August 28th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

The 3rd of 3 Things Americans Won't Do Because of High Oil and Gas Prices, and Why Not

Americans Aren't Giving Up Their SUVs. To the people who complain about Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the SUV is the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption. It's a vehicle that has no reason to exist. It is only useful to people who live in very rural areas, and even then only during natural disasters. The only reason to drive an SUV instead of something more practical, like a Volvo, is because you're so insecure that you need this big macho vehicle to make you feel powerful.

Anyone who says this is almost by definition neither a parent nor a homeowner. And that means that almost by definition they are young, because in America, adults are usually both.

If you own a house, you will need to transport things that are too big to fit into the trunk of a car. A sheet of drywall and/or some 8' 2"x4"s. Several large bags of grass seed, manure and/or wood chips. A lawnmower, either a new one or your old one going out to be repaired and then brought back. New or replacement furniture, like a book case, or a dresser, or an armchair. One or more medium-sized appliances. More than one box of something going to or from off-site storage at a time. So you absolutely do, several times a year at the very least and probably at least once a month, need a vehicle with a cargo area that is at least 6 feet deep by 4 feet high, and frankly it still won't do all the jobs you need if the cargo compartment isn't at least 8 feet deep. (When Chevrolet first came out with the Light Utility Vehicle or LUV Truck as it was called at the time, a much tinier than normal pickup truck, the late Man of Concrete was utterly dismissive. "If I need a truck, I need one I can put an eight foot two-by-four into without fifteen feet of it hanging out the back." But I digress.)

If you have even one kid, then you will need to drive somewhere, and often drive fairly far, carrying six or more people. At least some of those times, that will include three or more adults, such as times when you need to take your whole family and a friend's whole family somewhere. Other times you need to transport one or both parents, one or more of your own kids, and as many of their friends as you can carry. And yes, many of those trips will involve also transporting light luggage for everybody involved, so that vehicle also needs more cargo space than the average car trunk while also having seating for six or more.

It doesn't matter how often you need these things. Between them, they may not come to more than twenty days per year for most families with kids and a house. But when you need to do these things, you really need to, and often on little or no notice. And that is why, for almost as long as there have been automobiles, there has always been a car that fills that niche. The shape of the body and the nature of the chassis change with the fashions of the time, from the station wagon to the microbus to the conversion van to the minivan to the SUV, but functionally, the vehicle is the same: a big old land yacht with three rows of seats, and a full-roof-height cargo area behind the last row of seats, where one or more of the rows of seats can be removed or folded down to temporarily increase the size of the cargo bay at the expense of passenger seating. And that vehicle has nearly always been built on a truck chassis, except during occasional fads or times of severe economic hardship, because at times when it was built on a passenger car chassis (such as the station wagon), everybody had the experience of bottoming one out and damaging or even wrecking that chassis because they needed to transport some load that was too heavy for a non-truck chassis. These are inescapable needs of a homeowner with one or more kids.

Nor can you get by with owning one that you only drive twenty times a year and still have one economy car for every driver. First of all, an automobile is an expensive purchase, period, and one that requires replacing at least as often as the loan terms run out. Most families have a hard enough time handling the car payments on their existing vehicles. Adding even one more vehicle, even a super tiny one, is a major recurring expense that would break the bank for nearly all families. What's more, that's before you add the external costs of ownership, like auto insurance and the various taxes, all of which go up every time the number of vehicles per household go up. You also have to factor in where you're going to park one more car on near your house. But what's more, let's assume that you can afford all of those things, either because you're at the far upper end of the upper middle class or because the Magic Economy Fairy has waved his magic wand over the US economy and transformed it into your vision of an economic utopia. Then you run into the technological challenge of owning a vehicle that only gets driven 20 times in every 365 days. Tires become no longer round, batteries decay, moisture condenses and doesn't get boiled out of places that really need not to be exposed to water long-term. Garaging a vehicle so that it can sit for a month or more without gradually ruining the vehicle is a major technological challenge; ask a car collector.

You could rent one. But car rental companies are the targets of every form of crime imaginable, from rampant car theft to credit card fraud to people tearing the vehicles up and trying to get out of paying for it. Sure, every business has crime, but when a crime happens to a car rental lot, that's ten to twenty thousand dollars at a pop. Even if you only count the inevitable damage that happens when people drive a car with a form factor that's profoundly unfamiliar to them in heavy traffic or try to park such a vehicle in an unfamiliar space, that's hundreds of dollars at a time. So yes, you can rent a van or a pickup truck when you need to haul furniture or construction supplies. I noticed that the local Home Depot has a deal with one of the car rental places, I think it's Budget, where they keep rental pickup trucks on the mega-hardware store lot and Home Depot's customer service desk will rent them out, and that strikes me as brilliant. But still, you're finding one heck of a deal if that van or truck rental costs you less than $40.00 per day, counting taxes. Do that twenty or so times a year, and that extra $800 a year comes pretty close to the cost of owning one larger vehicle yourself instead of every driver having an economy car and renting larger vehicles as needed.

Or you can do what a lot of truck-haters and SUV-bashers do when they need one: borrow a friend's. This happens so often that there's a common bumper sticker, you've probably seen it: "Yes, this is my truck. No, you can't borrow it." And as much abuse as people who drive trucks, vans, or SUVs get, and then as many requests for favors as they get (often from the same people who abused them for owning it), I fully sympathize with the feelings of resentment that would lead someone to put that sticker on their truck.

So for all of those reasons and probably a few more, almost every adult household in America has one family member who commutes to work in a van, minivan, or sport utility vehicle. And they pretty much don't have any choice about this.

You may or may not have noticed by now, by the way, that somehow vans and minivans do not attract the same level of political abuse and personal scorn from environmentalists, young people, and many other liberals? I really got my nose rubbed in this during the controversy that erupted when Ford introduced the Excursion, then the biggest SUV on the market. At the time, I owned (and because I was technically homeless, occasional slept in) a ten-year-old used conversion van based on the GMC Rally 2500. The first time I saw a Ford Excursion was when I parked next to one. My van was just as tall, just as wide, and slightly longer. What's more, my fender was lower to the ground than theirs, so I had a bigger cross section into the wind and therefore even if don't factor in age, I'll bet that that Ford Excursion got better gas mileage than my GMC Rally. But people would march past a row of vans to heap abuse on an Excursion. Why is that? I think that it's because the SUV driver sits higher off the ground, and some people consciously or unconsciously resent that.

The SUV was originally designed, yes, as the silliest thing in the world: an off-road 4x4 station wagon. SUV haters would have you think that people flocked to them because they wanted to camouflage their uncool station wagon as a giant macho Jeep. And maybe the first people who bought them did. But then consumers found out that there was another really good reason to own a vehicle with the bumper and the driver's seat that high up: collisions. Automobile collisions are a fact of life and always have been, even when maximum speeds were half of what we drive now. There were only two automobiles in the entire state of Kansas when Kansas had its first automobile accident; even given that whole state to tool around in, the only two cars on the roads somehow managed to collide. But when the SUV came along, people discovered two paradoxical things. First of all, the higher up the driver sits the better the driver's chance of seeing a hazardous situation in time to avoid a collision. And secondly, if that fails and there's a collision anyway, the person with the higher bumper "wins." It's profoundly undemocratic and anti-liberal to auction off the right to survive an automobile accident to the highest bidder. But it's profoundly capitalist, and therefore ever since Reagan taught us that (contrary to what the Christian scripture says) it is morally OK to hate the poor, profoundly American.

If Americans have to get used to $4.00 a gallon gas, they will change how they use their SUVs. Right now if the family owns a car and an SUV, a lot of casual trips are done in the SUV because it's more comfortable; that will probably change in a hurry. ("Let's take the SUV, it's more comfortable" will be replaced by "Let's take the sedan, it's cheaper.") With both their SUV and their passenger car, families will learn to consolidate trips, and get into the habit of finding their entertainment and meals at home rather than driving to theaters and restaurants, just like they did during the OPEC crisis and during WWII fuel rationing. But as long as Americans own houses and have kids, every family will need an SUV, or something of comparable size and ecological impact.

(And no, this argument is not self-serving. I don't drive an SUV. I'm a single white male in an apartment. When I own cars, which at the moment I can't afford to do so I don't, I prefer to drive used convertibles. By the way, the point of these three journal entries is not to argue that Americans won't change their lives, and the US economy won't change, if rising gas prices become permanent. Tomorrow I'll probably write down my speculations as to some of the ways in which life will change. My point here was to knock down three things that get brought up every time high gas prices get brought up: "Maybe people will learn to take light rail more often," "maybe now people will take renewable energy more seriously," and "maybe now people will give up their SUVs." No, they won't, and the reasons why they won't are so solid, inescapable, and to me obvious that I'm tired of hearing those three suggestions.)
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