Are SUVs truly as evil as we're supposed to think?
by Brian Dunning
December 20, 2006
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 15, December 20, 2006
Let's spend some time on the trendy fad of looking for villains to blame for global warming. My flavor of the week is SUV's, those evil gas guzzling, ozone destroying, unethical, politically incorrect, Nazi family soccer wagons. Only let's not do it the trendy way, let's look at the issue skeptically.
Let's start by finding some common ground, some generalizations that most people probably agree with. First, the premise that fuel efficiency in vehicles is a good thing. There are probably very few people who disagree that efficiency should always be a goal. Second, the premise that heavier cars are generally less fuel efficient, thus lighter cars are generally good things. Excess weight burns excess fuel. Cars should not be unnecessarily heavy. Third, many heavy truck-based SUV's are generally heavier and less fuel efficient than light passenger cars.
I'm going to continue with the assumption that you agree with all of the above. Based in part on these generalizations, many so-called environmentalist groups have been lobbying, often successfully, for laws against SUV's. I hope to encourage you to be skeptical of such laws. The problem with making laws based on generalizations is that the exceptions are being unfairly penalized, and some guilty offenders are getting away scott free. Any law against SUV's is a bad law, and here's why.
The vast majority of so-called SUV's are mechanically identical to conventional cars. They are given taller bodies and more upright styling, then sold as SUV's. Their weight, economy, and performance are generally similar to the cars on which they are based. Toyota's Highlander and Lexus RX series are built on Toyota Camry chassis and mechanicals. Honda CRV and Element SUV's are based on the Honda Civic. The Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe are rebodied Toyota Corollas. The Hyundai Tucson, Santa Fe, and Kia Sportage SUV's are based on the Hyundai Elantra and Sonata sedans. The Acura MDX and Honda Pilot SUV's are simply Honda Accords underneath that taller sheet metal. People don't need heavier metal or tougher mechanicals, they simply want a particular cosmetic style or a form factor that's more convenient for carrying people and cargo. And that's fine.
For example, a military Humvee, now also marketed to consumers by General Motors as the H1 Hummer, has portal axles and inboard brakes. Most people don't know what either of those are, but suffice it to say that they represent dramatic structural departures from conventional SUV's. People want to buy a big beefy military vehicle, but GM's engineers know that it's simply not a practical road car. Not wanting their customers to be disappointed, they took their existing conventional Yukon/Tahoe/Escalade vehicle, put a vaguely Humvee-like body on it, and they now sell it as the H2 Hummer. Most people wrongly assume, as GM hoped they would, that it's a second generation Humvee, new & improved, but still with military vehicle roots. Wrong on all counts, but again, most consumers don't know or really care. Not a single component is shared between the H1 and H2. Their whole design paradigms are polar opposites: one is a military truck, the other is a passenger car with a styled exterior. GM knew that people wanted to believe that they're driving a Humvee, so GM tried to license the name Hummer from the Humvee's manufacturer, defense contractor AM General; but AM General refused. GM had to buy the entire company, just to get access to the Hummer name so they could sell more H2's. It was well worth it since GM sells an H2 Hummer for about twice the price of a mechanically identical Yukon or Tahoe. And consumers now blissfully believe they're driving around in military trucks. Yet another example of why you should be skeptical of marketing labels.
People talk about cleaning up Los Angeles' smog by penalizing or banning SUV's. Did you know that a single container ship coming into Long Beach Harbor generates as much carbon emissions as 300,000 cars? Ships are not subject to emission laws. Why not? Are SUV's, most of which are mechanically and economically similar to conventional cars, really the logical targets? SUV's are hardly the cause of our carbon problems. Any road car, H2 Hummers included, is extremely environmentally friendly (as vehicles go), given all the emission laws that they comply with, especially when compared to the average car from only a decade ago.
Paris and London are two cities that have really gone agro over SUV's, fining them for entering downtown. The claim is that they're not only fuel inefficient, but they're too big to park and too dangerous. But, as we've established, the term SUV really only refers to cars with a certain cosmetic style. There are plenty of cars that are fuel inefficient that are not SUV's. There are plenty of cars that are longer than many SUV's. And there are plenty of cars that are tall or heavy and do as much crash damage as SUV's. SUV's probably appear frequently on all three lists, but targeting cars because of their styling is still the wrong path to a useful solution. Ban cars that are fuel inefficient, or ban cars that are too long to park, or ban cars with bad crash ratings. Even do all three. But you won't solve those problems by attacking the irrelevant characteristic of cosmetic styling. So why do lawmakers do it? They don't care about the facts, they care about appealing to the voters' emotions. Ban those evil SUV's, and you'll satisfy the emotions of the ignorant masses. If you're not ignorant, you shouldn't stand for it. You should demand that lawmakers pay attention to the facts. (You might also mind your own damn business and stop trying to legislate what other peoples' priorities should be, but that's another subject for another time.)
Here's another wrinkle for you. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have really pushed the bar higher on efficiency and economy. Thus, there is now a general perception that hybrids get better mileage. Generally true, but again, there are exceptions. The Lexus RX hybrid SUV uses exactly the same V6 engine as its non-hybrid counterpart, and thus posts similar mileage numbers. I drove both vehicles prior to their release in a consumer test. The hybrid system in this case simply adds additional power for acceleration. The improved mileage that you might expect from the hybrid system is canceled out by the additional weight of the battery and motor, particularly on the highway. The Lexus GS is an example of the same philosophy applied to a high-end luxury sedan. In addition, many high-end sports car manufacturers are testing hybrid prototypes for the electric engine's ability to add acceleration off the line. In summary, a hybrid system does not always mean improved economy or cleaner emissions. You should pay attention to the actual numbers that a vehicle posts, not to its label, be it "hybrid" or "SUV".
Here's the first example that pops into my head: my 2004 Audi S4, a 4 door sedan, gets 15 miles per gallon, which is worse than the 16 miles per gallon of my wife's 2006 Toyota 4Runner with the largest V8 engine. Which do you hear so-called environmentalists protesting: common sedans, or SUV's? They're smart: Protesting sedans will strike no nerves, but it's easy to terrify the public with alarmist warnings about those evil SUV's. And I think that this perfectly summarizes the fact that anti-SUV protests and legislation are not only counterproductive, they are factually wrong. When you hear marketing buzzwords and labels instead of valid test data, be skeptical.
© 2006 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Cardenas, E., Gorman, E. The Hummer: Myths and consumer culture. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007.
Corbet, J., Koehler, H. "Updated emissions from ocean shipping." Journal of Geophysical Research. 29 Oct. 2003, Volume 108, Number D20: 4650-4666.
De Place, Eric. "How SUVs Can Save the Climate." Sightline Daily. Sightline Institute, 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2007/12/19/how-suvs-can-save-the-climate>
EPA. "Emission Facts: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. US Federal Government, 1 Feb. 2005. Web. 20 Dec. 2006. <http://www.epa.gov/OMS/climate/420f05004.htm>
Padgett, Martin. Hummer: How the Little Truck Company Hit the Big Time, Thanks to Saddam, Schwarzenegger, and GM. St. Paul: Motorbooks International, 2004.
US Dept of Energy/US EPA. "Fuel Economy." Fuel Economy. US DOE/US EPA, 22 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://www.fueleconomy.gov/>
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "SUV Phobia." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 20 Dec 2006. Web. 22 Aug 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4015>