What does a car (really) cost?

I am just reading a book called 10 Billion by Stephen Emmott, which explains the consequences of the world population reaching 10 billion (do you picture living in a world where all forest trees have been felled down?). There’s a very interesting chapter about the real cost of buying a car, which I want to share with my Malaysian friends.

In cities like KL (where I live) the dependency on car is almost absolute, in part because of the lack of public transportation, in part because of the affordability of owing a car. But the price of a car is really deceptive: all the ‘external costs’ of owing a car are hidden, and these will also be payed by our society, either with money, or with more intangible things, like our health, wellbeing or happiness. These ‘external costs’ include: climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, loss of ecosystems.

Let’s hope the MRT is completed on time, and people start using more and more public transportation instead of driving their own cars.

The following is an excerpt of the book.

What does a car cost?

Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota and others keep telling us that we can buy a car for around £7000 [~35000 MYR].

That’s not what a car costs. Let’s look at what a car costs.


VW lot, Texas. Image by Edward Burtynsky

The iron ore forming the basis of the car’s steel body has to be mined (from somewhere like Australia). It is then transported on a very large and very polluting ship to somewhere like Indonesia or Brazil, to be made into steel.

That steel is then transported on a very large and very polluting ship to a car factory in, say, Germany.

The tyres have to be manufactured. The rubber has to be produced in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. The rubber then has to be shipped to a country that manufactures tyres.

The plastic for the car dashboard starts out as oil in the ground. That oil has to be extracted, and exported – on a very large and very polluting ship – to be made into plastic, which then gets transported to the car factory to then be moulded into a dashboard.

Used cars cemetery. Image by chicagotribune.com

Used cars cemetery. Image by chicagotribune.com

The leather for the seats came from an animal. The animals needed to produce them – cows – require a lot of water and a lot of food. They will have been reared somewhere such as Brazil. Their skins will have been shipped to somewhere such as India for processing. (Kanpur is the centre of India’s booming leather industry, producing leather for car seats and handbags for the UK, Europe and the US. The leather processing factories pollute both the atmosphere and the river Ganges with hydrochloric acid, chromium and a cocktail of other poisonous chemicals.) The resulting processed leather will then be shipped to factories to be made into seat covers.

The lead in the battery has to be mined in China, for example, then shipped and made into batteries. Batteries which need to be transported on a very large and very polluting ship to car factories in Germany, the US or elsewhere.

Tyre pile, California. Image by Edward Burtynsky

Tyre pile, California. Image by Edward Burtynsky

All this before a single car is even assembled. Let alone before a car is then transported for you to buy.

And that’s before you’ve put a single litre of petrol in your car and started contributing further to the climate problem.

What is the cost of a car? An absolute fortune.

But you don’t have to pay the real cost – that is to say, the cost of environmental degradation; pollution from mining, industrial processes and transportation; the resultant loss of ecosystems and climate change. What economists call ‘externalities’.

At least not yet. But this cost – the cost of the consequences of producing a car, the real cost of producing a car – will have to be paid for by someone in the future.

Maybe you. More likely your children.

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