Rage Against the Machine

“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.