Friday, July 20, 2007

The SUV Advantage

Thanks to some glitches in hotel broadband access, yesterday's intended posting became this morning's, and today's is now this afternoon's.

A colleague sent me a link to a story in the New Yorker advancing an interesting explanation of the apparent contradiction between Americans' support for improved fuel economy standards and our ongoing love affair with large, inefficient vehicles. It immediately resonated with something I had recently read in The Economist, on the topic of "ultimatum games." At the core of both of these ideas is the innate competitiveness of humans. Recognizing this might be the necessary first step towards diverting this competition onto a more generally beneficial path, at least in the way our vehicle choices affect national energy consumption.

The New Yorker looks at our desire for bigger and more powerful cars and concludes that it is a manifestation of the same underlying causes that led individual hockey players to eschew helmets until they became mandatory: the pursuit of a personal competitive edge. If you go back to the beginning of the SUV trend in the 1980s, it's easy to see how this could develop. The drivers of early SUVs were afforded a privileged position above the general sightline of traffic, and the resulting impressions of greater safety and dominance would be a natural, and probably self-reinforcing reaction. But as increasing numbers of SUVs entered the fleet, this advantage quickly eroded. If the car in front of you was an SUV, you were effectively back to where you had been in a sedan. The only solution would be a bigger, more powerful SUV.

Does this explain the size, weight and horsepower "arms race" that ensued over the next 15-20 years? Perhaps. It certainly wouldn't have been possible without improvements in the basic technology of the internal combustion engine, which, as I've noted before, were diverted into the horsepower necessary to deliver higher performance in increasingly heavy cars, rather than into fuel economy that looked unimportant with US retail gasoline prices averaging $1.20/gallon from 1990-2002.

And the results of the "ultimatum game", which The Economist describes as a preference for "relative rather than absolute prosperity" might help explain why, even after realizing that big car dominance had been largely nullified by the proliferation of ever bigger cars, new car buyers didn't quickly shift back to smaller, more efficient cars, when fuel prices started going up four years ago. Lags in future gas price expectations may have reinforced this reluctance.

But does knowing we are competitive make us less so? Or is our best option to try to alter the basis on which we compete? What would it take to elevate efficiency and low environmental impact above our perception that in cars, larger is automatically safer, and brisk acceleration is more reflective of the winners we aspire to be? Can we imagine a world in which we try to "out-green" each other, instead?

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