California Leads in Vehicle Theft

California is the nation’s leader in technology and entertainment and also in vehicle theft. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) said the Modesto, Calif., Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) had the highest per capita rate for vehicle thefts in the nation in 2007, and four of the top five metros for auto theft were in California. Only Las Vegas at No. 2 broke the chokehold California cities had on the car-theft-leader quintet.

While the news weren’t great for Californians who own cars, there were some positives. Preliminary 2007 crime data released by the FBI indicated that not only is 2007 on track to be the fourth consecutive year of declining vehicle thefts, but also, if the preliminary figure of a 7.4 percent drop in car theft holds, it will be the largest single year percent drop in thefts since 1999. The overall reduction in vehicle thefts nationally since 2000 is expected to stand at 11 percent.  

Despite the good news, there is no reason for vehicle owners or law enforcement to relax their vigilance. While the report shows overall great news, there is also room for concern, according to NICB President and Chief Executive Officer Robert M. Bryant.  

“Success against vehicle theft can be fleeting without an ongoing and adaptive program that couples the best in theft prevention/recovery technology with law enforcement operations,” he said. “We must not become complacent in the wake of success. Bait cars, license plate readers and owner-applied theft deterrence and recovery systems have delivered outstanding results. In the coming years, technological advances may well defeat vehicle theft as a major crime problem in the United States, but until then, we must continue using everything at our disposal to keep achieving the kinds of results that we have had over the last four years.”

NICB recommends the following actions under its “layered approach” to vehicle theft protection that includes common sense, a warning device, an immobilizing device and a tracking device. An unlocked vehicle with a key in the ignition is an open invitation to any thief, regardless of which antitheft device you use, so the common sense approach is to secure your vehicle even if parking for brief periods. You should always remove your keys from the ignition, lock your doors, close your windows and park in a well-lit area.

The second layer of protection is a visible or audible device that alerts thieves that your vehicle is protected. Popular second layer devices include audible alarms, steering column collars, steering wheel and brake pedal locks, brake locks and wheel locks. Theft deterrent decals, identification markers in or on vehicle, VIN etching and microdot marking make thieves think twice about stealing your vehicle.

The third layer of protection is a device that prevents thieves from bypassing your ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle. Some electronic devices have computer chips in ignition keys. Other devices inhibit the flow of electricity or fuel to the engine until a hidden switch or button is activated.  

The final layer of protection is a tracking device that emits a signal to the police or a monitoring station when the vehicle is stolen. Tracking devices are very effective in helping authorities recover stolen vehicles. Some systems employ “telematics,” which combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote monitoring of a vehicle. If the vehicle is moved, the system will alert the owner, and the vehicle can be tracked via computer.

Insurance Rates Are Rising, Too

The incredible run-up in gasoline prices is getting a lot of ink, but for the first time in a year, car insurance rates are on the rise as well, according to a study by Insurance.com, the largest online auto insurance agency in the United States. The company expects auto insurance rates to continue to move up at least through the balance of the year, which means consumers will need to be even more savvy shoppers as they try to keep their car insurance rate to a reasonable number.

The study analyzed the lowest auto insurance quotes to consumers from more than a dozen insurance companies during the first quarter. The Car Insurance Rate Report found that the lowest car insurance quotes, on average, increased by 1.05 percent over the previous quarter, rising from $1,811 to $1,830 per year. This increase marks the first time in a year that rates have inched up. Rates fell or held steady in 2007, marked by a 5.2 percent decrease in the fourth quarter compared to the same period the year before.

“Insurance costs generally represent about five percent of the full cost of operating a car, so increases in car insurance rates -- on top of rising gas prices -- will hurt consumers across the board,” said Dave Roush, CEO of Insurance.com. “This is the perfect time to comparison shop and take advantage of every opportunity to save money. There are some very good strategies consumers can follow that potentially add up to hundreds of dollars a year in lower rates.”

Time-tested tips like maintaining good credit, driving safely and upping your deductibles remain valid strategies for lowering your auto insurance rate. But you can do other things as well. Here are some additional, off-the-beaten-path money-saving suggestions for consumers looking to minimize the impact of increasing auto rates:

Earn an early shopping discount Many auto insurance companies offer discounts to your premium if you shop well in advance of your current policy expiration date. If you were considering switching companies, and you give your new auto insurance company enough notice (usually two weeks) before your current policy is up for renewal, you might receive significant savings on your new policy.

Look for “good student” discounts Some auto insurance companies offer discounts to policies with teen drivers if they have a B or better grade average in school. Of course, proof of those good grades is required, but good students can sometimes help parents save as much as 10 to 15 percent on car insurance.

Take a defensive driving course Some companies offer a discount for a defensive driving course, usually if taken within three years. So, you’ll get a double bonus -- you can learn ways to avoid accidents -- and save money on your car insurance at the same time.

Shop for auto insurance before buying a car The cost to insure different cars can vary as much as the cars themselves. Insurers base premiums on a number of factors including crashworthiness, repair costs and theft rate. Data about each measure is available from the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Comparison shop online Comparison shopping online can save you time and money. The key to shopping online is to know when you’re getting a “quick quote,” which is just an estimate, or a real, bindable online auto insurance quote. There can be a big difference between an estimate and the final rate you are charged. Web sites that offer you the opportunity to shop rates from various insurance companies in bindable form are your best bet.

European Automakers Hit by Falling Dollar

To those of you who would like to believe you could some day afford a European vacation, the falling value of the dollar is like a blow to the heart. Instead of Paris, France, you might have to settle for Perris, California, which is pretty much the same except for the differences in history, beauty, culture and charm. Now consider the plight of the European automakers. Some European companies, even those assembling vehicles in the United States, are now absorbing at up to a 40 percent disadvantage compared with prices commanded for the same vehicles in Europe, according to John Hoffecker, a managing director of AlixPartners LLP. He made his observation in an opening keynote speech to more than 200 auto-industry executives at the 10th Annual Global Automotive Conference, sponsored by the non-profit Global Advanced Leadership Center in Bowling Green, Ky.

Hoffecker noted that in the past five years, the U.S. dollar has depreciated more than 30 percent versus the European euro and that some foreign, especially European, automakers manufacturing in the U.S. are still sourcing less than a third of their parts domestically, which means they are in a severe cost-price squeeze. Rather than passing on the increased costs to the consumer, which the competitive market makes difficult, many of these companies are choosing to suck it up and take less profit or even sell vehicles at a loss.

“These European automakers should be quickly rethinking their sourcing strategies and moving faster toward more 'natural hedging' -- more local parts purchases and investments,” he said. “Clearly, some are not moving fast enough.”

Hoffecker also stressed that all auto companies, no matter where they are based, need to be more fully aware that outsourcing parts purchases and manufacturing to countries like China is no longer as simple a calculation and decision as it once was. The Chinese price advantage, while significant, is dwindling.

“In addition to the recent dramatic shifts in currency exchange,” he said, “labor costs in the most industrial part of China, the southeastern provinces, have risen 50 percent in the past four years.”

He pointed out that many of the Chinese-government export credits have been recently eliminated or greatly reduced for a number of auto-part exports. Using the example of tires made in China, Hoffecker noted that due to a combination of currency swings and China's recent reduction in a value-added tax rebate for exports, Chinese tires are now 16 percent more expensive to export to the U.S. than they were in 2007.

“Fast-changing currency exchange rates and sky-rocketing costs in general in some developing countries are clearly changing the game when it comes to making optimal sourcing decisions,” said Hoffecker. “Countries like China and India are still a very attractive venue for automakers and suppliers, particularly when they are servicing the local markets as well as exporting. However, other low-cost countries such as Mexico are more attractive today than they were just a couple of years ago because of their closer tie to the U.S. dollar and lower labor inflation rates.”

In the simplest terms, the lower value of the dollar means that American consumers are likely to pay more for foreign-produced goods like automobiles, but the complex, global nature of the car business means that the effects won’t be nearly as harsh as some might anticipate. Meanwhile, car manufacturers are working harder than ever to satisfy the still-affluent American customers at prices they can afford.

Good-bye, SUV

In the past decade, many journalists have written the premature obituary for the traditional full-size, truck-based sport utility vehicle -- you know, the vehicle that has sparked the ire of the world’s environmentalists like no other. Through the ‘90s and into the present decade, fuel spikes would come, SUV sales would slip a bit and journalists would salivate over the demise of the SUV. The end didn’t come, though, and SUV sales remained strong, even through 2007.  

But now, in the midst of another fuel-price jump to record levels, things have changed. Traditional SUV sales this year dropped more than 25 percent in the first quarter versus the first quarter of last year. In auto-industry terms, that’s the equivalent of going off a cliff. But that isn’t the only reason experts say the heyday of the traditional SUV is indeed over. While the truck-based SUV will still be with us in some form or another for several years into the future, the segment will never see the sales levels of the recent past when the traditional SUV reigned supreme, and it may well vanish into the specialty-vehicle niche it occupied before the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Explorer got the segment fired up two decades ago. But it took a lot more that $3.50-a-gallon gas to puncture the SUV’s balloon. In fact, other factors, far more than the recent rapid up-tick in fuel prices, are the keys to writing the swan song of the SUV.

Of those factors, two were most instrumental. The first is the incredible, if largely underreported, rise of the crossover utility vehicle (CUV). Crossovers come in many sizes, but the midsize and full-size CUVs -- essentially car-based vehicles with three rows that can accommodate seven or more passengers -- have become very viable and, as it turns out, very appealing substitutes for full-size truck-based SUVs. They are often somewhat less expensive, offer better ride-and-handling characteristics and use less fuel than their traditional SUV cousins. That’s a compelling parlay, especially in today’s market. The number of offerings that meet this description has grown exponentially in the last several years. Unlike SUVs that evoke an off-road aura, CUVs are designed almost strictly as on-road vehicles with front-wheel rather than four-wheel drive, and without fanfare, they have become the family car of 2008. The evidence is strong that it will stay that way for a while. From virtually nowhere 10 years ago, CUVs now outsell traditional SUVs two to one. 

Relief From Gas Prices

It might seem like a silly idea to spend money to save money, but with the price of gas on a steady rise, consumers might find that to be an attractive parlay. As we have reported here at Driving Today, the cost of everyday vehicle use is higher than ever before, and while gas prices may not be on the decline any time soon, there are some ways consumers can save money at the pump.

“Most people focus only on the price of gas, but there are some low-cost parts that consumers can replace on their own, or have an automotive technician replace, that can save them substantially,” says Bob Arlotta, NAPA Technician of the Year.

While spending more money on your vehicle might not be the most palatable idea, auto experts say focusing on five areas can help improve your fuel mileage and save money in the long run. They are:

Air filters
An air filter clogged with dirt, dust or even insects chokes off the air that is a key part of efficient combustion. It creates a rich fuel-air mixture, and though that doesn’t have that name because you must be rich to pay for it, it is apropos. In a rich mixture, too much gasoline is being burned in proportion to the oxygen necessary. This wastes gas and causes the engine to lose power. A clean air filter, which costs just a few dollars, can offer potential savings of up to 33 cents a gallon.

Oxygen sensors
Oxygen sensors that are properly functioning are good for the environment and can save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs over the life of the car. Replacement intervals for oxygen sensors are similar to those for spark plugs, ranging from 30,000 miles to 100,000 miles, depending on the type of sensor. The potential savings offered by equipping your car with a functioning oxygen sensor is up to $1.33 a gallon.

Properly inflated tires
When tires aren’t inflated properly, it’s like driving with the parking brake on. Underinflated tires can cut fuel economy by two percent per pound, which means if your tire pressure is 27 pounds per square inch (psi) when it should be 32 psi, you’ve reduced your gas mileage by 10 percent. A simple tire gauge can quickly tell you if you’re wasting gas because of underinflated tires. The potential savings of properly inflated tires -- something that essentially costs you nothing -- are up to 10 cents a gallon.

Oil and filter change
Clean oil reduces friction between moving parts in your engine, increasing fuel economy and reliability. It also removes harmful deposits, extending the life of your engine. You should check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the recommended oil and filter change schedule. The potential savings to be derived from clean oil and a properly functioning oil filter is up to seven cents a gallon.

Locking gas caps
These devices can contribute to fuel economy by preventing theft. Gas caps are available that include a dual breakaway feature and reinforcing ring that help deter thieves trying to steal fuel. If someone tries to pry off the cap, the top of the cap will break away, leaving the cap neck in the tank. This will deter even the most determined thieves who are unlikely to take the time needed to pry the neck from the tank. Caps are also available that lock into the neck automatically, which save motorists time. The potential savings vary

“Recognizing that gas prices most likely won’t be coming down for a while, it’s important to realize the money consumers can save by investing a small amount in the maintenance of their vehicle,” said NAPA’s Arlotta. “For a small investment now, consumers can ensure they’re getting more out of the gas mileage, potentially adding up to substantial savings in the long run.”