On a chilly January morning, “Arthur,” one of San Francisco’s many departmental investigators, turned the key in his city-issued Prius. He was greeted not with the anodyne hum of San Francisco’s most ubiquitous vehicle but “the roar of an M-1 Abrams, tank.”
He was shocked. But he wasn’t surprised (the terrified old lady across the street walking her little dog? She was surprised).
San Francisco is a town founded on an extraction industry and, ever since Day One, chiselers have thrived by extracting from the extractors. More to the point: As anyone who drives an aging Toyota Prius knows, street parking in San Francisco is a bit like playing quarterback in the option formation, or drinking from the well during a cholera outbreak; sooner or later, you’re going to get popped.
So, a nanosecond after Arthur was greeted with high-decibel engine noise, he knew: Ah, shit. The catalytic converter is gone.
And, a nanosecond later: How do I get this car from where it is to where it can be fixed?
And then: There is no way in hell I can drive this car anywhere. I’ll scare small children.
The Prius was towed to the city’s Central Shops, which handles maintenance for police cruisers, fire rigs, and San Francisco’s fleet of “juicy Priuses,” in the words of one city official bewildered by mounting catalytic converter thefts.
Your humble narrator recently dialed up Central Shops and reached a mechanic there. And, he had lots to do: “We have a whole bunch of cars in line to have their catalytic converters replaced because they were stolen,” he said. In front of him were “six of them, all waiting in line to get them replaced.”
The people stealing catalytic converters are rational actors. The reason they do this is that to call the metals in Prius converters “precious” is a jarring understatement. It’d be like saying Kanye West has “issues.”
Platinum, you’ve heard of. It’s in there. As of Friday, it’s valued at $1,018 per ounce. But platinum is one of the least precious of the precious metals in a Prius converter. There’s also palladium ($1,600 per ounce) and rhodium ($12,000 per ounce). Yes — $12,000 per ounce. That’s $192,000 a pound. And $12,000 is a low-end price for rhodium; in March, 2021, it was valued at $29,800 an ounce.
There isn’t any gold in a catalytic converter, but it’s valued at $1,920 per ounce, to put things in context.
So, it’s little surprise that catalytic converter theft is endemic in California, where lower-emitting converters contain more of these precious metals. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, catalytic converters are where the money is.
Aging Priuses, which have particularly valuable converters, are among thieves’ preferred vehicles. In San Francisco, you can hold your breath, inhale only when you spot an aging Prius, and go about your life normally. So, clearly, San Francisco drivers are taking it on the chin; more than half a dozen extremely busy area mechanics I spoke with are struggling to obtain Toyota catalytic converters for their customers. This is a job that requires weeks, if not months, of waiting for parts, and can cost upwards of $3,500.
The San Francisco Police Department has not yet answered our request for the tally of reported converter thefts in 2021 and 2022.
Speaking of the cops, any notion that city vehicles are somehow immune to converter theft was immolated late last year when Mission Local broke the story that four marked police vehicles were relieved of their catalytic converters while parked outside the San Francisco Police Department Special Operations Bureau at 17th and DeHaro streets.
“The people engaging in this activity really don’t think much of the police if they think they can steal catalytic converters from the best of us,” said an SFPD higher-up at the time. And he was right. “They’ll get away with it, too,” grumbled a fellow cop. And he was right, too.
“The best of us,” incidentally, refers to the fact that the police SWAT team is housed at 17th and DeHaro. Intriguingly, the “rubber room” where problem cops are stashed to wait out their days is located here, too. Meaning both the best and the worst cops could’ve potentially interrupted these thieves, either of which would figure to be a terrifying proposition for a criminal caught red-handed.
Well, evidently not. This was not the first break-in on police vehicles at that site, and it wasn’t the last, either. But the police are hardly the hardest-hit department in San Francisco.
At our behest, the Office of the City Administrator compiled maintenance data from Central Shops (the kindly city employee who spearheaded this effort for us recently had the converter stolen out of her Prius, too).
In the last several fiscal years, some 217 city vehicles have had their catalytic converter stolen. This represents some 7.3 percent of the city’s fleet, and came at a cost of nearly $600,000 (the decision on whether to install anti-theft devices is being made on a department-to-department basis).
Less than a million bucks is ostensibly a drop in the bucket for a city with a $14 billion budget like San Francisco, but budgets do not work like Uncle Scrooge’s money bin. Each department only allots so much for maintenance, and these pervasive thefts blow up line items. And, perhaps of more relevance to the general public, they keep city workers from being able to do their jobs; a building inspector cannot hit 12 sites a day via Muni; an investigator tailing a suspect cannot simply hope that person takes public transit and abandon the observations otherwise.
The real magnitude of this city’s problem with catalytic converter thefts comes into focus, however, if you winnow down the city’s fleet to the types of vehicles that thieves prey upon. And that’d be aging Priuses — but not only aging Priuses. Thieves also gravitate toward big Ford trucks, like the F-150s, 250s and 350s cruising around city streets. These are easy to get underneath and, on some models, have two catalytic converters. Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon says her department had “20 to 30” trucks hit in the past year and change.
1 in every 14 city vehicles is a Prius. But they
made up over a third of catalytic converter thefts.
Priuses were almost four
times more likely to be hit
than other city vehicles.
1 in every 14 city vehicles is a Prius.
But they made up over a third
of catalytic converter thefts.
Graphic by Will Jarrett.
The city has lots more big trucks than it does Priuses, but lots more Priuses have been ripped off.
San Francisco, per the Office of the City Administrator, has 418 Priuses in its fleet. Since fiscal 2018, 57 of them have either had their converters replaced, are waiting to have them replaced at Central Shops, or were put out of service due to a converter theft (14 percent). But wait — there’s more.
Complicating matters, Central Shops does not do work for the MTA, airport, or on many of the PUC vehicles. And the Priuses from each of those agencies get jacked, too. SFO reported that two of their nine Priuses were hit in the last year and change. The PUC, which has four maintenance shops across Northern California, says that nine of its Priuses were targeted in recent years. And the Municipal Transportation Agency notes that of its 34 Priuses, 10 have had their converters stolen.
Don Jones, the city’s director of Fleet Management, told us that the overall Prius fleet count of 418 should include the vehicles from the PUC, MTA and SFO — even though his shop doesn’t maintain all these cars. Adding in the theft totals from those three departments, it ups the tally to some 78 victimized city Priuses (19 percent).
But wait — there’s more.
A Fire Department official told us that “six to 10” SFFD Priuses have been hit in the last 18 months. But these won’t show up on the city’s list because the fire department goes to a private vendor. Also not showing up would be the department’s staff physician having her private car — a Prius — struck in broad daylight while sitting in front of SFFD headquarters.
“They are caught in supply chain issues and these are low-priority for them because they’re administrative vehicles,” the fire department official tells us. “A Prius is obviously not going to be in a high-speed response.”
The SFFD move to go to a private vendor was described by the fire official as more expedient and less costly. It is unclear if other departments have similar arrangements, which would only add to the theft total.
As it is, that puts the total at perhaps 88 impacted city Priuses out of 418 — 21 percent.
Perhaps twice a week, Tony Espinosa gets a call from a Bay Area resident. And that’s notable, because the proprietor of Nevada Mufflers and Auto Service is in Reno, Nevada.
Their question: Can he put a cheaper catalytic converter on their Prius — the kind that’s legal in Nevada and 48 other states, but not California?
It’s an understandable request. This would cost a customer around $1,800 at Espinosa’s shop, compared to around twice that, or even a bit more, for a California-legal part.
But he won’t do it. “If you have a California emissions system, you have to put in the right part,” he says. “If you don’t, the check-engine light comes on, and it comes right back to me.”
There’s a sticker on your car that states if it meets the Federal EPA standards or the stricter California one. “There are some cars that are made for California emissions but sell in the Reno area,” Espinosa explains. This is a new spin on the old term “sticker shock.”
California-legal converters don’t cost more because they’re organic or artisanal or anything like that. Rather, as noted above, they have more precious metals in them. And it’s the precious metals that act to lower emissions.
Cheaper, crappier converters are cheaper because they’re crappier. It’s not complicated.
“By significantly reducing the use of precious metals that provide the catalytic reaction, and reducing the quality of the internal parts, uncertified parts can be offered at very low prices,” explains Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board.
In other words: You get what you pay for. Or, since this an emissions device, we get what you pay for.
“In some cases,” Lambert continues, “parts offered for sale in other states have no catalyst materials at all and are sold to only appear to be a catalyst.”
How much do California’s strict emissions standards help? Lambert says that they have resulted in 36 fewer tons of smog-forming emissions per day over the past decade, and up to a 70 percent reduction compared to vehicles meeting the standard kept in the 49 other states.
So, that’s great. Less great is that these exacting California standards essentially reduce the supplier of Prius catalytic converters to the manufacturer. Which clearly can’t make them faster than thieves can steal them.
And that’s a problem for “Arthur” and other city workers forced to beg, borrow and steal vehicles to do their jobs. In his case, part of his job is interacting with people who don’t want to be interacted with, and handing them legal material they don’t want to be handed. It’s useful in such times to be able to fast-walk to a car, lock the door and drive off. And, when driving off, it’s beneficial to not sound like an M-1 Abrams tank.
At first, Arthur was told it would take a month to fix his car. Then he was told it may take six months. The official prognosis, he now says, is, “fuck only knows.”
Around one out of every five cars in his department have had their converters ripped off. So at least he has plenty of colleagues to commiserate with.
“We whine together,” he says. “We could start a catalytic converter support group. It could be run by the city. Hey, I’m sure we could get mental health assistance on this.”