Posted: October 12, 2004
ifty years ago, Americans drove grandiose yet elegant automobiles. Today they drive trackless tanks. In High and Mighty, Keith Bradsher, who was for five years the Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times, describes the coming of these weapons of war. More than Detroit's villainy, it is a tale of Washington's ineptitude. Sport utility vehicles took command of the American highway under the protection of the U.S. government.
The array of official privileges that made the SUV possible all had as a necessary precondition its classification as a light truck. This was not unreasonable, given that SUVs began by being mounted on the chassis of pick-up trucks. American Motors, maker of the Jeep, lobbied successfully for this decision in the early 1970s, at a time when any other choice risked putting that company out of business.
Light trucks had the political advantage that they were driven by farmers and small businessmen, often self-employed. Also, because they were a tiny fraction of the automotive market, regulators and environmentalists discounted their importance. Many favors followed.
There were tax breaks. In 1978 Congress enacted a gas guzzler tax applying to the purchase price of cars that exceeded mileage standards—sports cars, principally—but not to light trucks. After 1984, depreciation rules in the tax code enabled purchasers of light trucks, but not luxury cars, to write the cost off if they used the vehicles for business purposes. The change was meant to close a loophole that had enabled real estate agents, for example, to write off the cost of a Cadillac or Lincoln sedan. In 1990 Congress exempted light trucks from a 10 percent luxury tax that it imposed on cars costing more than $30,000.
There were looser standards or no standards for fuel mileage, safety, and emissions. The car mileage standard reached 27.5 miles per gallon in the mid-1980s, whereas the light truck standard leveled off at 20.5 miles per gallon. Safety rules regarding headrests, steel beams inside doors, stopping distances, bumper heights, and the durability of tires were applied to cars but not light trucks. The Clean Air Act of 1990 limited car emissions to 0.4 gram of nitrogen oxides per mile but allowed 1.1 gram for pick-ups.
With different political origins, there were also tariff protections. The light trucks of foreign manufacturers are subject to a tariff of 25 percent.
Initially, officials made these decisions without anticipating their effects on the automotive industry. The heavy tariff on light trucks grew out of a dispute with Western Europe over American exports of frozen chickens in the early 1960s. A staff economist who worked on automotive taxes in Congress told Bradsher, "Nobody anticipated the move to make...sport utilities into limousines. There were no such things as the Lincoln Continentals of sport utility vehicles...."
Another innocent decision-maker was the redoubtable Joan Claybrook, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the Carter Administration, who increased the gross vehicle weight limit for light trucks, beyond which fuel economy standards would not apply, to 8,500 pounds. At the time, this seemed like a high number. Claybrook raised the exemption limit from 6,000 pounds because manufacturers had begun exceeding the lower number in order to escape regulation. Predictably, in time they exceeded the higher number as well, and today they manufacture SUVs with weights of 8,550 to 8,600 pounds, thus escaping all fuel-economy regulations and some emission standards as well.
In time, Washington's protections became knowing and purposeful. Why not? SUV's were the salvation of the domestic automobile industry, whose demise had been chronicled by Brock Yates and David Halberstam in the 1980s. Unable to compete with Japan in the manufacture of heavily-regulated cars, the American industry would rise once more—high, mighty, and artfully gaming the government's rules—on the axles of the SUV.
There were two breakthroughs. One came in the mid-1980s with the popularity of the Jeep Cherokee, a mid-sized SUV with four doors and two rows of seats, which made it suitable for families. Mid-size SUVs went from one-tenth of one percent of the auto market in 1980 to 3.55 percent in 1989. Whereupon Chrysler bought American Motors for $1.5 billion in order to get the Jeep division and Ford and General Motors made plans to build their own mid-sized SUVs. Ford's Explorer and GM's Chevy Blazer were instantly popular when they debuted in 1990.
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The breakthrough in the luxury class came after the lenient air quality standards of 1990 enabled manufacturers to build SUVs with bigger engines. By 1996 they commanded half of the luxury market, and new models continued to appear, such as the Lincoln Navigator in 1997 and the Cadillac Escalade in 1998. The triumph of the SUV, now leather-seated for a Manhattan soiree, was complete. SUV sales in 2001 passed those of mid-sized cars, a category that includes the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, and Volkswagen Passat.
No wonder that politicians of both parties combined in 2001 to defeat higher mileage standards for light trucks. The vote in the House was 269 to 160, and in the Senate, 62 to 38. Michigan's 75-year-old John Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, put an avuncular arm around Bradsher's shoulder at a political deck party at Dingell's house, and confided that he looked forward to more such votes. "I see things with great objectivity," he said, "and a strong auto industry is in the interests of this country."
Bradsher does not absolve the industry from responsibility for making an unsafe product, prone to killing its occupants in rollovers and spearing objects (and people) with its steel truck frame in collisions. Yet this book is not the anti-industry polemic that reviews such as Gregg Easterbrook's in The New Republic ("Axle of Evil," Jan. 20, 2003) would lead one to expect. Blurbs to the contrary notwithstanding, Keith Bradsher is not Ralph Nader. He locates the industry's political power more in the UAW and in dealerships than in the corporate heads, who are not especially big campaign contributors. He gives William Clay Ford credit for wanting to swim against the corporate tide and sell social responsibility before capsizing in the vicious family fight with Firestone over who was to blame for rollovers of the Explorer.
Bradsher is also even-handed enough to ask where the environmental movement was while SUVs were overtaking cars, and to answer that its leaders were driving SUVs and giving priority to saving whales. Implicitly, without being immodest about his own superior coverage of the industry, he places some responsibility on the automotive press, which the industry woos with junkets to the Himalayas. There, reporters who love to drive can test the ability of SUVs to climb peaks higher than any to be found in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Miami, or Manhattan, the more usual venue of the vehicle type.
Nor does Bradsher spare the purchasers, who are impossible to portray as hapless victims of an exploitative industry when they are among the country's wealthiest and best-educated adults. He says they fear crime and have fantasies about life in the rough, off-road. Yet it is not evident that consumers have demanded the high ride they get with SUVs. Under the government's regulations, an SUV can qualify as a light truck only if the manufacturer vouches that it is "capable of off-highway operation." This requires considerable ground clearance. The high ride may have more to do with the industry's perfectly predictable exploitation of the government's rules than Manhattanites' wanting to pretend that they live in the mountains.
Bradsher ends pessimistically, arguing that the menace of SUVs will grow as they spread to other countries where there are more pedestrians and cyclists, with fewer curbs and sidewalks, while in this country used vehicles will trickle down to drivers less skilled, responsible, and educated than the original purchasers. Bradsher sees few ways to minimize the harms of existing SUVs other than to raise gasoline taxes, raise liability insurers' rates so as to penalize models with poor safety records, and prohibit the use of grille guards in cities, where the chances of fatal accidents are greatest.
To govern future production, he urges NHTSA to set standards for stability, crash compatibility (to safeguard occupants of other vehicles), and headlight heights. He would close tax loopholes and tighten emission standards, but fuel economy he concedes to be a very complicated matter, hard to regulate without perverse consequences. Before doing anything else, he would have Congress eliminate the distinction between cars and light trucks on the theory that this would encourage manufacturers to make more cars in order to keep their fleet averages within regulatory standards.
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Bradsher takes no comfort in the rise of so-called crossover utility vehicles, which are built on car platforms with unitized bodies and car powertrains modified for all-wheel drive. Established by Toyota with the RAV4 and Lexus RX300, this tamer type quickly became popular after 1996, especially with women. It now includes domestic versions—the Ford Escape, Pontiac Aztec, and Buick Rendezvous. Growth is expected to continue as new models appear, including this year the Volvo XC90, which is being heavily advertised for safety features ("the first SUV in the world with roll stability control") and freedom from guilt ("the first SUV in the world to transform ozone into oxygen").
Bradsher objects that consumers are using crossovers to replace cars rather than bigger SUVs and that manufacturers use them to game mileage standards by bringing down fleet averages. Yet the fact is that since crossovers were introduced, sales of the larger SUVs have leveled off. At the beginning of 2003, sellers for the first time were offering huge rebates on the biggest models—as much as $8,500 on the Ford Expedition and $6,600 on the Dodge Durango. Meanwhile, crossovers have become the fastest growing segment of the automotive market, with unit sales up by 78 percent in 2000, 87 percent in 2001, and 23 percent in 2002.
The mileage of crossovers almost equals that of cars. To meet regulatory requirements, their manufacturers still claim that they are capable of off-road travel, but the engineering evidence for this is modest, as in skid plates that protect their engines and transmissions from rock damage or tires that can grip in mud. They could make their way up a rutted mountain road to an owner's second home, but not haul a horse trailer or boat. They are easier to handle and park than big SUVs, and have a quieter ride. At least for the occupants of other vehicles, they are presumably safer than the higher-riding SUVs built on truck frames that puncture their crash objects with steel.
One wonders what American highways would look like if car-based utility vehicles had been manufactured at the beginning of the SUV boom instead of ten years later. Did the menacing version prevail initially because it appealed to the "darkest shadows of human nature," in Bradsher's lugubrious phrase, or because the industry's economics and the government's regulations perversely interacted to propel it to predominance? Indubitably popular, it may not in the long run prove to be more so than a scaled-back, smoother riding, more sensible alternative.
Perhaps it is not claiming too much to interpret crossovers as consumers' modestly qualified contribution to the current backlash against SUVs. If the big ones do suffer a prolonged decline, at least relatively, it is hard to predict the extent to which Bradsher's book will be credited. Easterbrook compares Bradsher to Nader and Ida Tarbell but then complains that no one is paying attention to him. With less information but more punch, critics ranging from Arianna Huffington to the Evangelical Environmental Network ("What would Jesus drive?") have dramatized the issue. The Bush Administration's head of NHTSA, Jeffrey Runge, said he would not let one of his children drive an SUV with a poor safety record if it was the last one on earth. While the backlash rages on billboards and TV—with help from higher gas prices and the publicity given to rollovers—the author is half a world away, now serving as the Times's bureau chief in Hong Kong.
Bradsher's well-researched book deserves a wide audience among connoisseurs of public policy. From paints to pesticides, cellphones to shower heads, today's consumer products are often profoundly shaped by government's decisions, mostly in ways that citizens do not perceive and often with effects that the office-holders do not anticipate. "We cannot regulate ourselves out of this mess," Runge remarked in exasperation at SUVs. Perhaps not. But to a considerable extent, we regulated ourselves into it.