level of around $12-$14 per barrel. That oil prices now trade at 8 times those levels has completely changed the economic return on road building. Unsurprisingly, the demand for asphalt has crashed back to levels last seen in the early 1980s. 

US Product Supplied of Asphalt and Road Oil

End of the Grand Public Subsidy of Roads

The United States has only just begun a long reduction of public spending on roads and highways.

The current administration has shifted only a few percentage points of the transport budget from the auto-highway sector to public transport -- but that shift will grow larger as the years progress.

And while it took many decades for such a shift to develop in the US, the same process will be more rapid in the developing world. In other words, the advance, peak, and decline of motorized transport in China and India will be much more rapid as these nations and their giant populations arrive more quickly to the limits of oil based transport. Indeed, there is already evidence in the data that oil adoption rates have slowed considerably as the majority of new energy demand comes online to the powergrid.

In Part II: Rise of the Global Powergrid, we further examine the poor investment prospects of roadbuilding as economies enter the next leg of energy transition. Interestingly, one of the implications of this shift is that oil will be set free to advance to much higher price levels. A paradigmatic shift in global energy usage is underway that has finally become more well-defined, and more visible.

Oil is no longer the new great game; grid power, with its inherent flexibility, is now emerging.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; paid enrollment required for full access).

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bank guy in Brussels's picture

Public transport, bitchez

Oh regional Indian's picture

It's a simple matter of solving the efficiency question.

Small matter. Obvious solution... we do not have to do away with cars, high-performance or other-wise.


Matt's picture

Just make a car that is 101% efficient, and you're set!

francis_sawyer's picture

Coal fired Volts bitchez!... (the 'hybrid' model with wood gasification technology)...

MillionDollarBonus_'s picture

It’s amusing that libertarians on the one hand complain about the failure of our economy to meet our energy demads, but on the other hand oppose the government investing in smart green technologies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and other unsustainable inefficient "market-driven" energy sources. If the market refuses to solve this problem, then it’s up to the government to fix it. Simply as that. Purist libertarians and ignorant rednecks need to understand this. 

TaxSlave's picture

I guess that means since YOU aren't coming up with "smart green technologies" that make energy/$ sense, then pointing a magical gun at someone will get it invented?  That's not really amusing at all, on second thought.  Maybe if we just got rid of all the idiots who propose force as a solution to energy problems (caused by force, naturally), our energy problems would be solved.'s picture

And we'll have fun, fun, fun now that Daddy took the T-bird away.

Hippocratic Oaf's picture

I'll put this one in your top-ten, MDB.

Fizzywig's picture

Can we get a 'top 10' of MDB's greatest hits?

Imo, I think he should be allowed to post on ZH in the vein of WilliamBonzai7.  His satire is right up there with WB7.

ejmoosa's picture

What's amusing is that you cannot see the connection between the failure of our economy to meet our energy demands(yet we have no shortages-so you must have meant energy at the price you desire) and the government's constant meddling in the energy sector.





Seer's picture

The "meddling" is worst in the form of wars abroad.  In the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter, as it all nets out: US govt actually delivers us cheap oil/gas (see recent ZH article talking about pain at the pump), but it does so at the cost of huge taxes to support the military.

There is NO failure to meet demands.  People are massively in debt and they don't have the $$s to continue to GROW oil consumption: as sales decline margins will get hammered, and then the impact of economies of scale in reverse will kick in with a vengeance.  And given that The System ONLY works on growth I'd have to point out that the issue is NOT necessarily grounded in govt ineptitude.  Sadly, I'm afraid, people will dig up dead horses to whip until the bitter end (when there is NO denying that we cannot grow).

Oh regional Indian's picture

Google Pogue Carb. for a start. Then check out Stanley Meyer. But the answer is even simpler than that. ori

TaxSlave's picture

Build one and show it off or shut the hell up.

Cripes, that gets tiring.

snakeboat's picture

Google 'bike'.  Most.  Efficient. Machine. Evar.

cougar_w's picture

Google "blackbird super cruiser" and you land here:

That was the 2012 MakersFaire. We rocked their world.

Now in the September 2012 (current) issue of Popular Science. Two pages of the same. Yeah read that again -- two pages in PopSci.

It's the future. It's right now. The times they have already changed.

Matt's picture

seems a bit heavy, especially without the ability to carry much cargo.

RestoreOurFuture's picture



Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but this entire article seems to be a giant stab at Paul Ryan and his family's construction business.  It's no secret that Ryan Incorporated Central (his family business created in 1884) was a big recepient of government contracts to build such landmarks as O'Hare Airport, and various interstate highways and railroads in the midwest - Ryan Incorporated Central is a HUGE business, which serves as bait for the libtards to demonize. The Rachel Maddow Show recently made a bogus claim that Ryan Construction Central had received over 50 defense construction contracts, and then questioned Paul Ryan's integrity, saying that his entire motivation to join Congress was to make the necessary friends to ensure those contracts kept flowing to his family's business. And then there was some garbage about hypocrisy and "living off the government umbilical cord".  Bullshit!  These are typical liberal attacks against private business and capitalists.  

First of all, the number of defense contracts was only 22, and Paul Ryan has stated numerous times that he went to Washington because of his love of country and his penchant for solving tough economic problems! The libtards just can't seem to believe that perhaps some people feel patriotic to their country, and want to serve.  Besides, it's not uncommon once you already have financial security to go to Washington and try to help others realize the American dream. 

I don't really feel like I'm revealing anything new, as all of this information has been hotly debated these last two weeks in the media, but when I read an article about "captured governments" and infrasture projects, I can't help but feel like it's a subtle, underhanded stab at Paul Ryan.  Are we expected to drive on dirt?  If anyone actually understood that building these infrastructure projects cost huge amounts of money and any profit takes decades to realize, they'd understand that government funded contracts are the ONLY way to go.  The private market simply won't attempt it because it takes too long to get a nice return.

Sorry for the little rant.

Romney/Ryan 2012

TaxSlave's picture

No, it's not really paranoia to recognize that every time an 'outsider conservative' is presented as the new radical alternative to wholesale socialism, it turns out to be a fascist who got a bunch of money on government contracts, and who happens to agree with the socialists on everything that really matters, like the destruction of the Bill Of Rights and absolute silence on the destruction of the currency and the contingency plans for WHEN it collapses.

DaveyJones's picture

funny and sad - all at the same time

Bringin It's picture

Nice work TaxSlave, but you forgot this one - and who happens to agree with the socialists on everything that really matters, like ... WAR!!

We can choose the Nobel Peace Prize War Candidate or the Whacky UnderPants War Candidate.

malikai's picture

Troll: Confirmed.

+1 This is some good shit.

MDB, pay attention.

Uncle Remus's picture

Sorry? Pathetic comes to mind - the whole lot of you.

TIMBEEER's picture

Romney/Ryan 2012?

Is that something like Herman van Rumpoy (aka "Gollum") and Manuel "Mao" Barroso in the European Union? We don't get to vote them either.

I'm in!

Gollum / Mao 2012!

steve from virginia's picture


Nah .. Romney - Ryan is more like Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Hoess. 

I expect R & R to have similar futures as Heydrich's and Hoess' pasts.

LMAOLORI's picture




Thanks for the explanation but I believe this is all about a controlled totalitarian society

Green Solution: Total Control in Planned-Opolis

How Obama Is Robbing The Suburbs To Pay For The Cities

aint no fortunate son's picture

Nonsense - I'm expecting great advances momentarily in flubber - that should rejuvenate the private passenger automobile industry

Matt's picture

Has anyone recently taken a look at the patent to determine current feasibility? The problem with Flubber was that it cost something like $10,000 per ounce back in the 1960s to make. I mean the real stuff, not the Walt Disney version.

Gully Foyle's picture


I guess Flubber wasn't made from weed, good mexican was $20 for a five fingered oz way back then.


ClassicalLib17's picture

I grossed 650. a month back in those days.  Man, those were some big bags.  It all boiled down to priorities versus...

0z's picture

No. Private Transport.

Slavery is already bad, but public slavery is a million fold worse.

Nothing is public: I am the sole owner of my body.

DaveyJones's picture

...not if the patent corps continue their trend.

Overfed's picture

With TSA cavity searches for all!!

alangreedspank's picture

I'll believe in public transport once it has proven to be a profitable model ie: not sustained by government because they're eyeball in debt.

Seer's picture

Well, if you peer behind any non-govt business you'll see that it, in some way, garners subsidies.  NOTHING is sustainable except natural systems (human systems are, in case you haven't heard, burning through the most energy dense energy reserves on the planet- everything that touches upon this IS thus unsustainable).

UnpatrioticHoarder's picture

Apple is making public transport cool and cannibalising the car industry's market. Love it.

Then do the kiddies get to spend the left over cash or do their employers claw it back with wage deflation.

11b40's picture

Friday nights aren't what they used to be for teenage boys.  Why bother with lining up a date, shelling out a bunch of cash, and hoping you can "hook up"?  Just whip out the iGadget and surf internet porn.  Viola!  Instant satisfaction.  Just type in your pleasure....redheads, cougars, groups, gays, tranny, whatever.  Was it Brave New World or 1984 that had the "Feelies" instead of the movies?  It won't be long before that technology is here.  Hook yourself up (or maybe even wireless) and turn on the TV to have virtual sex while simply watching the screen.  Who needs a car?

Diamond_Dave's picture

Thinking the Defense Dept. is using a lot of the abiotic oil right now. That is a pitiful waste to me, at least talking economics. Is not 80% of biomass below earth's surafces (i.e., in the earth not water or air)? Another goofy guest post asking for moola -- LMAO.

Bankers R Wankers's picture

Could I get a few clicks from the Zero Hedge Community? I believe all you will agree with what I am requesting



Timmay's picture

If it was for term limits for all members of Congress I would.

francis_sawyer's picture

Last time I clicked someones link it was some 'amateur hour' Elliott Wave hacks personal site... I haven't fully recovered yet...

ejmoosa's picture

Even better, if you eliminate seniority in Congress most of our issues would disappear.  Having one representative 10 times more powerful than mine merely because they have been there forever is not equal representation.

CommunityStandard's picture

You do realize that balancing the budget is a mathematic impossibility at this point... at least within the current system.

johnQpublic's picture

suer they can....havent you seen the acts where a guy balances a bunch of spinning plates on a stick?

Gully Foyle's picture

Not once you realize that all all debt is digital debt.

NWO could switch to digital currency and wipe out all debt.

People forget that the plan is to lower the standard of living in the US while raising it in the rest of the world. We have seen that happen.

When the table of nations stands damn near level phase two kicks in. Digital currency. They can base it on lifetime Carbon credits. Lot's of people would like to see the Carbon footprint based currency.

Right now China and Russia stand in the way of a western dominated NWO.

Why do you think we need a ring of bases around them?

Seer's picture

"NWO could switch to digital currency and wipe out all debt."

But the can NOT switch to digital PHYSICAL REALITY.  Wipe out "debt" and then there's still the issue of things becoming less affordable because of the decline in physical resources and increases in population sizes.

"People forget that the plan is to lower the standard of living in the US while raising it in the rest of the world. We have seen that happen."

What "plan?"  At what point would you concede that the standard of living for most of the West is WAY beyond sustainable and that Mother Nature would smack it all down?

I've been to the Philippines and can tell you that the standard of living there HASN'T been raised to any significant levels (yeah, there are small pockets, but on the whole it's pretty much as it was [and if you were to look at the slums around Metro Manilla you'd see that it's actually become WORSE]).  Sorry, but you're paining with too broad of a brush for it to be painting an accurate, detailed picture.

An NWO isn't going to happen.  Govts are losing control each passing day.  Not going to get a "foreign" govt to step in and take over (not enough military force- US can't even control Afghanistan and people believe that it could control the world?).  I appreciate those who are anti-NWO and I believe that this collective energy would exist in one way or another such that an NWO couldn't happen.

DaveyJones's picture

shhhhhhh - they might get restless. 

ebworthen's picture

Nice idea, but they get so much money under the table it won't work.