Paving metaphorical roads with imaginary intentions

by Eric on August 19, 2009

It was a relatively innocuous claim from a recent NY Times article about how the “Cash For Clunkers” program has affected the recycled automobile (formerly known as “junkyard”) industry:

Michael Wilson, executive vice president of the national Automotive Recyclers Association, estimates that 750,000 clunkers ultimately will be traded in. Parked bumper to bumper, the clunkers would stretch nearly from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.

Really? That’s a lot of cars, but we’re talking from LA to DC here. Surely a traffic jam of derelict beaters couldn’t possibly reach all the way across the country? How long is a car anyway? And just how far is it from LA to DC?

I’m guessing a car is 12 feet long, so some quick math: 440 12-ft. long vehicles will fit in a mile, 750K of them would come to about 1705 miles. A check with Google Maps reveals an LA-DC distance of 2671 miles. Huh.

My math isn’t off, but either I’m grossly underestimating the length of a typical clunker, or somebody at the NY Times doesn’t know how to use a calculator. Maybe I should get a better idea of what these clunkers look like.

Let’s pull up a list of the top 10 clunkers according to the NHTSA:

  1. Ford Explorer 4WD
  2. Ford F-150 Pickup 2WD
  3. Jeep Grand Cherokee 4WD
  4. Jeep Cherokee 4WD
  5. Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan 2WD
  6. Ford Explorer 2WD
  7. Chevrolet Blazer 4WD
  8. Ford F-150 Pickup 4WD
  9. Chevrolet C1500 Pickup 2WD
  10. Ford Windstar

Okay, obviously pickups are going to be longer than sedans. Next, I’ll look up each vehicle’s specs (found some on Motor Trend’s site) for the most recent model year (you think the auto manufacturers started making the later models smaller?) and distribute them equally since I have no idea how many of each vehicle has been turned in. If you were to line up 75,000 of each car, you get something like this:

  • Ford Explorer 4WD (193.4 in.) 229 mi.
  • Ford F-150 Pickup 2WD (211.2 in.) 250 mi.
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee 4WD (188.0 in.) 223 mi.
  • Jeep Cherokee 4WD (4,255.0 mm.) 198 mi.
  • Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan 2WD (202.5 in.) 240 mi.
  • Ford Explorer 2WD (193.4 in.) 229 mi.
  • Chevrolet Blazer 4WD (177.3 in.) 210 mi.
  • Ford F-150 Pickup 4WD (211.2 in.) 250 mi.
  • Chevrolet C1500 Pickup 2WD (5,639.0 mm.) 263 mi.
  • Ford Windstar (5,103.0 mm.) 238 mi.
  • Total distance: 2,329 mi.

As turns out, these cars are quite a bit longer than 144in. Going with a roughly even distribution of cars gets you a lot closer to DC, but you still come up short. Interestingly enough, that 2329 miles is the Google distance from LA to Charleston, WV.

Let’s try 750,000 of the longest car, the Chevrolet C1500 Pickup 2WD, instead. That gets you a total of 2,628 miles, close enough to get you into the DC suburbs where you can always pick up the Metro to take you downtown.

What is we went with the smallest car? You end up with 1983 miles of eerily silent Jeep Cherokees, 4WD hubs all locked in, but with no more hills to climb, only reaching as far as the Nashville suburb of Kingston Springs.

Now of course, we could talk about crows flying or Great Circling, and it so happens that the Great Circle distance from LAX to DCA is only about 2311 miles, which is probably the distance our intrepid reporter used.
Unfortunately, a hypothetical smoothly polished Earth girded with a quarter of a million junk cars doesn’t seem quite as evocative an image as a cross country roadtrip passing mile after mile of shoulders lined with the post-apocalyptic remains of a bygone era.

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