Haggling Over The Future

Who's in the way?

Not serious people

I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

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This week: Are car dealers the devil? And why?

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Car Dealers, Man

Here’s the thing about American car dealers: they’re wealthier than you think, and standing directly in the way of reducing fossil fuel use by 2/3 and our emissions by 1/3.

Caveating here that electric vehicles are still pollution-spewing nightmares and that parking laws have destroyed our cities, so they’re not THE answer. Far fewer cars and drastically better, safer, and more prevalent public transportation and mobility infrastructure are the big win.

But at the same time EV’s remain one enormous lever to reduce our overall emissions by eliminating our transportation emissions — with the vital co-benefits of immediately eliminating tailpipe emissions as every ICE engine is replaced.

But among the obstacles standing in the way of completely turning over our automobile fleet, at least in the US, are ever-powerful and relatively wealthy GOP-loyal car dealers.

From Slate:

“Car dealers, gas station owners, and building contractors, it turns out, make up the majority of the country’s 140,000 Americans who earn more than $1.58 million per year.“

Some more context:

Pre-IRA, we spent years asking how we could possibly sell all the electric cars we need to, considering unreliable federal subsidies, nary a charging network, range anxiety, all by way of car dealers who simply weren’t incentivized to sell them.

One big reason? The lion share of dealership profits come from gas engine maintenance and repairs.

From The Atlantic in January 2022, which is exactly 1000 years ago:

“Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan who studies dealer-protection laws, agrees. EVs, with their lower upkeep costs, can’t provide the cash flow that dealers need to survive. Dealers’ “economic model is to make all their money on service,” he told me.

“They have a 30% margin on service, but only a 5% margin on sales. It’s just a very, very different model.”

Those profits are actually, basically, protected by law.

For most Americans, local “antitrust laws” (ok) still forbid car makers from selling their wares directly by the manufacturer, or online. Despite lobbying and legal efforts from Tesla and others, dealer industry groups (you know, #organizing) see the end-game and aren’t having it.

Again from Slate:

“Car dealers are not only one of the richest demographics in the United States. They’re also one of the most organized political factions—a conservative imperium giving millions of dollars to politicians at local, state, and national levels. They lobby through NADA… and donate to Republicans at a rate of 6-to-1.“

Dealers who may have at least been semi-interested have been confronted with new questions like “How the hell do I market EV’s that in turn pay for my GOP dark money contributions?” but also “Where the hell am I gonna install chargers so EV’s can be driven off the lot?” and so they mostly just answered: no.

As recently as 2019, ¾ of US dealerships weren’t offering EV’s for purchase, full stop. Just this week, Nat Bullard reported in Bloomberg: “53% of consumers said they felt “EVs are the future and will largely replace gas engines over time” — but only 31% of dealers said they felt the same way.“

But California’s EV sales regulations (and all the states that latched on) plus IRA flipped the script.

Now the pressure’s on — EV’s are getting more affordable, and 51% of Americans are considering buying one.

But despite historic loans for battery factories and historic production —tripling their market share — EV’s are stacking up in dealership lots as dealers continue to fight back, as the great charging buildout continues (and suddenly coalesces around Tesla’s standard), IRA rebates get worked out, and we hold onto automobiles — especially big fucking trucks — longer than we ever have.

Why? Well, cars cost a lot but they’re also kind of required because we decided it should be that way.

Anyways, you get the point. Now let’s make it interesting.

I’d like you to take a step back and conduct a thought exercise.

What are other examples of “car dealers” — known-known obstacles — purposefully standing in the way of progress?

I ask because one, bad guys are real, and two, because knowing who’s standing in the way of progress is just as important as who’s doing the work.

A future-positive mindset actually requires smashing our rose-colored glasses to see the world how it is, now, to identify who has their hands on the levers of power, and to remove them, finger by goddamn finger.

To grossly oversimplify, there are three versions of car dealer-like obstacles to progress I can think of right now:

Purposeful — actual bad guys who know exactly what the hell they’re doing, hellish warming be damned

Inadvertent — not totally convinced how the pieces are connected or how to change, not super interested in finding out

Systemic — product of time and entropy, so deeply embedded that one policy move or election isn’t going to get it done and undoing them would require undoing a LOT of every day life

Here’s your homework:

I’ve listed some more examples below, and I’d love to hear from you where you see analogies (and not). Specifics to your town/city/shire or even country would be delightfully additive.

Have a think and reply right to this email. Get specific. I’ll share the best answers in next week’s post.

  • Local public health (think: city councils, hospital systems, school boards, etc)

  • Clean water (think: wastewater treatment, local agriculture, leaky pipes, etc)

  • Public utility commissions (think: lack of knowledge that they exist, and why that’s still the case)

  • Healthy accessible food (no more cheating, now it’s your turn)

  • Food waste

  • Local air pollution

  • Mobility (bike, walking, etc) infrastructure

  • Banned books

  • Farmworker protections

  • Forever chemicals

  • Vaccine equity

  • Fast fashion

  • Maternal health

  • AI ethics

  • Pandemic preparedness

  • Location data

  • School lunches

  • Urban planning

  • Home electrification

  • Medicaid expansion

There’s more, of course, but you get the idea. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.

— Quinn

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