Rage Against the Machine

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“The
story of the SUV is a story of how auto manufacturers bob and weave
and evade standards, and how their gaze never wavers from the bottom
line. This is a textbook example of how a big industry manipulates
the political system for profit.”

~
Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

There
have been few subjects in recent memory that have brought out the
totalitarian instinct of the left like the market success of the
sport utility vehicle, commonly referred to as the SUV. Leftists
despise them. They claim that they are dangerous, that they are
"gas guzzlers" that pose a public health and safety hazard
on our interstates. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and what
you really see is a loathing of the free market and a love of the
state that motivates most of these individuals.

Take,
for example, the quote from Joan Claybrook featured above. What
is Ms. Claybrook really saying here? Is she recognizing the capability
of our domestic automobile industry to carve out a niche in the
market that was so unique and successful that every major manufacturer
of automobiles in the world has had respond? Hardly.

Instead,
she sees the manufacturer's development of the SUV as merely a ploy
to dodge the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards
that were established in 1975. These standards were designed by
the federal government to force the automobile manufacturers to
improve the overall fuel economy of their fleets, a classic case
of government meddling in the market. Light trucks were held to
a different, and lower, standard than automobiles, and SUVs were
classified as light trucks.

While
the automobile manufacturers certainly would have had an incentive
to redirect sales into vehicle types that were less stringently
regulated — no fools, they — their incentive could hardly account
for the public's overwhelming acceptance of the SUV, where they
represent nearly half of all new cars sold today.

More
correctly, the success of the SUV was an offshoot of the success
of the minivan. During the early 1980's the minivan, spearheaded
by the Chrysler Caravan, had exploded on the market. These vehicles
were larger than a car and had a much more configurable interior
for hauling kids and cargo. Yet, unlike a full size van, they drove
more like a car and offered glass (visiblility) similar to a car's.
They also sat the driver higher than a car, which again improved
visibility in traffic.

What
was the one significant weakness of the minivan? In a word, image.

People
liked the utilitarian advantage minivans presented over traditional
automobile configurations, but unlike our Lada driving socialist
brethren, Americans see their choice of motor vehicle as a statement
about themselves. Minivans said "Suburban hausfrau with
2.3 kids and a dog", whereas sport utility vehicles said "Rugged,
outdoor type, always ready for adventure". Was it true? No,
but that doesn't matter. People were captivated by the possibility,
not the actuality of application. Sure, as the left likes to point
out, most SUVs never make it off the pavement. So what? It is the
sense of adventure and enabling capability they convey that struck
a chord with the American public that has lasted for over a decade.

Try
as they might, no device has yet worked to voluntarily discourage
Americans from embracing the SUV. The left has tried the fear factor,
emphasizing how small cars come out on the short end of the stick
in collisions with SUVs. This only encouraged more Americans to
purchase the larger vehicles, since all of the statistics pointed
to the small vehicles as the ones with the inherent design liability.
Most Americans have also seen the Firestone / Bridgestone tire failure
issue for what it is: a manufacturing anomaly, and a chance for
Congress to garner some free television time during an election
year looking for all the world like they really care.

Even
the rapid increase in gasoline prices has not gotten the message
through to the consumer. The majority of Americans think that we
have plenty of oil, and only lack of political will prevents us
from recovering and refining it. The problem is a political failure,
not a lack of resources. Unlike the 1970's, the consumer isn't falling
for that one again.

What
really rankles the sociocrats most, however, is that these vehicles
represent the one thing they abhor over all others: conspicuous
consumption. Most people don't buy an SUV because they need to have
the capabilities they offer, they buy them because they want
one. This galls liberals. They can't tolerate the fact that Americans
have the freedom of choice in the market. Left up to Joan Claybrook
and her ilk, we would all live in drab gray high-rise apartments
and ride bicycles and mass transportation to work like so many good
little Communists. Automobiles would be reserved for transporting
heads of state and party apparatchik like herself.

Even
the soccer moms aren't going along with the leftist agenda. Why?
Because they are the drivers who most appreciate the SUV for what
it offers: sitting up high over traffic, good visibility, lots of
room for kids and "stuff", and an image that lets them
feel good about themselves. Ask one, they will tell you.

Eventually
tastes will change, and the SUV will mutate into some other form
of popular transportation. When it does, however, it will be the
choice of the consumer and not bureaucrats that will determine what
the most popular vehicles are.

Until
then, Ms. Claybrook, it looks like you are out of luck.

November
6, 2000

Jef
Allen is a technology professional in Georgia. As a reformed Yankee,
who has lived in the South for roughly twenty years, he has very
little tolerance for Northern sanctimony, or the erosion of individual
liberty.

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