SUV Armageddon Approaching?
by David Finlay (29 August 2003)
They do not, of course, do things by halves in the USA. The car has been a major part of the culture over there for many decades, and things long ago reached the stage where life in its current form would be regarded as inconceivable by millions of the inhabitants if they didn't have their own transport. Hence the large public outcry at the moment over the fact that fuel prices are skyrocketing (though so far only to a level which would be considered close to a free gift in the UK).
The flipside to all this is that America has what must be the most ferocious anti-motoring lobby of any country in the world. The most recent example of this was a spate of vandalism which took place in the early hours of last Friday (August 22), when three dealerships in California, representing Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi and GM, were attacked.
In the case of the Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi outlets the damage was limited to spray-painting of vehicles and buildings, but a warehouse next to the GM showroom in West Covina and several of the vehicles inside it - including examples of the Hummer H2 pictured here - were destroyed by fire.
The Hummer is a significant vehicle in this context. Most of the anger is directed towards SUVs and their millions of owners. The term SUV (for Sport-Utility Vehicle) has only recently caught on in this country, but it has long standing in the US, where millions of buyers have been entranced by the thought of owning machines which can get you from A to B even if A is separated from B by inhospitable terrain with no obvious access route. The relevance of this to the majority of owners can easily be called into question, though as we'll see a system of defence and justification is well-established.
Just before we look into that, it's also worth pointing out, as we have done several times in the past, that the number one best-selling private vehicle in the United States is the vast Ford F-150 pickup. That situation could not possibly be replicated in the UK, because we just don't have enough room, but in this as in many other respects the size of the USA is a major consideration - it is at least physically possible for such enormous machines to be sold in such great numbers without bringing the road network to a standstill. British motorists may have complain about crowded roads, but at least this has not led to a campaign of dealerships being set on fire.
Last week's events in California coincided with the fact that the SUV Owners of America (SUVOA) had recently decided to gather together names - 6065 in total over 45 days - for a petition which is being delivered in CD-ROM form to various parties. These include Arianna Huffington and Robert Kennedy Jnr of the anti-SUV Detroit Project, the Reverend Jim Ball, creator of the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, and Fenton Communications, which looks after the public affairs work for both these organisations.
Huffington's stance against SUVs has led her to compare ownership of these vehicles with Middle Eastern terrorism. Ron DeFore, communications director of SUVOA, points out the irony of this by saying that her public pronouncements on the subject "actually are giving aid and comfort to domestic terrorists like those who torched the West Covina dealership".
The "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign takes a more peaceful and spiritual approach to the situation, though one that is no less forthright. It puts forward suggestions "based upon Jesus' teaching of the Great Commandments and the Golden Rule in light of current transportation impacts", and while that phrase in itself is guaranteed to put a lot of people off, many of its points are perfectly sensible.
Examples include calls for improved public transport, for the US CAFE fuel economy standard to reach 40mpg by 2012 and for the support of research and development for hydrogen fuel cells "and other promising alternative technologies". A visit to this year's Challenge Bibendum technology event, also in California, would seem to be in order.
Despite all this, there can't be many arguments in history which have been amicably settled by one side claiming that it had the support of God or his earthly representative, and American SUV owners - particularly those of a religious persuasion - are unlikely to be impressed by this argument. Still, there's no suggestion that the "What Would Jesus Drive?" people were in any way responsible for, or approved of, last week's events in California. There's no doubt about who was behind those.
It is the proud boast of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) that since 1997 it has caused over $100 million worth of damage in North America "to entities who profit from the destruction of life and the planet". ELF, which describes itself as "an international underground organization that uses direct action in the form of economic sabotage to stop the destruction of the natural environment", specifically targets SUVs because of the pollution they cause, though at this point it's worth quoting Rick Genovese, fire marshal of the West Covina area. Genovese said after the GM dealership was attacked that "there's a lot more pollutants from the fire than the vehicles would pollute during their lifetime".
The ELF press office said on the day of the attacks that it had received no communication from those responsible, but the organisation's initials were, as the press office reports, spray-painted on vehicles or buildings at all three scenes.
It was by no means the first attack of its kind. SUVs have been destroyed in dealerships since at least March 2001, when more than 30 Chevrolets were torched in Oregon at a cost of around $1 million.
The SUVOA clearly has a fight on its hands, but it claims to represent an awful lot of people - there are 24 million SUVs on the road in the US, a third of them in California alone, though its own membership is a rather more modest 16,818. The justifications for ownership, as put forward in the petition, include the following:
"We drive SUVs because they provide us with safety, comfort, utility and versatility. We use these vehicles to safely transport our children, carpool, go on vacation, tow boats and campers, carry home supplies or simply travel in comfort. We are the people who hospitals call in snow emergencies and community leaders count on after disasters."
Presumably not all 24 million SUV owners are called in or counted on in this way, but that's a minor point. Two other statements might cause more concern. One reads, "As Americans, we have a right to choose the vehicle that best meets our needs," which is not far away conceptually from the argument that nobody should buy an SUV because Jesus wouldn't like it.
The second statement which could create a lot of doubt is this one: "Facts show that SUVs are safe and clean." Compared with what, exactly? At the top end of the scale, some SUVs are fitted with very large engines which have to work hard to haul heavy body weights (meaning the vehicles, not necessarily the occupants) and therefore consume a lot of fuel and emit large quantities of dangerous gases. The SUVOA counters this by pointing out that SUV exhaust emissions are cleaner than those of, for example, a 1967 station wagon, but considering the enormous advances in engine design in the intervening 36 years this is hardly a startling claim.
The size and shape of SUVs make them inherently more likely to fall over - simple physics makes it clear that a tall vehicle with a high centre of gravity has much greater toppling potential than, say, a sports car, a point which in fairness the SUVOA does concede.
In a head-on collision with a small passenger car, the SUV would obviously be the vehicle of choice, if only because the greater proportion of possible injury and death would be transferred to the occupants of the small passenger car. If any of them survived, they might have quite a lot to say about the "fact" that SUVs are "safe", and about the SUVOA's quote (from an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety report) that fewer occupants of large SUVs were killed in road accidents during 2002 than in any other type of vehicle.
The whole debate - if that's not too complimentary a term for it - between SUV supporters and their opponents is characterised by ill-thought-out claims backed up by absolute values of religion, personal bias and the concept of freedom. Clashes of this kind predate the existence of SUVs by several centuries. The fact that one country is not at loggerheads with another does nothing to eliminate the ominous thought that this situation is rapidly approaching the status of a war.