Last week, I commented on some of the more prominent fallacies regarding SUVs contained in a recent article by Gregg Easterbrook, particularly those concerning vehicle safety. The reader response was tremendous from SUV fans and critics alike. Some noted, quite fairly, that I did not address every charge in the anti-SUV indictment. So I’m returning to the subject to address some of the remaining anti-SUV claims that collapse under the weight of careful examination. As before, however, I should note that my aim is not to celebrate the SUV, as much as it is to puncture the illusions of those convinced SUVs are destroying American life.
Let’s start with the environment, more specifically with air pollution and the charge that SUVs are in Easterbrook’s words, “pollution-spewing hogs.” SUVs, like all vehicles classified as “light trucks,” are subject to less stringent tailpipe emission standards than cars. At some level this may be a nonsensical policy, and the disparity is due to be eliminated over the next several years, but simply because SUVs are held to a less stringent standard does not mean that SUV emissions are a particular problem. Urban air pollution may well remain a problem in many parts of the country, but tailpipe emissions from brand-new SUVs and other light trucks are hardly to blame.
Just about everyone is aware that new cars are substantially cleaner than just a few decades ago, having reduced emissions by well over 90 percent. There have been nearly equivalent improvements in light truck emissions as well. While it is true that SUVs are currently allowed to emit twice the amount of smog-forming emissions (hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides) as passenger cars, this is still a miniscule amount, and represents a tiny fraction of what vehicles used to emit. Despite the disparity in regulatory standards, the emissions of brand-spanking new SUVs are relatively insignificant from an environmental standpoint, even though they represent an ever-growing portion of the automotive fleet. As environmental analyst Joel Schwartz notes, the growth of SUV ownership is “having little effect on total vehicle emissions.”
Insofar as automotive emissions remain a problem, the primary culprits are older vehicles and vehicles with poorly maintained or malfunctioning emission-control equipment. Such vehicles are a small proportion of vehicles on the road — only 10 to 20 percent of vehicles. Yet these gross polluting vehicles — cars and light trucks alike — account for an estimated 50 to 80 percent of smog-forming emissions. In the case of hydrocarbons, for every ten vehicles on the road, the dirtiest one emits as much as the remaining nine. Such gross polluting vehicles, not SUVs, are the problem. At the same time, the cleanest half of vehicles account for as little as five percent of such emissions. Insofar as automotive pollution remains a problem in a given area, it makes more sense to identify and repair (or retire) the gross polluting vehicles than to whine about SUV emissions.
Whereas Easterbrook wants to blame a slowing decline in pollution levels in Washington, D.C. on SUVs, the real culprit is likely the failure of existing regulatory programs to adequately control the dirtiest 10 to 20 percent of the automobile fleet. Indeed, the overall contribution to urban air pollution of the automobile fleet has been systematically underestimated for well over decade, largely due to the failure to accurately estimate and control emissions from the dirtiest vehicles. The solution is not another round of new vehicle emission standards on SUVs or any other cars, but regulatory efforts targeting gross polluters.
When not complaining about pollution, anti-SUVers like to make much of SUVs’ purported “inefficiency,” pointing to the poor gas mileage of most SUV models. To be sure, an SUV requires more gas to travel the same distance than does a Dodge Neon — but that does not mean it is an inherently less efficient vehicle. For a family of five, the Neon may be a terribly inefficient vehicle choice if it is incapable of meeting the family’s transportation needs. Parents with small children find that car safety seats often fit far more comfortably into SUVs and minivans than in most sedans. For a friend of mine, picking up his parents at the airport with his wife young child was virtually impossible in a single vehicle, unless that vehicle was a minivan or SUV.
After my last column, numerous readers wrote in with their own examples of SUV efficiency. One reader recently purchased twenty 50-pound bags of sand from Home Depot for his backyard. In his mid-sized SUV, this only took one trip. In his wife’s sedan, transporting the sand would have taken at least two or three trips. Thus, even though his wife’s car may get substantially better gas mileage (23 miles per gallon as opposed to the SUV’s 15mpg), completing this chore would have required substantially more fuel without the SUV, not to mention more time (a truly scarce and nonrenewable resource).
Of course, not every day requires SUV owners to shuttle loads of children or haul 1,000 pounds of sand, and SUVs get poor gas mileage all the time. This is true, but this is a cost that SUV owners are apparently willing to bear. Driving a vehicle with lower gas mileage requires them to purchase more gas. They are paying for the costs of their choice, and then some, as gasoline prices substantial state and federal taxes which are used to pay for roads, among other things. SUVs may produce more wear and tear on roads because they are larger and heavier, but SUV owners also pay a greater proportion of road-construction costs because they purchase more gasoline and pay more in gas taxes.
The anti-SUVers nonetheless complain that all of this oil consumption funds foreign dictatorships and creates “dependence” on foreign sources of oil. Here again they miss the mark. Most U.S. oil comes from overseas because domestic production (particularly in the lower 48 states) is far more expensive than foreign production. Marginally reducing U.S. oil consumption by clamping down on SUVs would have a far greater impact on domestic production than on imports. This means that while the overall amount of oil imported might decline slightly, the proportion of U.S. oil that comes from foreign sources would almost certainly increase — and the amount of money that ends up in the hands of foreign dictators would hardly change.
At a more fundamental level, energy “independence” is a chimerical goal that serves no real purpose. As the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor has explained, there is no “oil weapon” that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or any other Middle Eastern regime can use to attack the United States. Oil is a fungible commodity in international markets. Reducing oil imports will not insulate the U.S. from any potential commodity price shocks caused by Middle East instability or Latin American tyrants due to oil’s commodity status.
One irony of the attacks on SUV fuel consumption is that the explosion in SUV ownership was largely driven by the imposition of stringent fuel-economy standards on cars. Fuel-economy mandates did not lessen the American thirst for larger vehicles, but they did inhibit the ability of automakers to offer large, affordable passenger cars. Consumer demands were met, however, by modifying light trucks to serve as passenger vehicles. Thus, were it not for federal fuel-economy standards, it is likely that there would be more large sedans and stations wagons on the road, and fewer SUVs. Moreover, one consequence of applying passenger car fuel-economy standards to SUVs, as some propose, would be to make SUVs less safe, as auto manufacturers would be forced to downsize the vehicles to increase their miles-per-gallon ratings.
The last refuge of the SUV critic is to complain about the social effects of SUVs. Both Easterbrook and Keith Bradsher make much of auto industry market research purportedly showing that SUV owners are “insecure and vain,” and “frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood.” Easterbrook believes that this shows SUV owners are “self-centered” and “self-absorbed.” I cannot speak to the accuracy of Bradsher’s claims, but they struck a discordant with a former product planner with a major automaker who worked on the development of several successful SUV models. In an e-mail responding to my prior column, he noted that he found Bradsher’s characterization of the industry research suspect and implausible, and offered his own take:
If I had to describe with one phrase the motivation of an SUV buyer from my experience, I would borrow “Be Prepared” from the Boy Scouts. Consistently, our market research told us that SUV owners know that they may never use many of the features and attributes of their vehicles, but that they want them anyway, just in case.
What many anti-SUVers fail to accept is that many SUV owners place substantial value on such versatility, making SUVs the right vehicles for their wants and needs. This hardly makes them “anti-social” or “self-absorbed.”
In the end, there is remarkably little substance to the litany of anti-SUV complaints. Critics of sport-utility vehicles may managed to manufacture an indictment against SUVs to justify their aesthetic preferences and visceral reactions to large cars, but it is an indictment that should be readily dismissed. I may not like SUVs, but I have no interest in telling SUV owners what to drive, nor does anyone else.
— NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.