Monday, August 15, 2005

Can You Imagine A World Without SUVs?

by Tom Bozzo

Over-extrapolation alert, from Saturday's Times:
"This gas and vehicle thing is tied up with the entire way we lead our lives now," said Steve Hoch, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. The bigger vehicles that are getting slammed by the surge in gasoline prices, Professor Hoch said, are all part of the supersized demographic shift to bigger everything in the last decade, like the sizes of an average home and of the average big-box discount retail store.

"But just imagine if everybody had to get to Costco in a Prius," Professor Hoch added, referring to the Toyota gas-electric hybrid that gets about 50 miles to the gallon. "How would they bring the 43 rolls of toilet paper home? This shift to higher prices is not going to be easy."
Hmm, you could actually see where you were backing up, not being hemmed in by land-behemoths?

Most of my observations of full-sized SUVs are as wildly inefficient commuter vehicles for single occupants with cell phones seemingly surgically attached to their ears. I haven't found the 10-cu. ft. trunk of my car constraining during diaper runs, and the Prius has quite a bit more interior volume than my car. Then there's the likes of the Passat TDI wagon, which has interior volume in the ballpark of mid-sized SUVs and half the fuel consumption.

Families with lots of children may need big SUVs or vans to provide enough seats, but even on that front I'm reminded that neighbors of ours recently packed two adults, two teenagers, a seven-month-old baby, four bikes (via roof rack) and stuff for a week to Minocqua in a '92 Passat wagon.

In the bigger picture, what worries me is that we'll get policies that take the organization of suburban sprawl life as immutable consequences of primal human desires, rather than as an adaptation to cheap private transportation that may be abandoned as quickly as it was thrown up when market forces turn on it. (Policies that seek to promote low gas prices versus low fuel consumption may have this effect.) Human life has been successfully lived without big-box stores, even in my lifetime, if you can imagine that. This is not to say that I disagree at all with Prof. Hoch's conclusion that the transition will be hard, especially as it implies that the values of today's half-megabuck McMansionettes are no more privileged than those of the once-grand houses owned by the elites of small (and not-so-small) towns along, say, the route of the Erie Canal.

But I think an underappreciated feature of neoclassical microeconomics is that while consumers may in principle want everything, what they actually choose to have is regulated by relative and absolute prices. So when self-mobile freedom is sufficiently expensive, sooner or later other forms of consumption will be substituted for it. The question is whether the corporate welfare state will allow this to happen.
If an SUV that gets 1/2 the gas mileage of a normal small car is classified as wildly inefficient, then what is a normal small car classified as? It seems to me that if burning fossil fuels is an inherent bad, then we all should be driving hybrid scooters.

I'm headed up to near Minocqua soon (Lac Du Flambeau area), and all the necessary baby stuff barely fits in my nice-sized Honda Accord. I can see the appeal of SUVs. But, I won't buy one given current circumstances.
I'm not saying that burning fossil fuels is an inherent bad, but I don't think normal small cars are that bad, esp. given their advantages in comfort, utility and safety over motorscooters.

Fuel economy data for scooters and motorcycles are hard to come by, but I understand typical MPG to be in the 40-70 range. That makes them relatively fuel-efficent compared to a single-occupant car, though the Prius and Insight drivers are at least in the low end of the range.

But cars get more than competitive once they start carrying passengers. On the roundtrip to Oshkosh for EAA, for example, my car got a shade over 90 passenger-miles per gallon, and did so at speeds that a 90 MPG scooter probably couldn't reach.
Brian sees the appeal of an SUV for what is likely a once- or twice-a-year trip with lots of gear. We just rejected SUV or minivan ownership for those few trips requiring cargo space and bought a Thule rack system instead. Especially wise since 95% of our highway miles are spent commuting, not travelling with gear.
Bryan can report back on the second Smith family vehicle, if any, once he has a post-doctoral paycheck rolling in.

Cathy, you do bring up an interesting point -- why (esp. with multiple vehicles in many households) there isn't more specialization in car purchases. I've found it much more efficient to impose on a truck-owning friend for those one or two times a year that call for more cargo hauling capacity than Suzanne's wagon provides than to actually have to deal with a truck on a regular basis.
I'm going to try a vacation under my own power:

(that's a link to a non-profit, not a spam)
Hey Kathy, it's Bryan ;).

Tom, if comfort, utility and safety are valid reasons for car ownership and justify MPGs in the 20s to 30s, then surely larger vehicles of which some are more safe and have more utility can surely be justified in the 15 MPG range. If you pack 6 in an SUV, you'd reach 90 passenger-miles-per gallon too. Personally, I don't care what a person chooses to drive, though. I think Hummers are stupid and a waste of money, but I don't need to legislate my opinion.

As far as the long-term future goes, I don't see a problem for suburban home-owners. If oil becomes too expensive, we'll buy electric cars or vegetable oil cars or biodiesel cars or natural gas cars or hydrogen-powered cars or solar-powered cars faster than you can say urban sprawl. And someone will make a buttload of money.
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