Automakers usually try to find the best way to assemble the cars they build. In a bizarre twist on this theme, Mazda has spent the past 2 years and probably millions of dollars figuring out how to destroy cars. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Joel Millman explains that it all began in 2006 when the Cougar Ace, carrying 4,703 shiny new Mazda cars, nearly sank in the Pacific. The ship spent weeks adrift, listing at a 60-degree angle, before being righted and ultimately towed to Portland, OR.
What to do with the cars? Although most had remained securely in place, some broke free and sustained severe damage. Could the others be salvaged or was there irreparable damage from the prolonged and severe list? No one knew for sure. Millman reports, however, that there was no lack of interest in the vehicles. To the contrary, he says hundreds of people called about buying the cars. Schools wanted them for auto shop courses. Hollywood asked about using them for stunt vehicles.
Mazda turned them all away. Why? Mazda worried about getting sued if, for example, an air bag failed to fire correctly because of exposure to salty sea air. It also worried-with good reason-that scammers might move the cars abroad to sell as new. This happened with thousands of cars salvaged from the flooding that inundated New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Those cars were unloaded in Latin America and problems with damaged electronics and engines hurt the carmakers’ reputations.
Mazda’s decision was to destroy $100 million worth of cars. Turns out, however, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Mazda had to create a disassembly line, which took more than a year. The city of Portland, for example, wanted assurance that antifreeze, brake fluid, motor oil and other hazardous fluids wouldn’t be mishandled. Insurers covering Mazda’s losses wanted to be sure the company couldn’t resell parts on the side. So CD players are smashed, wheels are cut in two, air bags are discharged, and tires and batteries are destroyed.
This can’t have been an easy decision for Mazda, but the company felt it had no viable alternative. Given the vulnerability to product liability litigation, and the insurer’s reluctance to allow Mazda to recoup some of the loss by selling CD players and other perfectly good components, the company probably couldn’t have responsibly reached any other conclusion.
Even though much of the steel will be sent back to Asia and recycled, and one hopes that the precious metals will be salvaged from the catalytic converters, a great deal of the material is probably destined for landfills. This is tragic. We need to conserve resources and protect the planet. We cannot afford fear of tort law abuse to drive decisions like this that waste irreplaceable natural resources, engineering creativity and manufacturing capability.
Congress-and presidential candidates-take note!
Editorial: Wasteful Disassembly
May 16, 2008