The evolution of SUVs would be gas if it wasn’t so depressing. John Sayler from the University of Pennsylvania Law school coined a new phrase: “Traffic violence is the second leading cause of death by injury in the US [after gun violence] . . . This toll is not unleashed at random; SUVs and pickups represent a disproportionate danger to other road users, particularly pedestrians and drivers of ordinary passenger cars . . . the resulting traffic violence disproportionately burdens women, people of colour and low-income people.”
But how did we get here? The rise of the SUV is a story of runaway corporate greed by car companies. They exist in large part because of a loophole in laws intended to lower fuel consumption.
In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis the US government tried to force vehicle manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency. But the regulations applied only to vehicles weighing up to six tonnes. So the car industry invented a new kind of car, pumping advertising millions into conjuring light trucks into our cultural idea of a family car.
The SUV virtually killed the station wagon, the original extra seating and cargo option. And US legislators threw in generous tax breaks for heavier vehicles. Gas guzzling was incentivised and marketed to the hilt.
It all worked a treat.
Light trucks now account for almost two-thirds of American car purchases. And the rest of the world is following its lead. Last year, 42 per cent of global car sales were SUVs. Between 2010 and 2018, the International Energy Agency calculated that SUVs pumped an additional 544 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, offsetting all the fuel economy improvements for cars during that time more than seven times over.
Even in 2020, when global emissions fell by 7 per cent with lockdowns, emissions from SUV drivers grew by 0.5 per cent. Entitlement to drive comes as standard.
So we now live in a world where Nissan sells a pickup truck called a Titan. Toyota’s version is called a Sequoia (the majestic Californian tree horribly threatened by wildfires). Both do a pathetic 15 miles to the gallon. But they keep on trucking.
Can we take this mindset into the future? Heavy electric SUVs give fewer miles to the kilowatt hour than cars.
According to MIT’s Carbon Counter the Hyundai Ioniq, the electric Mini Cooper and Tesla Model 3 have the lowest lifetime emissions. Retrofitting existing small cars would be the lowest emission route to fossil-fuel free driving. But supporting public transport and active travel would defund the car manufacturers.
And after decades of juking the game to the detriment of the habitability of the planet, it’s what they deserve.
- Catherine Cleary is co-founder of Pocket Forests