Zerohedge can be an insightful and though-provoking site, but since Saturday, it is hobbling around with huge self-inflicting holes in its lower extremities, courtesy of well-aimed shots into their own feet. The site ran a story titled “Where the World’s Unsold Cars Go To Die.” The story went viral, and it was bunk. In the meantime, it has been debunked by everybody from Jalopnik’s Matt Hardigree to the Dailykanban’s Ed Niedermeyer. A day after its publication, the story also landed on Snopes, where it belongs. This did not stop sundry other sites from taking the story at face value. The debacle underlines the importance of what I – mostly in vain – tried to drum into my charges during my stint at the helm of (supposedly) Thetruthaboutcars.com: Never believe anything. Always check up on the story. Always try to get as close as possible to the actual source. You will be amazed of what you can find sometimes. Or in this case, what you can’t find.
The snopes-worthy report centers on a Nissan test track in Sunderland, United Kingdom, which allegedly is overflowing with unsold cars. The trouble is: According to Google, on which this story allegedly is mostly based, there never were any cars whatsoever on the test track. (Which most likely is not entirely true, but who are we to debate Google imagery.)
Type “Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd, Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK Ltd, Washington Rd, Sunderland, United Kingdom” into Google Maps, and you will see an empty track. Well, what about the years before?
Google Earth has this nifty feature that allows you to step through satellite images in time. From 2001 all the way to 2012, Google’s (rented) satellite found the test track completely deserted when it came to visit.
“Go back into the Getty or AFP or AP sources for these photos,” recommends Jalopnik, “and you’ll see, by and large, they’re photos from the middle of the post-recession Carpocalypse when the car market collapsed in Europe and the United States.” We did. On 6/1/2009, in the midst of said carpocalypse, the test track was as empty of stashed cars as in the years before and after.
As Ed rightly writes, this detracts from a much bigger scandal, namely the one that most car sales statistics are rigged. In many parts of the world, what is counted as “sales” are deliveries to dealers, whether they sell the cars , or not. In Europe, where actual registrations are counted, dealers and manufacturers game the system and “buy” cars from themselves. In Germany, a whopping 30 percent of the cars showing up in the statistics as sold, weren’t. This is the true scandal. It is not a secret. It has been known for years. In numbers-obsessed Germany, there are official statistics measuring those self registrations, or “Eigenzulassungen”, as they are known in German. Nevertheless, each month, the new car “sales” statistics are taken for real, and the tiniest swings are interpreted as signs of turn-arounds. Not to worry: There are no pictures, and therefore, it did not happen.