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My textbook only considers the sentence with "what" to be correct, but I can't see why "as" doesn't work.

But car ownership is not as it was.
But car ownership is not what it was.

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Your textbook is correct, what is correct.

Definition of as:

used in comparisons to refer to the extent or degree of something

Here it is not being used as a comparison.

You could compare it to something making it a simile in the same sentence:

But car ownership is not as popular as it was

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  • I wonder! According to this rule, it is incorrect to write: Things are not as they used to be but it would be correct to write things are not as good as they used to be. – Ronald Sole Dec 2 '18 at 17:01

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