We Luv Our Suvs

For a country so concerned about the well-being of soccer moms, it is hard to understand the recent verbal assault on their transportation of choice: minivans and sport utility vehicles. Known in government parlance as “light trucks,” SUVs and minivans today make up an estimated 40 percent of new purchases of the entire American vehicle fleet.

Though there are many good reasons for this increase, the usual suspects have already rounded up their anti-car arguments in order to deploy them against light trucks. A Los Angeles Times editorial decries the proliferation of light trucks because “they are costly, heavy, powerful and they guzzle gasoline and pollute the air.”

Other publications – notably the New York Times – have showcased a study released last summer by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which claims that light trucks seriously endanger passenger cars. The Sierra Club claims that “the single biggest step to curbing global warming” is a drastic increase in the federal government’s corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.

Intended to reduce America’s dependence upon foreign oil, CAFE requires automakers to ensure that each year’s passenger car and light truck fleets achieve a specified average fuel economy, currently 27.5mpg and 20.7mpg, respectively. In the past two decades, the average weight of passenger cars has decreased by more than 1,000 pounds (about 25 percent). About half of this downsizing is directly due to CAFE.

CAFE is the prime reason why we rarely see new, very large station wagons, the kind in which you can comfortably fit four kids and a dog. Automakers have been reluctant to make those – too many people were buying them, throwing off the entire fleet average, and causing CAFE fines to kick in.

Consequently, people have gravitated towards light trucks, which provide them with the space, power, and comfort they need. Indeed, it is these qualities, not fuel efficiency, that consumers overwhelmingly seek. A 1995 Carnegie Mellon study points out that “fuel costs are a small proportion of the costs of owning a car.” It goes on to note that although in many countries in Europe, fuel prices are higher than in the U.S., “[European] fuel economy is only marginally better.” A look at the sales records of the EPA’s 1996 “Top Ten Most Fuel Efficient” passenger vehicles shows that these teeny little cars represent 0.7 percent of all passenger car sales, and only 0.4 percent of total vehicle sales (including light trucks).

The pro-CAFE camp has difficulty accepting the clear choices of consumers. The Sierra Club is in complete denial, blaming the popularity of SUVs on the auto companies: “Ford and Chrysler are using a little-known loophole to keep churning out massively inefficient vehicles and raking in profits. Their scheme is to make the same old gas-guzzling cars they have always made….”

Others grudgingly recognize consumers’ preferences even as they come up with ways to manipulate them. As Steve Plotkin, a researcher at the Argonne National Labs, said at a recent conference, “New car fuel economy is going nowhere” because consumers simply do not care about it. He remarked that “without market intervention,” fuel efficiency will not get better. The success of light trucks in replacing the old station wagon has led some in the pro-CAFE camp to claim that since SUVs are now used as traditional family cars, they should therefore fall under the lower passenger car CAFE standard.

Calls to increase CAFE come in tandem with promises of endless, cost-free environmental improvement. However, despite the wishful thinking of many in the environmental movement, the evidence quite clearly shows that CAFE has a major downside: it literally kills people. Cars cannot be downsized without being made more dangerous. Decades of auto-safety research have demonstrated that, in every crash mode, smaller cars are less safe than larger cars (even when both have airbags). Indeed, even the pro-CAFE Ralph Nader has admitted that “larger cars are safer – there is more bulk to protect the occupant.”

Numerous reputable studies have repeatedly demonstrated this common-sense point. Though the above-mentioned NHTSA study asserts that reducing the average weight of light trucks by 100 pounds would save 40 lives (the agency also admits that that figure is statistically insignificant), the same study also shows that increasing the average weight of passenger cars by 100 pounds would save over 300 people. This result is statistically significant. A more recent review by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirms that the poor crash-worthiness of smaller cars is a greater safety concern than the proliferation of SUVs.

A 1989 peer-reviewed Harvard-Brookings study showed that CAFE caused 2,000-4,000 extra deaths on the road annually. The Competitive Enterprise Institute updated these numbers using government fatality data for 1996 and broke it down by state. For example, of the over 2,000 traffic fatalities in California last year, as many as 455 are attributable to CAFE. If the CAFE for passenger cars were raised to 40mpg, as some advocate, that figure would rise by 25 percent to 572.

Though CAFE has a high safety cost, it has minimal environmental benefits. Cars and light trucks make up only 1.5 percent of all global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Hiking CAFE standards by 40 percent would only reduce those emissions by 0.04 percent, according to the government’s own data. Since all new cars must meet the same emissions standard (measured in grams per mile) regardless of fuel efficiency, today’s large cars are cleaner than ever. CAFE also inhibits development of cleaner cars because “clean car” technology adds weight.. The National Research Council noted in 1992 that “compliance with [emissions] standards will make it difficult to introduce more fuel efficient vehicles.”

Soccer moms and others aren’t buying minivans and sport utility vehicles because they don’t care about the environment; they are doing so because these light trucks provide what passenger cars no longer do: extra safety and extra space. [It’s no wonder that the President’s motorcade includes several SUVs, and even Vice-President Gore relies on a couple.] The growth of demand in light trucks shows what consumers want, and they do not want CAFE.