There are two issues about Cash for Clunkers that have been lost in the debate. The first is correctly identifying the real issue behind the catch phrase. And, second, is a bigger issue with long-term effects — that is, gaining enough clout to be heard in Washington. By now you've heard all the arguments from both the government and the aftermarket. Stripped down to the basics, the government wants to jump start new vehicle sales by getting people to trade in older cars. That could be good for the automakers that find themselves freakishly over-inventoried. All things being equal, the scrappage of older vehicles is never a good thing for the aftermarket, but a purposeful effort by the government to offer a "buy incentive" without a corresponding "repair incentive" is just political nonsense.
So what is the real issue? It's vehicle inspections. While some of the associations have nibbled around its edges, the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA) has made it a centerpiece of their argument.
"AASA believes a nationwide mandate to establish a uniform vehicle inspection program should accompany any program to scrap vehicles to determine which automobiles should be retired and which vehicles can be repaired to operate in the condition they were originally intended by the vehicle manufacturer," says Steve Handschuh, president and COO of AASA. "This approach will allow consumers to purchase, replace or repair a vehicle while insuring safer, cleaner and more fuel efficient operations on the nation's roads."
OK, let's leave that on the table and go on to the aftermarket's lack of D.C. clout, which has become all too evident during the debate of Cash for Clunkers. Despite a relentless and exhaustive PR effort by the industry's major associations to try to get the government to dismiss the indiscriminate scrappage of vehicles, their separate attempts have wound up in the proverbial scrappage can.
USA Today, an independent observer on this issue, points out in a recent editorial that if the goal were to promote fuel efficiency, the country would be better served to raise gas prices. As for being an economic stimulus, the paper says the Cash for Clunkers bill only helps a single industry and those who made a conscious decision in the past to buy gas-guzzlers. On the outside looking in is the aftermarket and consumers who need help but can't afford a new car even with the proposed incentives.
Historically, we know the government will favor automakers because members of Congress "know" the automakers. They have spent untold millions lobbying over decades to get their way. So with any issue concerning the auto industry, the automakers have an inside track.
The best hope the aftermarket has against automakers on major issues is for our associations to work together. Instead of each of them spitting out a horde of their own press releases on perils of scrappage, it would have been more effective for them to have joined forces and presented their points under a new industry letterhead to Congress and the president.
It may be too late for this issue but the first step toward solidarity is for the associations to meet regularly about major issues and hammer out policies in the best interest of the entire aftermarket. In order to speak with one voice, there will have to be give-and-take on many pet projects. But each association will need to set those aside if we're going to win a war that we are now losing.
And remember the abovementioned vehicle inspections? We've been talking about them for decades and have made little progress. Vehicle inspections, which are state enforced, range from being very tough and expensive to virtually nonexistent. Regular, thorough inspections are the key to a predictable and more lucrative aftermarket, yet we have no unified message to take to the states and/or Washington. Could an industry meeting on this issue be forthcoming?
Larry Silvey, a 25-year veteran of the automotive aftermarket, is editor-in-chief of Aftermarket Business and Editorial Director for the Advanstar Automotive Group, which consists of Aftermarket Business, Motor Age, ABRN and Styling and Performance.