Disaster area quickly becomes huge automobile market

April 8th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

One of the most indelible images people will take away from all those horrifying videos of the tsunami of March 11 is automobiles being swept up by the dozens and carried away. What’s important to remember about the Tohoku region, especially the coastal part, is that cars are an indispensable component of everyday life there. In Tohoku, there is one car for every two humans. Because much of the area is cut off from the rest of Honshu by mountains, there aren’t that many train lines. In fact, many of the people who died were in their cars at the time, trying to escape inland after the tsunami alert was broadcast. There are many stories of people driving to the homes of elderly relatives to pick them up and then getting caught in the wall of water.

In Miyagi Prefecture alone, according to a report on TBS, 146,000 vehicles were destroyed. The central government has pledged to do the cleaning up, but cars pose a special problem. Much of the debris is beyond being recognizable, but cars, even ones that no longer function, tend to be intact and thus are considered private property by local governments. They cannot simply be carted away as garbage. The process so far has been for tow trucks to bring the damaged vehicles to large lots where the owners can claim them and then sign a release allowing them to be scrapped.

However, in many cases the owners don’t even know where their cars are, so it is taking a long time to process all the junked cars being brought to the lots. For instance, hundreds of cars were parked at Sendai Airport when the tsunami struck, and afterward their owners came to look for them but couldn’t find them. Local governments have to somehow inform those people where the collected automobiles are being kept, and it’s time-consuming. But that’s not the end of the process. As one mechanic told TBS, before the car is scrapped and placed in a compactor, all the mud has to be removed from the interior. (Removing the gasoline isn’t a problem since it seems that in almost all cases thieves had already siphoned off the fuel when the tow trucks showed up.) Before scrapping, the engines are removed and can sometimes be recycled, but not in this case. Sea water effectively destroys automobile engines.

If anyone benefits from this aspect of the tragedy it is, of course, automakers. Since the eco point system ended last year, manufacturers have been looking for a means to boost sales, and now they have an instant customer base of hundreds of thousands of potential buyers. The central government is going to help with a bill that will provide certain tax exemptions for victims of the earthquake/tsunami. Any victim who purchases a car, either used or new, will not have to pay the automobile purchase tax; nor will they have to pay the regular car tax based on weight, which is due when you register the car and every time you bring it in for mandatory inspections. Already, there is a paucity of available vehicles for sale in the Tohoku region, a situation exacerbated by production fall-offs nationwide due to a shortage of parts that are made in the Tohoku region. However, today Toyota announced that it would resume car production on April 18. There’s no time to lose.

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