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Debate: Sports Utility Vehicles (4x4s)

Michael Harvey and Paul Kingsnorth

21st May, 2005

Are SUVs a crime against civilisation, or paragons of efficiency? Are they ugly, arrogant and antisocial, or bright, beautiful and mobile? And do the polar passions they arouse pit the politics of envy against the Americanisation of British culture? Paul Kingsnorth and Michael Harvey discuss

Michael Harvey is the editor of the BBC’s Top Gear Magazine and a former motoring correspondent for The Financial Times

Paul Kingsnorth is the former deputy editor of The Ecologist and author of One No: Many Yeses (see http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/)

Dear Paul,
                                            

Let me get one thing straight; I don’t swallow the ‘rational’ argument against sports-utility vehicles (SUVs). Sure, they burn more gas than smaller cars, but so do all big cars. So why is this not about efficiency instead of an issue as esoteric as vehicle height? (And while we have the tape measure in hand, let’s make this understood; this is about vehicle height.) An SUV’s ‘footprint’ is no bigger than that of an ‘ordinary’ car. A Land Rover Discovery, for example, has the same footprint as a London taxi.

 

Sure, big-engined cars also pollute more, but only by emitting CO2. Other dangerous exhaust gases from cars have been regulated almost out of existence. Once again, let’s make this an issue about vehicle efficiency and not vehicle architecture. For one thing, car makers have proved themselves surprisingly resourceful at improving efficiency.

 

And as for safety, you’re more likely to be injured by a small car, with a low, rounded nose – like an Audi TT, which, from the pedestrian’s point of view, is the most lethal car on the road.

 

What about compatibility? (The ‘ouch factor’ when your smaller car is hit by a larger SUV.) Forget about US-built ‘trucks’, to borrow the well chosen vernacular Americans use to describe the SUVs they manufacture over there. US SUVs are, for the most part, built like old locomotive carriages, and hurt when they hit you. Not so the SUVs popular in the UK, most of which are built like regular cars.

 

You probably guessed I believe the anti-SUV argument to be an irrational, indeed emotional argument. I believe passionately in smaller, more efficient motor cars. But I also believe in choice. I’ll give up my SUV when all those diplomats and plutocrats have ditched their limos (we’ll get to aviation and ship fuel later no doubt). In the meantime, I won’t be your totem because my car happens to be taller than yours.

 

Sincerely,

 

Michael

Dear Michael,

I don’t dislike SUVs because they’re tall. I hate them because they’re a crime against civilisation.

Why? Let’s start with fuel efficiency. You say big-engined cars only emit CO2. ‘Only’ CO2?. It’s CO2, of which vehicle emissions are the fastest-growing contributor, that’s changing the climate of the entire planet. It’s CO2 that threatens to knock half of the world’s species into extinction and flood New York. Small matters, I know, compared to the freedom of the British motorist, but probably worth mentioning.

As for safety: urban SUVs are involved in 25 per cent more accidents than ordinary cars. The European New Car Assessment Programme gives them an average crash-test score of just four out of 36. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advises parents not to drive their children to school in SUVs. Doesn’t sound promising, does it?

Then you bring up the oldest justification for selfishness: ‘choice’. But what does ‘choice’ actually mean? Could I nip down the shops in a tank? What if I drove a Harley without a silencer up and down your road all night? Or do you actually believe, as most of us do, that sensible limits should be placed on the freedom of drivers? If so, then it comes down to where we draw the line: and I draw it at SUVs. Sorry.

Finally, I couldn’t help noticing that you say ‘gas’ instead of petrol and ‘regular’ instead of ordinary. This says it all, for SUVs represent the Americanisation of British driving. I bet they’re great for cruising through the Arizona desert, or tooling along the massive streets of LA, where the authorities have thoughtfully removed all the pavements. But watch them grinding through the medieval streets of somewhere like Oxford, where I live, and you see them for what they are: ugly, arrogant and antisocial.

Still, let’s celebrate one point of agreement. ‘I’ll give up my SUV,’ you say, ‘when all those diplomats and plutocrats have ditched their limos.’ Great! Let’s join forces, then, to clear the scourge of limos and SUVs from our streets. And when we’ve done that, let’s get on to taxing airline fuel.

All the best,

Paul

Dear Paul,

Crime against civilisation? I know I came out fighting, but shall we both reach for a little perspective here, eh? The SUV’s only ‘crime’ is that it emits as much CO2 as any other large car (and considerably less than a London cab, which seats only five yet puts more tarmac in the shade than the Yummy Mummy’s favourite ride – the seven-seat Volvo XC90).

We both know that the entire transport sector represents less than 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions; and that cars share that sector with completely unregulated trains, planes and nasty smelly cargo ships. You would have to make an awful lot of trips to Sainsbury’s to match the amount of CO2 emitted by the average refrigerated boat rushing in mangetout from Kenya.

But cars are easier targets. Big, bright, beautiful, mobile monuments to their owners’ material success. Odd, that they should inspire such powerful resentment…

Fragrant anti-SUV campaigner Sian Berry (the founder member of the Alliance Against Urban Four-by-Fours) loves to hate the middle-class mothers who drive their offspring to private schools in their SUVs, but says very little about the black DJs similarly devoted to their ‘trucks’ (I’ll use inverted commas so you can look away when I lapse in to the Americana you so despise). SUV loathing is the prejudice that dares speak its name.

And it’s such a waste of time and effort. If you want to save the planet, please learn to look beyond the architecture of my car. But then substantive solutions have never been the green movement’s stick. Aren’t we only learning now the truth about recycling or, for that matter, wind farms?

So redeem yourself. Assuming you do believe in personal transport, why not concentrate your energies on making cars more efficient and, ultimately, emissions-free? Petrol-electric hybrid SUVs are quite the thing in the (whisper it) US right now. Some manufacturers think hydrogen versions might be as little as 10 years away. Then what are you going to get worked up about? People with big houses?

Sincerely,

Michael

Dear Michael,

Do try to keep up. You’re not debating with Sian Berry, or the green movement as a whole. You’re debating with me. My objection to SUVs is part of a wider framework of environmental concerns and objectives, which also include working to prevent unnecessary plane journeys, household energy waste, over-consumption and more. Bitterly jealous though I am of your no doubt enormous ‘material success’, it’s not the reason I don’t like these cars.

 

See if you can respond to the following points with rational rebuttals, rather than willy-waving fulminations:

 

1. I’m opposed to all unnecessary car use, whether it be nipping to the local shop in an SUV or driving the kids round the corner to school in a Mini.

 

2. I’m particularly opposed to large cars that are used, like SUVs, limos or the ‘trucks’ of DJs, black or otherwise, to ferry small numbers of people on unnecessary journeys.

 

3. Comparing cars with trains (what do you mean by ‘unregulated’, by the way?) is spurious. You know very well – or should do – that it’s not overall emissions that matter but emissions per capita. Train travel emits far less per person than car travel, and removes large amounts of potential congestion from the roads.

 

4. ‘Architecture’ matters. Driving big cars down small streets causes both damage and resentment in a way that a smaller car (or, better still, a bicycle) would not.

 

5. We seem to agree that bringing mangetout from Kenya by boat is stupid and unnecessary. Three cheers for the local food economy, then.

 

6. ‘Fuel efficiency’ won’t save you. It’s been estimated, for example, that if all the cars in the US converted to hydrogen fuel cells, it would take at least twice as much energy as is currently produced by the country’s national grid to fuel them. The real issue is our spiralling and unnecessary energy use: a society-wide issue, of which driving SUVs is only one part – albeit a growing and easily preventable part.

 

Fraternally,

Paul

Dear Paul,

Oh, please: don’t you understand that the world outside doesn’t see different shades of green? It doesn’t care whether you speak eloquently and with reasoned charm like your editor, or whether you scare the living daylights out of pre-schoolers like Ms Berry and her SUV-attacking chums. Radicalism will win you headlines; it won’t win you the war.

So, please, drop the totemic assault on tall cars. (I meant to ask: do you hate vehicles like the Renault Espace? Or does having a more sloping windscreen excuse certain cars from your wrath?) And use your considerable passion to persuade the transport sector as a whole to lean off. Then when you’ve done that you can do some real work and attempt to translate Kyoto into Mandarin.

To your points:

1. We at Top Gear Magazine (and even Jeremy Clarkson himself) have never knowingly encouraged unnecessary car use. I like to think we are all too rounded as human beings to regard driving as a pastime. (But I may be guilty of being optimistic there…) My family has a two-seat Smart which is used 90 per cent of the time. Something ‘bigger’ only comes out when the seats are likely to get filled.

2. My SUV has seven seats and they are regularly all filled. Indeed, Volvo estimates that its best-selling, seven-seat SUV spends half its life at 100 per cent occupancy. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that there is no more efficient way of using fossil fuels than an internal combustion engine.

3. Are we talking about congestion or emissions here? (I firmly believe that the only answer to the former is road pricing, and have always supported the congestion charge.) Now you know very well, Paul, the problem with trains: the 8.05 from Godalming jam-packed with commuters is extremely energy efficient (even if it is running on electricity produced at a largely unregulated fossil-fuel-burning power station). It’s the nearly empty 11.03 that screws it up for you. That and the fact that few of us live and work in railway stations.

4. They don’t cause damage unless they hit something. Any vehicle – especially a bus – can do that.

5. Yes, although we’ve seen what the end of crop exports has done to Zimbabwe…

6. Once again, I agree with you (although your view on hydrogen production costs is not shared by everyone). But to be honest, if oil reserves are as low as some are now saying, global warming may be the least of our problems.  

Hope that clears things up a little.

Dear Michael,

You’re probably right: the public don’t see the nuances. When they watch Jeremy Clarkson tearing up a Scottish mountain to ‘road-test’ an SUV, ripping through heather and peat, or crashing one manfully into a chestnut tree to test its toughness, they probably don’t think ‘hmm, now there’s a man who likes to discourage unnecessary car use’. Life can be cruel.

But let’s get back to the real issues. You continue to insist that people campaign against SUVs because they are a ‘totem’ of something or other. Yet when I explain the real reasons to you, you start throwing out red herrings – Zimbabwean agriculture, China and Kyoto, black DJs – so that you can avoid responding.

So I’m going to return to the two biggest black marks on the SUV’s record – both of which I bought up in my first letter, and neither of which you responded to. Can you answer me two simple questions?

First, we agree that climate change is real and getting worse. We agree that CO2 emissions are its major cause. We agree that SUVs emit more CO2 emissions than ordinary cars. Would you also agree that we all have a personal responsibility to emit as little as possible? If so, how can you justify driving an unnecessarily polluting car? If you, living in one of the richest countries in the world, can’t sacrifice a small degree of ‘choice’ to tackle the worst environmental problem humanity has ever faced, what hope is there of us solving it?

Second, I notice you avoided my point about safety entirely, and I can see why: SUVs are some of the most dangerous cars on the roads, especially if you happen to be outside them. To add to my earlier points, I note that the UK Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) reported two months ago that 2004 was the worst year for road deaths for seven years. It blamed the reverse on the increasing popularity of SUVs and ‘people carriers’. Do you accept that SUVs are more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers than ordinary cars? If so, why not drive something smaller and make the roads safer for all of us?

All the best,

Paul

Dear Paul,

I think most folks were thrilled to see that Land Rover on top of that mountain, and I think most folks laughed out loud when Jeremy drove into the tree. So however correct your message might be, people just ain’t hearing it. Maybe you should listen just a little harder to those people who are vaguely sympathetic to your argument and in a position to fine-tune it a little. I assume you’re not so smug that you were not made more than a little anxious by the almost immeasurably small visibility of the Greens and green issues in the May election. Someone, somewhere is not doing their job.

I do insist and will continue to insist that SUVs are not the issue (I honestly believe personal transport shouldn’t even make your top 10 of environmental issues, but, hey, it’s what I’m here for), and that it’s all unnecessary polluters you should object to: old cars, taxis, limos, sports cars, people carriers, all cars made in America, buses, commercial vehicles and, yes, some SUVs.

So why have you picked on SUVs? Can you tell me that? I can tell you a 10-year-old Volvo emits not only a lot more CO2, but a whole bunch of other nasties likely to kill my kid sooner than global warming.

I know, I know, I know: you believe SUVs are dangerous and you quote the TRL opinion (from which the agency has now distanced itself) that SUVs are more likely to be involved in accidents. Hmmm, funny that. In the US the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says quite the reverse, not altogether unsurprisingly considering the clear visibility advantages SUVs offer.

The TRL also now says that an SUV might well be safer in a pedestrian impact, the bluff front actually helping to keep the pedestrian’s head away from the windscreen. Indeed, shortly to be introduced European legislation is forcing car makers to redesign the noses and bonnets of new cars to make them higher and more bluff.

And yes, we did see a rise in road fatalities last year, but please don’t try and pretend that was anything other than a sadly predictable rise in deaths in young men aged 17-34. I think even you know they don’t drive SUVs.

You must be heartened to hear of the rapid decline in sales of large SUVs in the US and of how sales of small cars are booming in the UK. Motorists are not as careless as you believe. So, please, give the individual some credit, and learn to fight those battles really worth fighting.

Michael 

Dear Michael,

 

Doubtless the viewers of Top Gear found the sight of a middle-aged plonker in saggy jeans ramming his big silver car into a 300-year-old tree downright hilarious. I think this tells us all we need to know about the viewers of Top Gear. And its readers, come to that.

 

Fortunately, according to your circulation figures, only 165,000 people buy your magazine. That means around 59.58 million people don’t. I reckon that gives us something to work with. It’s also 118,000 less than voted for the Green Party in May, by the way. Perhaps you’re not doing your job.

 

But I am going to answer your question, even though you haven’t answered all of mine. ‘Why have you picked on SUVs?’ you ask. Well, we’ve gone through the SUV’s black marks pretty exhaustively. I could use this last letter to roll out some more we haven’t even covered: the sheer volume of materials that go into making such a massive vehicle, for instance, and the impact that has on the environment.

 

But I think the answer is broader than that. I think the reason that people have begun to focus on SUVs is that – unlike old Volvos or London taxis – they have opened a new front in what seems to be our losing battle against car culture.

 

I have been campaigning on transport issues for more than a decade. In that time I have seen climate change move from a ‘wacky’ theory that appeared only in magazines like The Ecologist into mainstream science and politics. I have seen new roads destroy virgin countryside. I have seen the number and volume of cars on the roads grow relentlessly. I have heard politician after academic after journalist acknowledge that our insane love affair with the car needs to end if we are to live in any kind of decent society.

 

Then, just as I thought we might be getting somewhere, along came the SUV – the epitome of everything that has been going wrong. Dangerous, arrogantly wasteful, pointless, irresponsible and antisocial, driving one sends a crystal-clear message to society: ‘Stuff you. I’ll drive what I like. You can clean up the mess.’ No wonder people respond in kind.

 

‘Personal transport’ is a big issue, and it’s only going to get bigger. We need to change our whole relationship with the car, and quickly. The rise of the SUV doesn’t take us forward: it drags us backwards. Sales are declining, you say. Then maybe I’m not alone. Sales of bicycles, by the way, are apparently booming. Care to join me?

 

All the best,

Paul

 

Click here to join in the debate 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2005

 

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