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Soaring SUV sales keep carmakers on collision course with climate policy (reuters.com)
38 points by thg 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments

Buying an SUV is sometimes due to network effects.

If you are in a sedan, it isn't high enough to allow you to see traffic through the windshields of the SUV ahead of you, it's not much different than being behind an 18-wheeler.

So as a defensive maneuver, you also buy an SUV...

I bought a petite Prius due to network effects.

It's nigh on impossible to do parallel parking in most of Boston (especially if you suck at p.parking), but with my Prius it's tolerable.

If you're following the SUV ahead of you at a safe distance, why would you need or want to see through its windshield?

One of the reasons SUVs and pickup trucks are popular here in America is that they're easy to get in and out of. About 1/3 of Americans are obese (far more overweight), and from my observations, many have weak legs and cores. SUVs are part of the same phenomenon that has popularized single-story suburban homes, bottom-freezer refrigerators, etc. I see it as less of a network effect and more of a feedback loop.

Cuz some of us are safe drivers and want to see what is up ahead instead of blindly (literally) following the car in front like a lemming

As someone who drives a bunch of low 90s sedans and wagons I disagree. It's not the crossover SUVs that most people are buying that are hard to see around, it's the pickups, Jeep Wranglers and everything else that has a rectangular cross section that's a pain to see around.

The smaller class of SUVs are still smaller than the station wagons and large sedans they replaced. And the larger SUVs have mostly replaced minivans, which have curiously disappeared from the roads. It's kind of a wash, if you look a little closer.

This. That’s the sole reason I bought an SUV.

And sometimes is due to obnoxiously aggressive marketing.

Gas taxes haven’t gone up in nearly three decades. The cost of driving an automobile is divorced from the reality of what it costs to maintain roads and protect the climate.

There's a 1973 video [0] about people shifting away from gas-guzzlers because oil prices have risen so much. I wonder whether we can expect history to repeat itself here:

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClaNhx71XB8

An alternative is that as battery prices drop and an equivalent electric SUV can cost less (with better performance on most metrics) that we'll see a kind of Jevon's Paradox and SUVs will get even bigger.

As with everything else, the answer to combating climate change is Miata.

The answer to just about damn near anything is Miata, of course.

But I formerly drove a Miata, and now drive an American Medium Size (that's a rest-of-the-world extra large) SUV. Same mileage for both, about ~23mpg.

Or a Subaru Brat for those with kids

I have one hypothesis for part of the uptick: rear seat room for carseats. I consider myself the SUV hater of SUV haters, and I reject that you need one when you have kids (such is the idea in my part of the US), but...we bought one last year anyway, mainly to accommodate two rear-facing carseats with two adults in the front. There aren’t many cars that make this work, and you’d be surprised how big of an SUV you have to get to get any more rear seat space than a regular car. Not even most of the “mid-size” models.


you're gonna get downvoted for this but you're not wrong. having less kids is one way to slow down climate change.

Then again, if nobody has kids then who are we saving the planet for ecactly?

The Planet. Nature. Animals. The smaller human population remaing.

I find your question very shortsighted and narrow minded.

This is a disgusting thing to say to someone with children. It's also not true.

No offense taken. Sadly, my dislike of SUVs stems more from how they drive and look than anything nobler.

I was actually hoping to illustrate with my own little anecdata about how even if you don’t like them, there seem to be various one-way-ratchet effects pushing their uptake, and this was my personal mechanism. Consumer choice doesn’t always reveal preference—I’d much rather there were a car that fit our situation (back issues + loading kids into the seats also played in here).

Granted, it's gauche as all hell, but I'm pretty sure the data supports the assertion.

It should probably be framed more diplomatically and contain a cite to support it. Probably.

It’s almost trivially true, albeit uncomfortable.

In aggregate, perhaps yes, less children leads to a healthier planet today. But individually, was it worse for the planet you or I were born? Your comment doesn't help us reach any useful conclusion. The reality is complex. Like with most health related topics, individual decisions don't count for much in defining populational growth. Policy and economics and religion control.

It's very true. Not a pleasant truth, but a truth nonetheless.

I understand why even cheap crappy plastic SUV sell in IE AND UK so well, people are tired of speed ramps and those vehicles are great for driving through crappy roads and speed ramps in housing estates and minor roads in small towns that are cursed with speed ramps. Sitting high enough to see surrounding plus not having to slow down for speed ramps win win

Why are these mutually exclusive? An electric drive train can be fitted to an SUV form factor. In fact, it might be easier to get to an acceptable range (300mi) because there’s more space for more batteries (assuming each battery delivers more range than its weight continues to scale).

I think the easiest way to accelerate decarbonization is to make green tech more desirable independent of the greenness. If people want it, they’ll get it and in that sense SUVs could help achieve climate goals.

Bigger cars are heavier, SUVs have terrible aerodynamic properties, bigger batteries are heavier and consume more resources bring produced. Even electric SUVs aren't really green by any stretch of the imagination.

I would guess that we aren't seeing electric SUVs due to cost.

That being said, I'm not sure why you are being aggressively downvoted as your basic premise is correct. Most people are not going to buy an inferior vehicle (eg small, uncomfortable, slow, less capable, expensive, etc) just because it is green. I know people on HN might, and good for them for doing so, but that's not going to be the case more broadly. If we want mass adoption of green vehicles, either the vehicles have to be relatively on par quality wise with existing non-hybrid gas vehicles, there has to be social status attached to owning one (eg Tesla), there has to be a regulatory change, or the operating cost of gas vehicles has to go way up (ie fuel needs to be taxed aggressively) to cause operating costs to figure strongly in the buying decision.


I remember reading somewhere that the biggest buyers of SUVs (albeit compact SUVs) are mothers / young parents who think minivans are too ugly. SUVs have lots of space for kids and a large boot to take everything from bicycles to shopping. And of course the better SUVs do have lots of safety features.

Car manufacturers know this, which is why 7-seater SUVs are now a thing. Luckily they’re also working on hybrid and electric models.

These articles on female car-buying habits are interesting. These (and many other articles) note that boot space and seat comfort are big factors in making the buy decision.

[1] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/women-are-more-likely-to-d...

[2] https://abcnews.go.com/Business/time-car-companies-wake-wome...

There is also a thing where station wagons are less and less practical. If you compare a mid 90s Volvo 940 to the latest Volvo V90, the reduction in interior space, exterior visibility and in practicality is huge. Seems to be mostly caused by the trifecta of safer cars (thicker doors etc), better aerodynamics and more styling/design taking up space and making windows smaller.

Station wagons basically morphed into crossover SUVs. It's the same concept - hatchback body on a sedan chassis - but sits a bit higher and has different styling.

Crossovers are basically wagons with the exterior dimensions inflated to keep interior dimensions constant in the face of ever thickening pillars, doors and body structures.

No, I don't think so. If you look at the good ole' Volvo 940 wagon, you get 990 L cargo capacity with all seats in use. A new RAV4 (big crossover) has 580 L in the configuration with the biggest trunk. It's shrunk by 40%.

Unless you have 3+ children, why would you need anything larger than a five-door car for basic errands/travel with family?

7 seaters are intended for those who frequently do pooled trips with friends or family -- and won't buy a minivan. They're not necessarily much larger than 5-seaters, the extra seats fold down when not needed and use up the boot space.

As you say, 5 seaters are probably fine for most people.

I’m in the market for one. When you have two kids that are car seat age, two car seats eat up a lot of room in smaller cars. Then when you and your partner need to go somewhere, there’s barely any room for strollers and diaper bags.

If they made roomier cars I’d be all for it, but they don’t. So I have to buy something that offers room.

Some people don’t want to drive vans.

Station wagons have lots of space and better aerodynamics as well as being only slightly heavier than the same car as a coupé.

Sport wagons also look awesome, in my humble opinion. Euro and Australian sport wagons are surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. Not to forget the golden era of 90s Japanese sport wagons.

Granted the sport version power trains weren't always economically inclined, but there was always a standard option.

> If they made roomier cars I’d be all for it, but they don’t.

I drive a full-sized Volvo wagon. I've also driven a full-sized Ford Taurus wagon. Plenty of room for two tall kids (my son is 6'4", my daughter is well on her way to 6'), and in the days of my Taurus, it would carry a child, a baby seat, a stroller, even a bicycle and a trailer.

Besides a thing about SUVs versus car form factors, I have test-driven Volvo's equivalent SUVs, and while they often claim similar cargo volume to the wagons, I find the wagon's long and low profile more useful for the kinds of things I tend to carry. Bikes are a lot easier in a wagon, in my experience.


Of course, there are F-150s and Chevy Suburbans and extra-long Escalades for those who absolutely, positively want to drive a truck.

Families of four have comfortably taken even long journeys in VW Golfs in the past. I know, because my parents used to take us from northern Germany to Italy or Spain every summer.

Not to mention there are plenty of towns and cities where families get around by bike. Americans need to expect more from local governments!

>Families of four have comfortably taken even long journeys in VW Golfs in the past

New car buyer are skewing richer and richer so a larger fraction of the people OEMs have to cater to can justify the luxury of not doing that.

Maybe look at who’s buying those vehicles before you make sweeping generalizations about who the buyers are.

I believe "boomer" has already come to mean "anyone older and wealthier than me", so even though you're right based on the previous definition, their sweeping generalization is probably correct from their point of view.

Ride height and cool factor. Minivans have ~the same ride height and even more utility (space) if you don’t off-road but lack the cool factor.

I think the cool factor is mostly gone with SUV's. When every soccer mom drives an SUV, it's no longer cool. Yes, they're cooler than a minivan, but that says more about the minivan than it does about the SUV.

Compare the prices of minivans to crossovers. That's why people aren't buying minivans in droves.

I don't think there's a very complicated question to answer - SUVs are sooo much more comfortable to get into and drive than regular cars that it's not a surprise they have become the default vehicle type for many people. I'm only 29 and having developed some joint problems I'm now buying an SUV for myself, purely because getting into a regular sedan/estate is a bit of a struggle, but getting into an SUV isn't. The same applies to the driving position - even in the uber-luxury saloon like the Mercedes E class the fact that you're sitting much lower puts a lot of strain on my legs, but sitting with my back higher up in something like the LR Discovery makes driving much easier.

I'm trying to offset the emissions aspect by buying a plug-in hybrid SUV - so at least my plan is to do 100% work commute on electric power alone.


I'm over 70, with ~severe arthritis, and I still love my Civic. Getting in and out requires some leverage on the wheel and seat. But driving is as comfortable as relaxing in a recliner.

This is anecdotal of course, but I don't think it's just boomers who are buying SUVs. I'm 30, I see a lot of people my age and older who are buying SUVs. Unfortunately, I don't think concern for the environment rates high among other generations when push comes to shove. They buy Mercedes SUVs without a second thought when the economy is doing well for them.

Why are you assuming it's boomers? SUVs and pickup trucks are popular across the entire age spectrum for a variety of reasons (perceived safety, cargo capacity, space and features to haul kids and their stuff around, better road visibility, etc.).

Also for some people their main car and their work care are one in the same. They need to haul their tools in the back of their truck and other things as well.

As a 30 year old, I buy an SUV (well, a crossover, technically) because its a good average between efficiency and carrying capacity. I don't want to have to rent a U-Haul every time I move something bigger than a breadbox.

Two adult homes can presumably have a big car and a small car, and prefer to take the most efficient choice for the given trip (and have the shorter commute take the less efficient vehicle), but generally, people need to occasionally move stuff around.

It is, also, safer. I've seen what a minivan does to a Corolla, and I'd much rather be in something the size of a minivan. I sit higher, have better visibility, etc.

> It is, also, safer. I've seen what a minivan does to a Corolla, and I'd much rather be in something the size of a minivan.

Looking at a crash between two vehicles of very different size isn't a fair test. Smaller cars are much more able to avoid getting into wrecks in the first place. We fully expect, simply based on mass, that vans will be better at passive safety, and worse at active safety.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do to avoid an accident with another driver. You can get in a crash standing still at an intersection. In an accident, the biggest car will win. If the average car on the road was a Mini Cooper I wouldn't worry about it. But with the prevalence of SUVs, anyone driving something smaller than a crossover is taking a big personal risk.

From the research I've seen, that's not a significant factor. People aren't dying in their compact cars sitting at intersections. Sure, sometimes it happens -- and sometimes a semi or train hits you and even an SUV won't help.

According to the IIHS, for example, the little 2-door Honda Civic has about the same fatality rate as the safest large SUVs.

People in small cars aren't "taking a big risk". About as many people in America die of influenza as car crashes, so if you're driving an SUV but haven't gotten a free flu shot, I don't believe you're doing it out of some calculated risk assessment.

Flu deaths are concentrated on the very young and very old, though.

The fundamental connection: people who drive SUVs and people who skip flu shots don't care about externalities.

Indeed true that I'm extremely low risk for flu complications, though I live with someone at high risk, and should get flu shots now.

It's not that I don't care about externalities, but that I'm going to weigh them against direct concerns. It's true driving an SUV might have a small percentage impact on the environment. It's also true that it slightly increases my chances of killing someone else in an accident. But if it significantly decreases the chance the person killed in said accident is my wife/kid, I'm going to prioritize that over the "dangers" SUVs provide to others.

Not sure why you are getting downvoted. I am in the same situation. If all electric SUVs werent priced for the upper class I would probably own one.

Also if you have a big enough family there is no way to haul them around on a tiny car unless you shove some kids in the trunk.

Besides. I am no boomer either.

>I don't want to have to rent a U-Haul every time I move something bigger than a breadbox.

Thanks to ever more stringent rollover requirements modern vehicles can carry some pretty big things on the roof. You just have to ignore the part where people judge you for it (so I understand why people don't do it).

Congratulations for being part of the problem, then! This is a great example of how some people aren’t willing to trade even the smallest possible inconvenience, like having to rent on rare occasions, for public good.

I’ve avoided accidents due to sitting higher in a SUV or truck by seeing what is in front of the driver ahead of me.

That only works if the vehicle in front of you is lower than your own, right? So people will have to get into an arms race and buy higher and higher vehicles to keep that advantage.

True, but that's mitigated by other factors, the simplest of which is that above a certain height it will become a royal pain to get in and out of the vehicle (and not just yourself: that includes helping kids in the backseat, and baggage).

And I've avoided accidents by looking through the rear window of the car ahead of me.

This is the reality. You also get cut off way less and that alone avoids plenty of accidents.

I drive a fair bit, and I'm here to tell you:

The type of person who cuts another driver off does not do a lot of thinking about the relative consequences. I've seen plenty of tiny sedans with oversized tailpipes, wings and a dozen mod stickers cutting off big SUVs.

Heck, they even dart in front of semis on the highway. They do not care if you're in an XC 90 instead of an S60.

No one will care when an Explorer gets 20-25 mpg and gas is still under $2.50/gallon. The comfort and utility advantages more than outweigh any possible long-term externalities in the ordinary calculus.

> No one will care when an Explorer gets 20-25 mpg and gas is still under $2.50/gallon.

I was curious if their fuel efficiency is really that low. I've only been interested in smaller SUVs (I've got a Honda CR-V) which are up to around 28 mpg city, 34 highway for current models.

So I went to Ford's site to check. On the page for the Explorer [1] I can't find fuel efficiency info! Searching for "mpg" on the page (or on the pages for specific models) shows hits but Firefox does not actually show them. Disabling styles and doing again finds that those mentions are just in standard disclaimer footnotes.

Even more interesting is this page [2], which lists all Ford SUVs and crossovers. All of the gas powered ones (Ecosport, Escape, Edge, Expedition, and Flex) except for Explorer list their fuel efficiency right there.

Ford seems to be specifically avoiding listing Explorer gas mileage. Expedition is 17/24 city/highway and Flex is 16/23, so it's not like they are unwilling to list low numbers. So what is going on with Explorer?

[1] https://www.ford.com/suvs/explorer/

[2] https://www.ford.com/new-suvs-crossovers/

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