Get Ready for the Post-SUV World!

As peak-oil enthusiasts keep vigil over world petroleum statistics, they can find comfort in America's sudden, rapid descent from a different summit: the peak of sport-utility vehicle (SUV) production. In the early 2000s, combined sales of SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans (which together make up the "light truck" class) caught and surpassed sales of passenger cars. But last week, automakers announced that high gas prices have caused their sales of SUVs and full-size pickups to plummet by as much as 50 percent compared with a year ago.

With big-box vehicles waddling off into the sunset, we can expect the nation's roads to become safer and less crowded. But just as the end of the Cold War failed to bring with it a promised peace dividend, the end of the SUV era is unlikely to bring a "green dividend" -- unless it is accompanied by much bigger changes. The numbers show that even the complete disappearance of SUVs from the nation's roadways, without other fuel-saving developments, would put only a slight bend in the rising curve of national fuel consumption.

First, the Good News

By 2006, sales of the largest pickup trucks were 2½ times what they had been in 1992; meanwhile, assisted by the so-called "Hummer tax deduction," sales of 6,000- to 10,000-pound SUVs had risen 25-fold. But as last week's sales figures from Detroit made clear, 2008 will be a very different year.

In May, for the first time in 17 years, the top-selling vehicle model in America was not a pickup truck. In fact, Ford's F-150, the perennial leader, was overtaken by three small import-car models. Ford's June truck sales were down 41 percent from a year ago, and its SUV sales are now in free-fall, down 55 percent. Sales of Dodge Ram pickups tumbled 48 percent. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were hit hard, and all have announced plans to close or suspend production at plants that make trucks and SUVs.

The post-SUV world will come to pass only gradually, but as it does, we can look forward to getting at least some relief from the damage that the reign of the big boxes has done:

Less gas will be burned, reducing greenhouse gas emissions: The average SUV is driven 20 percent more miles per year than is the average car. That, along with its low fuel efficiency, means that it burns more than 800 gallons of fuel per year. The average pickup is only slightly less thirsty, at 700 gallons, compared with just under 500 burned by the average car. But without greater restraint by all drivers, how much can the demise of the SUV reduce fossil-fuel consumption? As we will see, not much.

Drivers of all vehicles will be less likely to die in a car crash: Michael Anderson, assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, has done the math showing that increasing popularity of SUVs and pickups led to an increase in annual traffic fatalities. Of the additional deaths, he wrote, "approximately one-fifth accrue to the light trucks' own occupants, and the remaining four-fifths accrue to the occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians." To put it another way, getting most SUVs and pickups off the road will make everyone safer -- especially those who don't drive them.

In High and Mighty, his definitive 2002 book on the SUV, journalist Keith Bradsher described how the taller vehicles block the vision of car drivers and contribute to accidents. Statistics show that a person who's at the wheel of a small, nimble car and appropriately aware of the need to avert danger is much safer than a complacent driver relying solely on the protective bulk of an SUV -- a vehicle "designed to overcome its environment, not to respond to it," in the words of writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Fewer children might be run over: Some, but not all, surveys have shown that, presumably because of poorer visibility to the rear, SUVs and pickups are more likely to be involved in what are called driveway "backover" accidents, most victims of which are children. In one study, backovers were fatal most often when the vehicle was a pickup truck.

There will be more room on the road for everyone -- and maybe less road construction: Small-car drivers know that bottom-of-a-well feeling that comes when you're surrounded on all sides at a traffic light by 3-ton, black-windowed behemoths. Bradsher cites studies demonstrating the various ways in which SUVs clog roadways: that a length of road or street able to accommodate, say, 100 cars can hold only 71 SUVs or 87 pickups; that at busy intersections dominated by SUVs, fewer vehicles can get through a green light before the next change; and that large SUVs sap taxpayers by increasing wear and tear on roads. Indeed, as big-vehicle pressures decline, states and municipalities may be able to give drivers, and the environment, a little break by canceling some of their road-widening plans.

Will we be contending with less road rage?: A 2004 Canadian study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention found that in "serious" road rage incidents, in which drivers "intentionally damaged or attempted to damage another driver's vehicle, and/or intentionally hurt or attempted to hurt a driver or passenger in another vehicle," SUV drivers were more likely to be perpetrators than were drivers of other vehicle types.

What Will SUV Drivers Drive Next?

Despite being prized for their roominess, most SUVs haul only slightly more people than do cars -- on average, not enough riders to fill even the front seat. In advertisements, SUVs are parked on cliff tops, but in real life, 76 percent are parked in urban streets, driveway and garages most nights. And despite their hardworking country-and-western image, 60 percent of pickup trucks are owned by urban households and typically ply the streets with empty cargo beds.

In a 2005 paper, University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Josh Lauer dismissed the SUV's reputation for safety and spaciousness: "Safety is not road safety but personal safety, and space is not interior cargo space but social space, including the ability to traverse the most inhospitable terrain to sequester oneself from the hazards of modern civilization. In this way, the SUV's popularity reflects underlying American attitudes toward crime, random violence, and the importance of defended personal space."

Only 13 percent of SUVs are owned by families of 5 or more persons, and a big 40 percent are found in households of only one or two. A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy in August 2000 cited a survey of car buyers that found: "The average SUV customer is male, married, aged 45 years, in a household with an income of $94,400. ... Because SUV owners are fairly affluent, the price of the vehicle and of fuel is not sufficiently important to cause them to consider changing the type of vehicle they drive."

But at the time that paper was published, gasoline was at $1.43 per gallon, a price we're certain never to see again. Recent price shocks appear to have changed attitudes even among well-to-do car shoppers, despite the fact that people who can easily afford a $100 dinner check should be unfazed by a $100-plus tank of gas.

Without a national survey on the issue, it's hard to predict what will fill the garages of the most affluent drivers in coming years, according to Pamela Danziger. As president of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Penn., a firm specializing in analysis of luxury markets, Danziger predicts that current high-end SUV drivers "will keep them going until their current leases are up or it's time to buy a new vehicle. Then it is likely that they will trade down to a more economical, but no less luxurious vehicle."

The well-heeled sport-utility driver won't be going extinct. On the day that automakers' dismal June sales figures were announced, Reuters profiled a few members of that species -- people like John Stephens:

Arizona mortgage broker John Stephens uses his big plum-colored Dodge RAM pickup to tow off-road vehicles out to the desert to play. He likes their comfort and space. As he sluiced gallon after gallon of gas at $4.16 a go into his truck at a Scottsdale gas station, Stephens said he was prepared to make certain sacrifices to improve consumption, such as driving more slowly if the government cut speed limits to save fuel. But he would not consider giving up his truck despite getting just 13 miles per gallon. "I'd rather see more drilling and more alternative type fuels, anything to keep the price of gas down," he said.
Possibly the worst news for Detroit in June was that buyers were not just switching models or brands; sales were down 18 percent across the board. With the era of cheap oil over, companies may find that it's hard to build and sell a vehicle that meets both the economic and the psychological demands of drivers. As they scramble to find one, you can bet that they'll want to learn from their previous, ultra-successful SUV market analysis. In his book, Bradsher asks, "Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles?" and arrives at this answer:
They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities. No, that's not a cynic talking -- that's the auto industry's own market researchers ...
But setting up SUV owners as villains is probably not very helpful. (Nor is the SUV's widely discussed appeal to the "reptile brain," an idea hatched by the eccentric French anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille and popularized by Bradsher.)

Adapting society to the twin problems of declining oil supplies and rising atmospheric carbon requires that we face an awkward truth: It's not that there are too many SUVs or pickups on the road, it's that too many vehicles of all types are rolling around out there.

Many ex-SUV drivers have been trading them in for so-called crossover vehicles (CUVs) -- smaller versions of SUVs with car-like unibody construction. But even a mass replacement of SUVs with cars would not make this a fuel-frugal nation. Suppose that all SUV owners in America turned instead to average-efficiency cars or CUVs while retaining current driving habits. That, based on government figures, would reduce fuel consumption by less than 5 billion gallons per year -- equivalent to 3 percent of national gasoline consumption. Were all SUVs replaced by those hot-selling Prius hybrids, the switch would save about 7.5 percent.

It may be, as two Duke University professors recently recommended, that policy should be focused on replacing the most inefficient vehicles; however, the conservation gains estimated above would not even make up the ground that we lost in the SUV era. Replacing SUVs with standard cars would take us back to the nation's 2003 level of gas consumption; with Priuses, we'd get back to 1999. And much of the good done by those small savings would be canceled out by the deep ecological tireprint of the discarded vehicles and the manufacture, sales and eventual disposal of so many new cars.

Since 1990, the total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the United States has risen twice as fast as the country's population. Americans appear to be driving less in 2008, but we continue to travel in largely empty vehicles. In 2001 figures for occupancy (the average number of people, including the driver, who ride in each vehicle type) were 1.48 per pickup; 1.57 per passenger car; 1.76 for SUV; and 2.20 for minivan.

A North Carolina survey found that over a six-month period in 2001, 78 percent of SUVs on the road had no occupants other than the driver; the figure was the same for pickups and slightly higher than the 76 percent observed for passenger cars. That squares with DOT figures showing that 76 percent of commuter trips are made solo.

From the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) comes this astonishing comparison (pdf): "In 1969, about 20.6 percent of households owned no vehicles [and a miniscule number owned more than three]. By 2001, more households owned four or more vehicles than owned no vehicles." We now have almost 14 million more personal vehicles in the US than we have licensed drivers.

Where Will the SUVs Go Next?

Production of new SUVs and pickups could eventually taper off somewhere near its level of the early 1980s, when sport-utility vehicles were used primarily for, well, sport and utility. Meanwhile, a financial system that's still hung over from the pop of the McMansion bubble is sinking even deeper, as -- pop! -- goes the McMotor bubble.

AutoWeek reports that "with some 800,000 truck-based sport-utility vehicles coming off lease this year, residual values projected three and four years ago will be missed by as much as $6,000 per unit... Those who lend the money -- banks, credit unions, car companies' captive finance arms and others who write leases -- will face a tab of nearly $5 billion just in 2008."

Abner Perney is a city commissioner in Salina, Kansas, where he owns and runs Abner's Autos, a used car business. He's watching prices of SUVs and pickups sink into a seemingly bottomless pit and expects the lease crunch to trigger "another banking credit mini-crisis" that mirrors the home mortgage fiasco. Perney, who is now running for the Kansas state senate on a low-carbon-emissions platform, adds, "Same thing goes for millions of people who owe much more than their gas hog is worth, when they find themselves in the bind of wanting to sell or having to sell."

Many of the oldest, least expensive gas-guzzlers may end up parked with those families who can least afford to feed them. Perney expects used SUVs to move well down the income scale: "Historically, poor folks have big old cars because they depreciate fast, yet they are tough enough to keep on going. Keeping them running is actually cheaper for everything other than fuel and oil, because they're rugged and generally understressed mechanically. The luxury doodads and electronic gizmos are expensive to repair, but you can usually get by without them."

If fuel costs keep rising, they could overwhelm those other expenses. Nevertheless, many low-income earners are familiar with having to pay heavy recurring bills because they can't afford big one-time costs up front: Some pay outrageous weekly or daily rents for lousy housing because they can't afford high deposits and advance rent, or are ripped off by check-cashing outfits because they can't put up the minimum deposit for a checking account. Similarly, if the more fuel-efficient vehicles end up with the least affordable price tags on used-car lots, cash-strapped buyers may end up stuck with big, cheap trucks or SUVs. The question of how to keep them running will have to be left for another day.

Taking Back the Streets

In dealing with the aftermath of the SUV boom and bust, some creativity is needed. Maybe a worthwhile complement to the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be a Strategic Light Truck Reserve. All of those orphaned SUVs and macho pickups could be rounded up, mothballed and designated a public resource. Then over the coming decades, they could be doled out a few at a time to communities, to be shared by all residents for necessary hauling, towing and traveling in larger groups. Because most people need the greater capacity of SUVs and pickups only rarely, such vehicles would seem to be ideal candidates for joint-ownership or sharing arrangements.

Tracey Axelsson is executive director of the nonprofit Cooperative Auto Network (CAN) in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is the oldest car-sharing co-op in the English-speaking world. By offering pickup trucks in its fleet, CAN manages to fill members' occasional hauling needs while helping reduce the number of large vehicles on the road. Axelsson hopes "that the old adage is changing -- that 'The only thing better than owning a truck is having a friend that does' will become 'The only thing better than sharing a truck is spending the money you save from not owning one.'"

But, she adds, CAN is part of a coalition of similar groups struggling to develop a general code of ethics for car sharing. Otherwise, she says, such systems "can fall into the standard drama of providing just another disposable automobile or actually add to the number of cars in a person's toy box."

Don Fitz of St. Louis, Mo., who edits the green-social journal Synthesis/Regeneration (disclosure: I am on the journal's editorial board) recently laid out a plan for radically reducing the numbers of personal vehicles on the road through combinations of living rearrangements, incentives and disincentives. Some of his recommendations: Cut the workweek to 32 hours or much less, ensure that getting to work is quicker without a car than with one, move jobs closer to residences, and start making it harder to drive by eliminating more parking spaces every year. (The Utah state government recently went to an energy-saving four-day workweek, but without decreasing work hours.)

Fitz emphasized, "Increasing trains and buses could be deep green transportation -- but if and only if it is part of an actual decrease in the number of automobiles. Likewise, increasing bicycles, scooters, carpooling and car-sharing is truly green transportation only if it is a piece of the big picture of reducing cars."

Our vehicle population will eventually shrink, whether it's through choice or necessity. This twilight of the SUV era seems an appropriate occasion to rework our whole concept of personal transportation -- and start depopulating America's car dealerships and parking lots.

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