SUV Realities, Fictions, Dangers

Carmakers have long profited from what’s known as the S.U.V. loophole, which allows auto manufacturers to get around fuel-efficiency regulations by selling trucks. Photograph from Alamy

SUV is a three-letter word, popular to the point of problematic. Thanks again to Elizabeth Kolbert for the most recent thinking on the topic:

Why S.U.V.s Are Still a Huge Environmental Problem

The world is moving toward heavier cars at a time when it should be doing precisely the reverse.

Last year, the world’s S.U.V.s collectively released almost a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. If all the vehicles got together and formed their own country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest emitter, just after Japan. This is a disturbing figure, but, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, it gets worse. Globally, S.U.V. sales continue to grow, even though, last year, total passenger-vehicle sales fell. And the trend has now spread to electric vehicles: in 2022, for the first time, the sale of electric S.U.V.s edged out the sale of other electric cars.

The move toward bigger and heavier vehicles, it seems pretty obvious, is incompatible with the goal of reducing global emissions. The I.E.A. report noted that the average S.U.V. consumes about twenty per cent more oil than the average medium-sized car does to drive the same number of miles. Oil use translates directly into CO2, so the average S.U.V. is also releasing twenty per cent more carbon per mile driven.

The calculations become more complicated when the vehicles are electric, but the same basic math applies. Heavier vehicles require more energy to move around, and so, until the world is operating on zero-carbon electricity, the more an E.V. weighs, the more emissions it will produce. (Indeed, with electric vehicles, the weight problem is compounded: bigger cars need heavier batteries, which adds to their weight.) Heavier vehicles also require more materials to produce, and therefore more energy goes into processing those materials. As another recent report—from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group—notes, with E.V.s, too, size matters. In fact, the A.C.E.E.E. report observes that, “because powertrain efficiency and vehicle weight . . . have a significant effect” on the total environmental impact per mile, some hybrid and gasoline-powered vehicles actually do better than some E.V.s.

Why is it that the world is moving toward heavier cars at a time when it should be doing precisely the reverse? Probably the reasons are complex, but a big one is that carmakers like it this way. They make more money on S.U.V.s. According to a 2017 report by Automotive News, average prices for S.U.V.s and so-called crossover vehicles were up to fifty-one per cent higher than those for sedans and hatchbacks of comparable sizes, even though the S.U.V.s cost roughly the same as cars to produce. (Historically, the difference between cars and S.U.V.s was that the latter were built on truck frames; many crossover vehicles are now built on car frames, but for regulatory purposes are still counted as “light trucks.”)

“These are rolling profit machines,” Dan Becker, the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign, said, of S.U.V.s and crossovers. “And the automakers are very happy to make them bigger and bigger.”

In the United States, carmakers have long profited from what’s known as the S.U.V. loophole. This loophole allows auto manufacturers to get around federal regulations on fuel efficiency by selling cars that can be classified as trucks. Perversely, the more S.U.V.s an auto company sells, the lower the over-all efficiency standards it has to meet. Unfortunately, the electrical-vehicle tax credits approved last year as part of the Inflation Reduction Act give S.U.V.s similarly favorable treatment. Under the act, a person who buys an electric car is eligible for a tax credit on a vehicle that costs up to fifty-five thousand dollars. If the same person purchases an S.U.V., though, the vehicle can cost up to eighty thousand dollars and still be eligible for the credit. Just recently, automakers convinced the Biden Administration to classify more electric vehicles as S.U.V.s to enable more wealthy buyers to get the tax credit; these vehicles include G.M.’s Cadillac Lyriq, which sells for sixty-three thousand dollars, and Tesla’s Model Y, which goes for fifty-eight thousand dollars…

Read the whole essay here.

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