By Thane Peterson
I'd like to say a few words in favor of sport-utility vehicles. SUVs have been getting a bad rap lately, largely because of a campaign called the Detroit Project launched by Arianna Huffington, the Los Angeles-based columnist and gadfly. As Huffington tells it, she had an epiphany one day while watching one of the federal government's annoying antidrug ads on TV, which equate illegal drug use with support for terrorism. Huffington was incensed because she figures that gas-guzzling cars and trucks do more to support terrorists than illicit drugs do.
She sold her giant Lincoln Navigator (which got 13 miles per gallon) and replaced it with a Toyota Prius hybrid that gets close to 50 mpg. Then, she launched a star-studded campaign to get other Americans to do the same. Her message, adapted from the federal antidrug campaign: As war with Iraq looms, driving a gas-hogging SUV is unpatriotic.
"We [want] to evoke the sense of shared national sacrifice -- of joining together to achieve an ambitious goal -- that accompanied the Manhattan Project during World War II," Huffington writes on her Web site (www.detroitproject.com). "Now, as we fight the war on terrorism, we need to commit the same all-out effort to freeing ourselves from the nations and terrorists holding us hostage through our addiction to oil."
I agree in principle that Americans should drive cars with dramatically improved fuel efficiency, but I still think the Detroit Project is pretty asinine. It reduces a sensible idea -- energy conservation -- to an advertising slogan that doesn't make sense, and in the process offends millions of people (like me) living in the snowbelt who actually need SUVs. In the end, I fear, Huffington and her supporters will only distract people from considering real measures that would dramatically reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
To me, Huffington is an extreme example of how addled some people got in the frenzied, beggar-thy-neighbor consumer culture that developed in the late 1990s. Why on earth did a single mother with two daughters living in quiet, upscale Brentwood in temperate Southern California need a Lincoln Navigator in the first place? The obvious answer: She didn't. And the fact that she and her Hollywood pals have been able to comfortably scale down to a Prius, a small sedan that seats four adults, shows just how astonishingly wasteful these people were.
According to the New York Post, TV producer Norman Lear, one of the Huffington campaign's backers, has a 21-car garage. Parking a hybid in one of the stalls hardly inspires confidence in his commitment to energy conservation. If the U.S. is going to reduce its profligate energy consumption, these aren't the people to lead the charge.
It's simply absurd to demonize one class of vehicles as a solution to U.S. dependence on foreign oil. SUVs were developed in the first place because some people had a real need for them. That's how capitalism works: It starts with a need, then a solution to the need, then a refinement of the solution, then a re-refinement of the refinement.
That Americans have shifted from driving one-size-fits-all sedans and station wagons to driving sedans, station wagons, minivans, subcompacts, SUVs, pickup trucks, motorcycles, extended-cab pickup, etc. is a good thing. In theory, having a wide variety of models to choose from should cut energy consumption by allowing consumers to buy a product that closely matches their needs.
Most of the horror stories about SUVs -- that they guzzle gas, roll over too easily, and that their weight and high bumpers cause undue fatalities in collisions with smaller vehicles -- apply to behemoth models like the Navigator. Smaller SUVs are actually relatively safe and energy-efficient while offering the four-wheel drive and high road clearance people in the snowbelt need. If you don't believe me, compare the government mileage and safety ratings at www.fueleconomy.gov and www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
Here, for example, are the estimated average mileage ratings for the four-wheel-drive versions of several models:
Toyota RAV 4, (4 cylinder only), 24 mpg
Ford Escape (4 cylinder engine), 23 mpg, (6 cylinder), 20 mpg
Jeep Liberty (4 cylinder) 21 mpg, (6 cylinder) 19 mpg.
That's not all that much worse than the 6-cylinder versions of sedans such as the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, and Honda Accord, or an all-wheel-drive station wagon such as the Subaru Legacy -- which averages 23 or 24 mpg. The small SUVs have pretty decent safety ratings, too. By Thane Peterson Happily, the market is now also providing far more fuel-efficient SUVs. Ford's new hybrid Escape, due out late this year, will get about 40 mpg with acceleration comparable to the current 6-cylinder version. The RAV 4 electric version gets the equivalent of 112 mpg. Clearly, the problem isn't SUVs as a category. It's that most people buy larger, less energy-efficient vehicles than they really need.
Americans have become so prolifigate that it wouldn't take much to make dramatic cuts in energy consumption. One approach would be to raise gasoline taxes (while making sure lower-income consumers get a corresponding break). Or the federal government could increase the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards, which haven't changed since 1985. Those rules now mandate that new passenger cars average at least 27.5 mpg, while light trucks have a much weaker 20.7-mpg standard. Surely, automotive technology has improved enough since the mid-80s that light trucks (which include minivans, pickups, and SUVs) could be at least 10% more fuel-efficient than CAFE now requires. Ditto for cars, of course.
Here's another suggestion, which I'll call "The 95% Solution." It's simple: Next time around, just buy a vehicle that will meet your needs 95% of the time.
If you think you need a Navigator to ferry the kids' soccer team around, scrunch into an Explorer or Jeep Grand Cherokee (not much of a scrunch). If you think you need an Explorer to get through the winter snow, consider an Escape. If your heart yearns for a BMW, consider one with a 6-cylinder engine (24 mpg) instead of an 8-cylinder version (21 mpg). If you're shopping sedans, consider a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine (45 mpg), etc. That's a pretty minimal sacrifice at a time when American troops are being deployed to the Middle East to fight a war where oil is a considerable factor.
Americans can take all sorts of other painless measures take to further cut energy use. Electricity consumption could be sliced by an estimated 20% to 50% over 15 years if consumers would buy only air conditioners, refrigerators, and other appliances with the "Energy Star" label that goes on the most efficient models. Since their higher cost is recovered over time in lower electricity bills, that's about as painless as you can get.
Of course, not many people are likely to heed such suggestions, any more than they're going to stop buying SUVs because Huffington and friends ask them to. Americans are addicted to cheap energy, and it will probably take a dramatic increase in oil prices (or gasoline taxes) to wean them from their addiction. In the meantime, attacking SUVs isn't the solution. Huffington, however, has amply demonstrated one thing: Like her, most Americans can cut their energy use significantly with very little effort.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online