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How cars go from the factory to a showroom floor

A trip to the auto showroom can be an exciting one when you’ve made the decision to buy a new car or truck. And from the other side of the showroom window, that new vehicle may have had a long and interesting excursion – perhaps from the other side of the world – to land in front of you on the dealer’s sales floor.

New vehicles often travel by multiple modes of transport, passing through many hands, to get from where they were built to where you sign the contract and take possession. All this is accomplished while keeping the auto damage-free, and racking up a very small odometer reading, even if it came from tens of thousands of mile away (it’s still a new car, after all)!

Vehicles built in Europe or Asia enjoyed an ocean cruise to reach your neighborhood showroom. Giant, “roll on-roll off” cargo ships sometimes move more than 8,000 vehicles at a time. These purpose-built seagoing leviathans, some with nine or more cargo decks and measuring nearly three football fields in length, are easily spotted by their tall, box-like shape as they move new vehicles from one side of the planet to the other. Some of these giant seafarers work closer to home as well, moving vehicles manufactured in Mexico to U.S. ports as an alternative to rail transportation.

Rail transportation – that’s another huge player in moving your new vehicle to the showroom! Out of every four new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., approximately three of them took a freight train ride on their way to the new owner. The majority of more than 70 automotive manufacturing plants in North America are served by railroads, and each dedicated freight train moves an average of 750 new vehicles from production facilities to sellers. In 2017 alone, American railroads moved 1.6 million rail car loads of new automobiles and auto parts. Those “auto parts” are a key factor in getting new cars to the showroom, too – because railroads haul many heavy vehicle components, such as frames and engines, to auto factories in large numbers so the new vehicles can be built.

Few of America’s nearly 17,000 franchised auto dealers, however, have a freight rail terminal on their back lot. The final step in getting the new vehicles to market is generally accomplished by semi-trucks, which pick up dealer-specified new cars and trucks at rail yards or even factories and bring them right to the showroom door. Hauling new autos is one of the highest-paid jobs for some of the nation’s 3.5 million truckers, with responsibility not only for a semi-tractor and highly-specialized trailer that together could cost $270,000 or more, but for up to ten new cars. In contrast to a load of lumber or pipe, each load of new automobiles may typically be worth a quarter- to a half-million dollars. Auto hauling drivers often need special training and insurance; just safely loading ten new cars onto the complex, hydraulically-operated trailers requires specialized knowledge.

So when you look at your new vehicle invoice and see the line item for “Destination Charge,” you may not smell the ocean breeze, or feel the heavy diesel thunder of a passing freight train, or hear the back-up alarm of the towering semi-truck that brought your new ride the last few miles – but they may all be there. Enjoy your new car – a lot of people, in many industries, worked hard to get it to you!

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