Michael A Rizzotti
Appetite for larger vehicles is on the wane. Bigger is no longer better. Smaller cars especially hybrids are becoming the new trend. The strong dollar era of the nineteen-nineties that allowed Americans to indulge in cheap oil is a thing of the past. Current oil prices are a direct result of a flooding of US dollars in the world markets chasing a limited and depleting commodity. Some of the big industrial giants that have ruled in the past are showing signs that an uncertain future may lay ahead. A sure sign of this momentous reality is the recent posting by GM of a $8.6 billion loss in 2005, its biggest since 1992. And if the old saying is true, “as GM goes so does the country”, the economy may be in for a bumpy ride.
It is reported that the profit margin on a SUV is anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Compared to a pittance on most cars and a loss on unpopular models. In 1985 SUVs accounted for only 2% of new car sales. More recently one in four new vehicles sold was a SUVs. And although SUVs sales amount to a smaller portion of overall sales, they account for the bulk of the manufacturer’s profits. Without SUVs sales the Big Three ─GM, Ford and Chrysler─ would have been in a much worse economic shape today.
In order to recover from the first huge loss in 1992, GM engineered its recovery by selling more SUVs. This business practice also was adopted by Ford and Chrysler. The ensuing increase in demand for SUVs was followed by a decrease in fuel efficiency. SUVs average 12 to 15 MPG half that of a compact and compared to 40+ MPG for a hybrid. The added number of gas guzzlers resulted in an increase in oil consumption and subsequently in higher gas prices for everyone. Adding fuel to the fire, under a 2003 tax break a business owner can deduct the bulk of the purchase price from his income tax ─ in some cases as much as $100,000. In other words these vehicles have been subsidized by all Americans.
Nothing symbolizes US’ industrial might more than the American car. It all began with the Ford Model T. From then on the Big Three grew until they controlled most of the market share in continental America. It remained unchanged until the seventies. This period unleashed the beginning of the invasion of foreign cars from Europe ─mostly from Germany─ and Japan. That invasion was momentarily deferred by growing sales of pick-up trucks, vans and SUVs that were “made in America”.
The car in America symbolizes freedom that is mostly expressed in terms of mobility. The unencumbered ability to drive off and to leave behind an old self in search of a new identity, far away from constricting memories or acquaintances. Most often in search of a job or a better career opportunity. In some cases it is the ability to explore the country’s vast wilderness. In this respect, the RVs ─recreational vehicles─ are a return of the pioneering settlers of the old West. Mobility reached its crux with the increasing popularity of the SUVs in the 1990’s and a renewed desire to conquer nature. With high gas prices SUVs have now come to symbolize an image of a bloated self, oblivious to the reality of a challenging global environment.
Light trucks, vans and SUVs have become the predominant vehicles on the road today. One can easily understand why. They are a feat of human engineering. They allow easy entry and exit. With more room for the growing family. Better protection for its occupants in case of a crash. Higher and better view of the road. In short; a higher sense of safety and security. However, they might be an incentive for SUV drivers to intimidate smaller cars. And can inspire some adversarial feelings from non-SUV owners.
Although the general impression is that SUVs are safer for its occupants they have become an increasing danger to pedestrians. In the past few years the number of pedestrian deaths almost doubled in New York City alone. Victims are also more likely to die when they are hit by a SUV than by a car.
SUVs also reduce the visibility for smaller cars. They obstruct the front and rear views by their sheer size. Turning left is made riskier as these bigger vehicles block the visibility of oncoming traffic. Parked SUVs on a street corner obstruct the view of approaching traffic, making it more dangerous to maneuver. This increasing amount of intimidation and obstruction by the SUVs had the contagious effect of making more people buy them.
Advertising presents the SUV as a friendly return to nature. However, only 5 percent of SUVs are ever taken off-road. Most of them are used for everyday city driving. Advertising associates SUVs with happy driving in a natural environment ─in leather comfort. Here are some of the names given to SUVs to reflect their natural leanings: Dodge Durango –Colorado─, Ford Expedition, Explorer and Excursion; Chevy Trailblazer and Tahoe; Mercury Mountaineer; Land Rover Discovery; Nissan Pathfinder; Subaru Forester; Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee…and so on and so forth. In reality these vehicles are all but nature friendly. They’re heavier and have bigger motors that increase the amount of air pollution, adding to the global warming.
The Hummer, a military-style vehicle that became popular after the1991Gulf war, has become a symptomatic and misplaced symbol of patriotism. As the person who can afford a Hummer will most likely never see combat. Let alone make the ultimate sacrifice for his or her country.
A drive though poor neighborhoods in Southern California will display a surprising number of SUVs. One wonders how these people can afford them. But more so than elsewhere they symbolize freedom and mobility: A ready escape away from the harsh reality of poverty. The unsettling paradox is that these vehicles sport more interior luxury, gadgetry, better furniture and sound system than they will ever have at home.
If there is an object of idolatry in our post-modern societies it is the car. An alluring and glowing sheet metal shell wrapped around our self, responding to our every command. As it moves the occupant, it isolates and shields the driver from the outside world. It bundles his whole existence in a primeval haven. It allows the driver to experience a return to his maternal womb, where he once was carried around in blissful anonymity and remote mobility. And perhaps the loud pounding bass heard from the “boom machines” as they drive around neighborhood streets, reminds the driver of the thumping sound of a motherly heartbeat.
The craze for SUVs has overburdened our roads. Although the average size vehicle has increased since 1992 the roads have basically remained the same. These heavy haulers with little or no load to carry, have also created a parking squeeze. They are harder to maneuver in tight spots and narrow ways. In an unhealthy person the constricting of the arteries ─arterial sclerosis─ can lead to a stroke or a heart attack. Swollen Unsustainable Vehicles that are bloating our arterial ways may have a similar effect on the overall mobility and the health of our economy.
The Big Three had a great opportunity in the early nineteen-nineties to lead to the world out of our unhealthy dependence on oil. Avoid a war and save thousands of innocent lives. These corporations had the chance to build vehicles with better fuel efficiency that pollute less. To build on a future of nature friendly oriented technologies. Instead they decided to sit on their laurels and rely on their powerful lobbies and government complicity to implement unsustainable and blind economic policies.