MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Dropped 30 Out of 31 Days in July

140731_EM_GasPump_1
UpperCut Images—Getty Images

The national average for gas prices experienced the largest drop in July in six years, according to AAA

The direction that gas prices have been heading in during peak vacation and road trip season should put smiles on the face of American motorists.

As of July 31, the AAA Fuel Gauge Report listed the national average for a gallon of regular at $3.517, roughly 3¢ less than a week ago, 16¢ less than one month ago, and 11¢ less than prices at the pump at this time last year. What’s more, AAA announced that gas prices fell in 30 out of 31 days in July, helping to bring about the biggest decline in prices at the pump in July in six years.

This is the first time ever recorded that gas prices have fallen so consistently in July, which is a month when gas prices are generally prone to soar. The highest national average ever posted remains July 2008, when prices spiked to a panic-inducing $4.11.

“Falling gas prices are nearly the opposite to what we usually see this time of year,” said AAA spokesman Avery Ash. So what explains the decline? “Refineries are running at full tilt and there is more than enough gasoline in the market, which has helped bring down prices despite multiple overseas conflicts.”

And what can we expect going forward? Well, gas prices have dropped in August in three of the last five years. But prior performance is no indication of what’ll happen in the future—just look at gas prices recently, which have fallen during a time period when they have skyrocketed in the past.

Even so, the experts at AAA anticipate that gas prices will continue on a downward path in the days and weeks ahead, provided there are no major hurricanes, refinery problems, or unforeseen international conflicts—any of which could send fuel costs up and up. For now at least, the idea that gas prices peaked for 2014 in early spring is still holding up.

MONEY Autos

7 Cars That Save on Gas in a Way You Won’t Believe

2013 Ford Fusion
Ford began offering auto stop-start technology as an option with the 2013 Fusion. Ford—Wieck

New research shows that funky, futuristic auto stop-start technology is a proven money saver on gas. It's available right now only in a tiny fraction of cars, but that's going to change soon.

Over the years, one urban fuel-efficiency myth has been pervasive—that you’ll save gas by letting your car idle rather than shutting the engine off when, say, waiting at the curb for someone running into a store. Popular Mechanics, AAA, and others have busted this myth, pointing out that a vehicle gets negative miles per gallon while idle. The consensus advice now is that if you car is stopped for more than a minute, the smart move is to turn the engine off.

The arrival of auto stop-start, a technology most often seen in hybrids, does this work for you, and not only if you’re idle for minute or more. As the name suggests, the tech shuts off the vehicle’s engine automatically when the car comes to a stop—at a red light, say—and then starts it again in the jiffy when the driver takes a foot off the brake pedal.

The technology has slowly been spreading beyond hybrids to a few vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines, and new research from AAA indicates that this is a good thing. After testing several cars with the feature, researchers concluded that the tech is a no-brainer that saves drivers 5% to 7% on gas costs annually. A blurb from the press release explains a little more about what this means to us all:

“Up to seven percent improved fuel economy can mean a $215 annual fuel savings for Southern California consumers,” says Steve Mazor, the chief automotive engineer of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “It also reduces the main greenhouse gas emitted from cars (CO2) by 5 to 7 percent in city driving.”

Navigant Research predicts that by 2022, 55 million cars sold annually will have stop-start technology, up from 8.8 million last year. Adoption is ahead of the curve in Europe, where gas prices are astronomical compared to much of the world: Roughly 45% of cars built in Europe already come with start-stop systems.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the stop-start feature remains an anomaly; only about 500,000 new cars sold in the U.S. in 2013 had the technology. Estimates call for that figure to shoot up to 7 million by 2022. But there’s no need to wait. The vehicles below already offer stop-start as an option or a standard feature in the U.S.:

BMW: Several BMWs have auto start-stop technology, but not all drivers are fans. “The stop-start system is just awful,” one Automotive News columnist wrote of his 2012 328i, describing the herky-jerky feeling of stepping off the brake and automatically restarting the engine as “balky” and “uncomfortable.” Drivers do have the option to turn the start-stop feature off if it’s proving to be too annoying.

Chevrolet Impala: The automaker has made stop-start technology standard on the 2015 Impala.

Chevrolet Malibu: Starting with the 2014 model year, Chevy made stop-start standard on the Malibu, which the automaker says has helped it boost fuel efficiency by 14% with city driving.

Ford Fusion: A couple of years ago, Ford introduced a stop-start system as a $295 option for the first time in the U.S. on a non-hybrid model. At the time, the automaker estimated that drivers would save $1,100 in gasoline costs over five years of driving by upgrading to stop-start. The 2015 Fusion is estimated to get an extra 3 mpg over the base model.

Ford F-150: Buyers who go for the 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine on the 2015 version of Ford’s best-selling pickup get a special auto stop-start feature that’s a little different than others out there. Like other systems, this one automatically shuts off the engine as a fuel saver when the vehicle is stopped, but not when the vehicle is towing something or when it’s in four-wheel drive. Without that feature, the tech could prove frustrating for pickup drivers who are hauling something in the rear or are inching along stop-and-go on bumpy or muddy terrain. During all other driving situations, “The engine restarts in milliseconds when the brake is released,” Ford promises.

Porsche: Among the Porsche models that come with auto start-stop, the new Panamera’s system is special in that the engine not only shuts off when the vehicle is at a full stop—but it also shuts off when the car is slowing down approaching a traffic light. While the engine goes quiet, climate control, audio systems, and other interior features remain powered by the battery. And if the battery doesn’t have enough juice for all the auxiliary equipment, the engine will simply turn back on.

Ram 1500: The 2013 model year Ram truck offered start-stop technology as an option, the first in the pickup category to do so. “This new system is just one of the advances that allow the 2013 RAM 1500 to offer up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency than previous models,” the automaker stated.

MONEY

10 Things Americans Have Suddenly Stopped Buying

Popping bubble gum
Ross Culshaw—Getty Images

America is just not the clean-shaven, gun-buying, soda-drinking, Chef Boyardee-eating place it used to be

For a variety of reasons—including but not limited to increased health consciousness, the harried pace of modern-day life, and plain old shifting consumer preferences,—Americans have scaled back on purchases of many items, sometimes drastically so. Here’s a top 10 list of things we’re not buying anymore, at least not anywhere near as frequently as we used to.

Cereal
In one recent four-week period, cereal sales were down 7%, and cereal giant Kellogg’s sales decreased 10%. The reasons for cereal’s declining dominance at the breakfast table are many. As the Wall Street Journal reported, consumers are more apt nowadays to turn to yogurt or fast food in the morning, and they’re less likely to have time to eat breakfast at home at all—not even if it’s a simple bowl of cereal.

Consumers also want their breakfast to pack more punch, protein-wise. “We are competing with quick-serve restaurants more, but the bigger driver is that people want more protein,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant told the Journal. It’s no coincidence that milk sales have been falling alongside cereal, with cow’s milk struggling especially due to the rise of alternatives like soy and almond milk. (Sales of yet another breakfast-at-home staple, orange juice, have plummeted 40% since the late 1990s.)

To try to put cereal back on the spoon of more breakfast eaters, food makers have been resorting to all manner of gimmicks, including the promoting of new higher-protein cereals, as well as the idea that cereal is a great late-night snack rather than just a breakfast-time basic.

Soda
The crash of soda—diet soda in particular—has been years in the making, with consumers increasingly turning to energy drinks, flavored water, and other beverages instead of the old carbonated caffeine drink of choice. The latest Wall Street report from Coca-Cola showed that the soda giant missed estimates, partly because sales of Diet Coke in North America fell in the “mid-single digits.”

(MORE: 10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On)

While a lot of soda’s slump can be attributed to shifting consumer preferences—more organic, less sugar—the broader war on soda involving taxes and big-beverage bans must factor in too. And if First Lady Michelle Obama has any say in things, the decline of soda is a trend that’ll continue: Her ongoing “Drink Up” campaign encourages kids to consume more water—and, consequently, less soda.

Gum
Likely due to heightened competition from mints and candies, chewing gum sales have dipped 11% over the past four years, the Associated Press reported. The editorial board of the News Tribune of Washington state, for one, weighed in that it is wonderful that gum sales are down in the gutter, sniffing, “Gum-chewing doesn’t do us any favors, making us look like cows chewing our cud. For humans, that’s not a good look.”

Guns
Gun sales have been booming in recent years, with sales periodically juiced when perceived anti-gun politicians enter office or a high-profile mass shooting takes place, prompting consumers to seek guns for protection—or just out of fear they won’t be able to buy them in the future because tougher gun regulations might be passed.

Lately, however, gun sales have fallen, sometimes sharply. The big reasons why this is so seem to be that there’s little in the way of likely gun control for gun enthusiasts to motivate new purchases, and also that everyone who has wanted to buy a gun in the past couple of years has already bought one (or seven). In the first quarter of 2014, the guns-and-ammo-focused Sportsman’s Warehouse retail chain saw comparable stores sales drop 18%, while gun sales at Cabela’s fell 22%.

But a little perspective is necessary. While guns sales and background checks are down compared to the past couple of years, they remain far above the levels of the early ’00s. As gun industry experts have put it, the decline probably just represents a “returning to normal” for gun sales—which aren’t as strong as they once were, but are still very strong nonetheless.

Cupcakes
Well, it looks like many of us at least have stopped buying the pricey “gourmet” variety of cupcakes. That’s the conclusion to be drawn with the collapse of Crumbs, the 65-store chain that shut down abruptly in early July. The news was widely interpreted as a sign that the gourmet cupcake trend is officially dead.

Chef Boyardee
ConAgra recently issued a warning to Wall Street that its consumer food volume experienced a 7% decline, and that it faced “continued profit challenges” due to some of its flagging, tired products—in particular, Chef Boyardee, the 86-year-old canned pasta brand.

Golf Gear
It’s not surprising that going hand in hand with fewer people playing golf, there are also fewer golf purchases being rung up at sporting goods store registers. The most notable eye-opener occurred this past spring, when Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that its golf equipment sales were down around 10%, at the same time the average driver was selling at a price of 16% less.

(MORE: Could Rory McIlroy Be Golf’s Long-Awaited Savior?)

Razors
Beard-loving hipsters were blamed for the decline in razor sales last summer, and in 2014, razor giants like Procter and Gamble (owner of Gillette) has continued to blame poor sales on the trendiness of beards. Everything from the shaggy beards worn by the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, to month-long no-shave “challenges” like Movember and Decembeard have been cited as reasons why guys have scaled back on razor purchases. In response, marketers have introduced even more varieties of new high-tech razors, while also pushing the concept of “manscaping,” with special razors designed just for the task. The hope is that even if men aren’t shaving their faces, they might still shave one or several other parts of their bodies.

Bread
According to one survey, 56% of American shoppers said they are cutting back on white bread. White bread was surpassed in sales by wheat bread sometime around 2006, but in recent years the gluten-free trend has hurt sales of all breads. Sales are even down in European countries like baguette-loving France, where consumption is down 10%. In American restaurants, meanwhile, there’s an epidemic of free bread disappearing from tables, as fewer owners want to bear the expense of putting out free rolls and other breads that no one is going to eat.

Convertibles
The fun-loving, wind-in-your-hair thrill of driving in a convertible just hasn’t been enough to keep consumers buying the classic ragtop in strong numbers. Businessweek noted that convertible sales have fallen 44% since 2004, and automakers have been significantly scaling back the number of models that are even offered in convertible form. Apparently, too many consumers see convertibles as impractical, and/or not worth the $5,000 or so premium one must pay compared to the regular model.

Data recently released from Experian Automotive indicates that the convertible is largely now a toy purchased by the rich. Nearly 1 in 5 convertible buyers have household incomes of at least $175,000 (compared to 11% of buyers of all cars), and 12% of convertible buyers own homes valued over $1 million (compared to 4% of buyers of other cars). For what it’s worth, convertible drivers are also better educated than the average car owner (50% of convertible buyers have at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 38% overall), and nearly one-quarter of all convertibles are now purchased in three sunny states with ample coastlines: California, Florida, and Texas.

Related:

10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On

TIME advertisements

This Toyota Ad Is Utterly Insane — and Wonderful

Jungle Wakudoki, a.k.a. the most delightful two minutes of your day

+ READ ARTICLE

Japanese ads are an art form in and of themselves. But this spot produced for Toyota by agency Dentsu Aegis is incredible nonetheless. The premise is dead simple: a group of businessmen are driving through the jungle in their Toyota truck. When they pull over to let one of them relieve themselves, things get … well crazy. The spot is part of a campaign dubbed “Do the Wakudoki,” which encourages consumers to submit clips of themselves dancing.

[AdWeek]

MONEY Autos

WATCH: Americans Still Love Buying SUVs

GM lost billions of dollars due to recalled vehicles, but sales are actually up thanks largely to SUVs.

TIME Autos

GM Issues 6 More Safety Recalls

(DETROIT) — General Motors is issuing six more recalls covering a total of almost 718,000 vehicles in the U.S.

The latest recalls bring the total for GM so far this year to 60, affecting a record 29.7 million cars and trucks. GM already has passed the 22 million vehicles recalled by all automakers last year.

The biggest recall announced Wednesday was for just over 414,000 cars and small SUVs for faulty seats. Other problems include incomplete welds on seat brackets, turn signal failures, power steering failures, loose suspension bolts and faulty roof rack bolts.

MONEY Scams

Thousands May Get Refunds on Undeserved Red-Light Camera Tickets

Red light camera
iStock

For years, Chicago and other cities have used red-light camera tickets to juice revenues. Soon, it looks like some of that money will be headed back into the bank accounts of drivers.

While countless drivers may very well feel like they have been given red-light camera traffic tickets without justification—and many would love to see these cameras disappear entirely—a new investigation apparently reveals that thousands and thousands of drivers in the Chicago area have proof that they were hit with tickets and fines they didn’t deserve.

The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed some 4 million tickets doled out via red-light camera surveillance since 2007. What researchers found has alarmed drivers and given conspiracy theorists fresh ammunition about Big Brother police tactics and even corruption regarding city contracts and roadside cameras in general. The paper found several instances of sudden inexplicable spikes in the number of tickets generated by cameras. Seemingly out of nowhere, cameras that usually captured a handful of infractions daily were generating dozens of tickets per day, sometimes for a couple of weeks, before returning to the normal pattern.

City officials and traffic experts haven’t been able to explain these sudden surges in tickets—tens of thousands of which investigators have deemed “questionable”—and the Tribune’s analysis concluded that there is “clear evidence” that they came about due to “faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.”

One example, for example, generated a dozen tickets to drivers rolling through right-hand turns for six months in 2011, and then produced 560 tickets for that same infraction over one 12-day period. The assumption is that someone or something changed how the rule was being enforced over that span, and no other bothered to inform drivers.

The traffic experts asked to look over the Tribune’s research announced right away that all drivers given undeserved $100 tickets should receive speedy refunds without hassle or the need to petition. Now those experts are being joined by several Chicago aldermen, who this week called on City Hall to launch its own investigation—and to hand out refunds whenever appropriate. Another Tribune story quoted one of the city leaders making the case for drivers:

“We want to find out what went wrong, and we want to see refunds where the ticket was wrongly issued,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “That would be the way to do it. The basis would be refunds in cases where tickets were wrongly issued.”

What exactly happened to cause these odd sudden surges in cameras generating tickets? Unless the machines truly are taking over, it would seem all but certain that some human element was involved. It wouldn’t be the first time that something underhanded has happened with red-light cameras. Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to drop the contract with Redflex, the company then operating the city’s roadside cameras, after a $2 million bribery scheme involving Redflex and a city official overseeing the camera program was brought to light.

While Chicago drivers have a right to feel road rage about its camera system, which appears to be corrupt, incompetent, or both, the fines they’re paying are chump change compared with some of the camera-generated tickets handed out in northern California—which sometimes amount to $480 after all the fees are added up. One notorious roadside camera in Oakland, Calif., hit drivers to the tune of $4.2 million in tickets in 2010 alone.

Scott Waguespack, the Chicago alderman, told the Tribune that he and many others have complained over the years to transportation officials that traffic lights turn from yellow to red much too quickly. But no one did anything about it. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is cool,’” Waguespack said. “Well, clearly it wasn’t.”

Not only are city leaders calling for an investigation and refunds, but several lawyers are now in the process of gathering affected drivers for a class-action suit, or perhaps several suits.

That may be one reason why many cities have decided to do away with roadside cameras all together. Several San Diego County cities, for instance, pulled the plug on their roadside camera programs in recent months. The number of U.S. cities with roadside cameras is on the decline too, from 540 in 2012 to 508 this year. Depending on how things play out in Chicago and in other cities where drivers are protesting roadside cameras, that number could keep on falling.

MONEY Autos

WATCH: Secret Shopper at Cadillac Dealership Turns Out to Be Warren Buffett

Buffett was so pleased he sent a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra to compliment the service his daughter received at an Omaha Cadillac dealership.

TIME Autos

GM’s Mary Barra Faces Another Capitol Hill Mauling

General Motors CEO Mary Barra Testifies Before Senate Committee About GM's Recalls
CEO of the General Motors Company Mary Barra testifies during a hearing before the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on July 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Alex Wong—Getty Images

Barra is headed to the Senate for her fourth congressional hearing since record series of recalls began in February

Senators grilled GM’s general counsel Michael Millikin during a hearing Thursday after an internal investigation released last month found that his legal team knew of safety concerns linked to a faulty ignition switch for several years before recalls were announced in 2014.

“How in the world, in the aftermath of this report, did Michael Milliken keep his job?” asked Sen. Claire McCaskill, chair of the Subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety, and insurance, which held the hearing. “It is very clear that the culture of lawyering up and Whac-A-Mole to minimize liability in individual lawsuits killed innocent customers of general motors.”

“The failure of this legal department is stunning,” she said.

CEO Mary Barra, making her fourth hearing appearance on Capitol Hill since the company began massive recalls this year related to the ignition switch problem that has been linked to at least 13 deaths, was largely praised by Senators for her handling of the scandal, which erupted just weeks after she assumed the post.

Thursday’s hearing came in the wake of a New York Times report that found that GM withheld information from regulators inquiring about fatal accidents. Citing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that GM “repeatedly found a way not to answer the simple question from regulators of what led to a crash.” In some cases, GM said it had not conducted an assessment and in others it simply declined to provide an answer. In another case, the company cited attorney-client privilege.

The hearing in Congress aimed to focus on accountability in corporate culture, as lawmakers aim to keep corporations from covering up safety concerns. Three senators introduced a bill on Wednesday that would impose criminal penalties for corporate executives who hide product dangers.

Milliken says he was not informed about the safety concerns until February of this year, and Barra defended her decision not to fire him. “He is a man of high integrity,” she said.

Following the internal investigation last month, GM fired 15 employees and Barra blamed “a pattern of management deficiencies and misjudgments.” But she said the probe found no deliberate cover-up by the company.

The Justice Department is separately investigating why it took the company more than a decade to address the problem.

Barra and Millikin were joined at the hearing by Anton Valukas, who headed up the internal report, and Rodney O’Neal, the head of the ignition switch supplier, Delphi. Kenneth Feinberg, who is administering GM’s compensation payments, also took questions from lawmakers about the compensation program.

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