May 31, 2006 – They are the Brontosaurus of the road, taunting drivers in substantially smaller vehicles and incurring the wrath, the shouts and even the middle fingers of people angry at their ferocious gasoline appetites.
The behemoths â€“ sport utility vehicles (SUVs) â€“ leave a mighty footprint.
SUVs have traditionally been regulated much less stringently than passenger cars; most have been allowed to emit between one-third and one-half more carbon monoxide and 75 percent to 175 percent more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars.
But it doesnâ€™t have to be the case, according to many mainstream environmental organizations who have been lobbying Congress to force automakers to adopt safety and fuel-efficiency standards for SUVs.
Yet while many environmentalists are appealing for cleaner SUVs, others fear this "better" SUV movement is limited in scope or is simply regressive. Both camps, however, are adamant that action has to be taken in the face of the USâ€™s energy crisis.
Groups like the Sierra Club argue on their website that "increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles is the biggest single step the United States can take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and the threat of global warming."
Currently, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which force automakers to meet fuel-economy quotas for each year, are set at 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 20.7 mpg for trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles, collectively known as "light trucks." The standards have been stagnant for over a decade as politicians have excused automakers from increasing fuel efficiency.
"SUV drivers like the utility of the vehicle but donâ€™t buy the automakers myth that fuel economy cannot be improved."
Campaigns geared toward increasing fuel-efficiency in SUVs aim to raise CAFE standards to around 34 mpg for light trucks over the next ten years. But so far, NHTSA has been unwilling to concede, instead passing a diminutive change. In March, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it was requiring light trucks to gradually increase their fuel economy by a total of 1.8 mpg before 2011, beginning with the 2008 model year.
In the past, environmental groups urged consumers to abandon SUVs altogether. Unsuccessful in that strategy â€“ consumption of light trucks increased by 30 million between 1994 to 2004 â€“ environmental groups are using this different tactic as a way to appeal to Americans increasingly strapped for gas money and environmentally concerned â€“ but who nevertheless donâ€™t want to give up their SUVs.
Groups are also pushing automakers to increase SUV safety standards, including stronger roofs, lower bumpers and rollover protections.
Public Citizen, a government watchdog, created the "I Want a Better SUV" campaign in 2003. Laura MacCleery, deputy director of auto safety, said the idea behind the campaign is to "appeal to SUV drivers who like the utility of the vehicle but donâ€™t buy the automakersâ€™ myth that safety and fuel economy of these vehicles cannot be improved."
Lawmakers have excused automakers from increasing fuel efficiency for over nearly a decade.
While some manufacturers have scoffed at the idea that conventional SUVs can be made more fuel-efficient, some public-advocacy organizations insist that the technology already exists.
In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists has designed its own blueprint for a more fuel-efficient SUV. Called the UCS Guardian, the SUVâ€™s conventional engine modifications would net 27.8 mpg, and, according to UCS, result in an average savings of over $2,500 over the lifetime of the vehicle.
UCS is not alone in its marketing of "better"â€™ SUVs. The Sierra Club teamed up with Ford in 2005 to sing the praises of the Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV, which banks 33 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. Sierra Club also offers an MPG calculator to help consumers determine the cost and environmental effects if CAFE standards were modernized. According to the calculator, if a Ford Expedition, which currently puffs at 16 mpg, was increased to 30 mpg, consumers would save over $1,000 a year in fuel costs and reduce CO2 emissions in half.
"Will a family car use less fuel?" Friedman asked. "Sure. But there are some people who need big vehicles and thereâ€™s no reason why you canâ€™t let them have those vehicles and dramatically cut the pollution and fuel-use associated with that."
Others, however, are not falling in line with the "better" SUV argument. Some environmentalists worry that groupsâ€™ SUV posturing could be detrimental to fighting global warming, and further entrench oil dependency.
Robin Hahnel, a professor of economics at American University and member of the Maryland Green Party, says "better" SUVs have trivialized the transportation debate and let automakers off easy.
"The bottom-line is, SUVS should never have been acceptable. And when environmental organizations act as if theyâ€™re acceptable, all that does is shift us one large step in the wrong direction."
"How could we have possibly descended so far in denial that environmental organizations that know that SUVs are totally insane are saying, â€˜Oh well, I guess weâ€™re going to accept that we have these monstrous SUVs, and thatâ€™s what the automobile makers are pushing on the American customers, so at least we can make them more fuel efficientâ€™?" Hahnel said.
Hahnel rejected the pragmatic approach some environmental groups are taking.
"I think [environmental groups] have resigned themselves to the fact that weâ€™re going to have an SUV-heavy fleet, and therefore they see the campaign for fuel-efficient SUVs as damage control," he said. "I think itâ€™s a very poor strategy. By toning down their demands and what they pressure for, I think they end up getting less."
Derrick Jensen, environmentalist and author, says he worries about the implications of "better" SUVs if environmental groups market them as "the" solution to global warming, but understands the need to make modifications to vehicles.
"Any way of life based on non-renewable resources is not sustainable and canâ€™t last," Jensen said. "Does that mean we shouldnâ€™t try to do [SUVs] better in the meantime? No, of course we should."
Although "better" SUVs may mitigate energy problems in the short term, both Hahnel and Jensen said fuel-efficient SUVs wonâ€™t change consumer habits and force people to rethink how they travel.
"It essentially takes the heat off of both buyers and sellers of SUVs," Hahnel said. "The initial opinion of the environmental community on SUVs was, â€˜This is wrong. If you buy it and drive it, you are doing harm. Itâ€™s like committing a crime against the environment, humanity and future generations.â€™"
Hahnel said that de-stigmatizing SUVs makes them more tolerable.
"It allows everyone to feel more comfortable, [that] SUVs are acceptable," Hahnel said. The bottom-line is, SUVS should never have been acceptable. And when environmental organizations act as if theyâ€™re acceptable, all that does is shift us one large step in the wrong direction."
But environmental groups backing more fuel-efficient SUVs say consumers are still far from overhauling their driving habits.
"Look, I live in the real world," MacCleery said. "Whoâ€™s going to stop [consumers]? As long as the automakers make these vehicles, people are going to buy them."
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, argued that the need to stabilize the climate immediately with quick solutions trumps long-term transportation plans.
"If we could convert all the worldâ€™s SUVs to carbon-free vehicles and they still are the same size and still represent obscene consumption of steel and plastic and rubber, etc., and are still a danger to people on the road, Iâ€™d take that right now," Tidwell said. "We are in an enormous crisis right now over global warming, and my number one goal is to try to preserve our fragile climate."
One coalition, the Jumpstart Ford campaign, is trying to bridge the need for immediate solutions and a plan to end oil dependency. The campaign, created by Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network, is pushing for pollution-free, petroleum-free vehicles by 2020.
"Americans deserve the most fuel-efficient technology available," said Jennifer Krill, Jumpstart Fordâ€™s Zero Emissions campaign director. "I think the most important thing consumers can do right now is push automakers to help break our dependence on oil by providing Americans with real choice."
Hahnel, however, offered another suggestion.
"We should be talking about getting rid of cars entirely," he said. "We should be getting rid of the massive system of subsidies for automobile transportation and instead arranging for an equally massive system of subsidies for public transportation. Every environmentalist knows that you have to go that direction if youâ€™re going to make any serious dent."
Friedman of Concerned Scientists said that until more drastic changes are made, consumers should be doing their part to mitigate environmental damage.
"People should look for ways to carpool and take transit," he said. "They should do one large shopping trip a week instead of three or four. And they should buy the highest fuel economy car or truck that meets their needs."