Monday, October 09, 2006

Bigger Americans, Bigger Cars?

I've been thinking about an article (subscription may be required) in last Wednesday's Wall St. Journal, in which columnist Holman Jenkins made a surprising--though hardly illogical--connection between the widely-discussed American "obesity epidemic" and the expansion of SUV sales in the last 15 years. Before my comment page fills up with irate mail, let me clarify that I'm not endorsing the view that only overweight people drive SUVs. However, if there is anything to the notion that Americans are larger than Europeans in several dimensions, then it would bolster the view that the average American car will never look just like the average European car, no matter how high gasoline prices--or taxes--go. That's a conclusion worth pondering, even though Mr. Jenkins' extension of this argument to deride hybrid cars doesn't follow nearly as logically as his earlier leap.

I wasn't previously familiar with the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource cited in the Journal. What a fascinating idea! However, having spent several years living in Germany and the UK and traveling extensively across the Continent, I had already drawn my own conclusions about the differences between us and our trans-Atlantic cousins--though never once connecting this to the cars we drive. Before we repeat this clever bit of automotive analysis at the next cocktail party, we should consider a few other factors that might also influence Europeans to own smaller cars, and drive them less than we do ours:

  • The difference in fuel prices tops the list. If our recent excursion to $3.00/gallon was enough to send SUV sales into a tailspin, it can't be irrelevant that Europeans are shelling out roughly 1.30 Euros per liter, or about $6/gallon, with the difference mostly attributable to taxes.

  • In addition, many countries tax engine horsepower or displacement, either at purchase or annually. Bigger cars require bigger engines, and in Europe you pay for that twice: at the gas pump and in your tax bill.

  • You hear a lot about differences in mass transit, but for me the best example of this is found in a segment mostly absent from America, outside Amtrak's Boston-Washington corridor: comfortable, reliable inter-city trains for the distances over which air travel--with its increasing pre-flight arrival times and security disruptions--is a poor competitor to driving.

  • Parking is difficult and costly in many American cities, but you don't know what parking pain is until you've tried to park a car in central London, Rome or Paris. Care to try it with even a medium-sized SUV?

I think there's a strong argument here that Europeans drive smaller cars because it makes sense, not just because they're shorter or slimmer on average than we are. That's not the same as saying our tastes are similar, at least in the mass market segments. It's clear that most of us aren't ready to trade in our ride for VW's latest Polo or Fox.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins that this doesn't let us off the hook on automotive efficiency; we need thriftier cars that US consumers will enjoy owning, and that won't bankrupt them in their quest for greater fuel economy. Unfortunately, many of the "available technologies" he mentions, such as variable valves and cylinder de-activation, have already been deployed in US models. Doing more of this will not move enough efficiency into the car fleet quickly enough to counteract the trends in increasing annual mileage and curb weight, which together with increasing population will keep US oil consumption and imports growing well into the future.

If we want to make a dent in energy security, climate change, or both, it will require bigger changes in vehicle technology such as hybridization, which will still take a decade or two to roll through the whole fleet. Until then our biggest lever is changes in usage, but that seems to be much harder to achieve.

No comments: