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Driving towards a reckoning with oversized cars

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Bulked up like bears before winter, overpowered cars rumble down America’s dirt roads, city streets and suburban highways. Capable of feats of great torque and towing, these days they’re just as likely to be hauling groceries as heavy equipment.

This April, more pickups than cars were sold in the U.S. for the first time ever. And these aren’t your grandparents’ utilitarian pickup trucks. Between 1990 and 2019, the average pickup gained 1,142 pounds, and the average price of a full-size pickup now hovers around $51,000. The largest truck models now compete by offering menacing front-end designs and outlandish power, with the Hellcat V-8 engine in Dodge’s new TRX pickup clocking in at 700 horsepower.

The arms race on American roads isn’t new, but the growing tonnage of American vehicles has become hard to ignore… and if you care about either the future of the climate or safety on the roads, hard to stomach.

Fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and trucks should be a check on this sort of thing - channeling innovation into improving the horrific environmental performance of cars and trucks rather than goosing another few horsepower out of already absurdly overpowered vehicles.

How did we get here? One major reason is because the standards for calculating fuel economy were designed so that vehicle emissions were graded on a curve.

That loophole is known as the footprint rule. Fuel economy standards are based on a vehicle’s size, measured by its physical footprint - the vehicle’s length times width. The fuel economy requirement gets progressively lower as a vehicle gets bigger.

Automakers were worried that without the footprint rule, rising fuel economy standards would force them to sell smaller, less profitable vehicles. Instead, the footprint rule has incentivized a shift to bigger vehicles - drawing progress in improving fuel economy to a standstill.

Last year, 70 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. were SUVs or trucks. The biggest and baddest are still growing in size and popularity, and it’s not just XL trucks upping the weight of fleets. SUVs have grown their market share at the expense of sedans due to the rise of the wildly popular “crossover” vehicle with looser fuel economy requirements. But the shift to heft in the U.S. auto market has come with major costs for the drivers themselves, other people on the road, and everyone who breathes air.

The clearest consequence of overpowered cars has been the climate pollution they create. In 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration adopted fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards designed to improve the environmental performance of the automobile fleet. For a while it worked, as average real-world fuel economy leapt from 21 mpg in 2008 to 24.2 mpg in 2013. Since then, however, progress has slowed, with fuel economy only reaching 25.5 mpg by 2019.

As early as 2016, it was apparent that the shift from cars to SUVs would imperil the initial goal of increasing average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg-equivalent by 2025, with EPA projections from that year suggesting that fuel economy would only reach 50.8 mpg due to the increased share of the fleet made up of SUVs. President Trump’s rollbacks of clean car standards will further undermine progress, but with transportation now the number one source of climate pollution in the U.S., the delay in cutting emissions caused by the shift to bigger vehicles is something we can ill afford.

The damage caused by the supersizing of the American vehicle fleet has gone far beyond the environment. Big cars imperil everyone on the road not inside them. Cars not caught up in the horsepower race have to share the road with trucks that could be twice as heavy. Automobiles in the U.S. don’t have to consider the safety of pedestrians in their design, and major studies “have correlated a 50-percent increase in U.S. pedestrian fatalities over eight years to the rising popularity of pick-ups, vans, and sport utility vehicles.” The fleet for sale in America is so dangerously large that UK safety experts are urging their government to ban the import of American-made SUVs.

What’s maddening is that most of this was predicted in advance. “Auto makers have an incentive to make more SUVs and light trucks with less stringent standards than high-performance sedans,” said Kate Whitefoot, co-author of a 2011 University of Michigan study on the Obama-era fuel economy standards, in the Wall Street Journal. Looking at the footprint rule alone, the study predicted that average vehicle size would increase between 2 to 32 percent, depending on consumer preference. It also predicted that incentives would be strongest for light trucks to bulk up.

The footprint rule has been a major factor driving the growth of big vehicles. It was the product of a collaborative rule-making effort with major automakers that sparked much-needed improvements in fuel economy. But with the climate crisis coming into sharper focus and the existing rules having been scrapped anyway, the time has come to rethink it. The next round of fuel economy standards should get rid of the footprint rule, a change which will more fully account for vehicles’ environmental impacts. This will help slow the supersizing of vehicles, making our roads safer, cleaner and more accessible to everyone else.

Photo courtesy of Angie Schmitt