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Synthesis/Regeneration 47   (Fall 2008)

Get ready for the Post-SUV World!

by Stan Cox

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 in Summer 2008, automakers announced that high gas prices caused their sales of SUVs and full-size pickups to plummet by as much as 50% compared with a year before.

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

In May 2008, 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% from a year ago, and its SUV sales are now in freefall, down 55%. Sales of Dodge Ram pickups tumbled 48%. 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.

Despite being prized for their roominess, most SUVs haul only slightly more people than do cars.

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:

In High and Mighty: SUVs - The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 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.

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 clifftops, but in real life, 76% are parked in urban streets, driveways and garages most nights. And despite their hardworking country-and-western image, 60% of pickup trucks are owned by urban households, and typically ply the streets with empty cargo beds.

Only 13% of SUVs are owned by families of five or more persons, and a big 40% are found in households of one or two. A report prepared for the US 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, PA, 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." However tastes in vehicles shift, there will remain huge numbers of vehicles of all types out there, racking up huge numbers of miles.

But even a mass replacement of SUVs with cars would not make this a fuel-frugal nation.

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% of national gasoline consumption. Were all SUVs replaced by those hot-selling Prius hybrids, the switch would save about 7.5%.

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, sale, and eventual disposal of so many new cars.

Since 1990, the total number of vehicle-miles traveled in the US 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. Average 2001 figures for occupancy (the average number of people, including the driver, who ride in a vehicle) are 1.6 for passenger cars, 2.2 for minivans, 1.7 for SUVs, and 1.5 for pickups.

We now have almost 14 million more personal vehicles in the US than we have licensed drivers.

From the US Department of Transportation (DOT) comes this astonishing comparison: "In 1969, about 20.6% 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 hungover from the pop of the McMansion bubble is sinking even deeper, as "pop!" goes the McMotor bubble.

AutoWeek recently reported 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 vanish 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 doo-dads and electronic gizmos are expensive to repair, but you can usually get by without them."

Many of the oldest, least expensive gas-guzzlers may end up parked with those families who can least afford to feed them.

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.

SUVs and pickups...would seem to be ideal candidates for joint-ownership or sharing arrangements.

Tracey Axelsson is executive director of the non-profit 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."

In the summer 2008 issue of Synthesis/Regeneration, editor Don Fitz laid out a plan for radically reducing the number 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 work week, 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, car-pooling and car-sharing is truly green transportation only if it is a piece of the big picture of reducing cars."

America's vehicle population will eventually shrink, whether it's through choice or necessity. This twilight of the SUV era seems an appropriate occasion to open up a broad debate on our whole concept of personal transportation.

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas and author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008).

[9 nov 08]

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