Pickup and SUV users are getting kicked around a lot these days, accused of everything from supporting terrorism to driving unsafe vehicles. What's missing from all this light-truck bashing, however, is a serious dose of reality.
Bill Brouse, founder of Sport Utility Vehicles Owners of America (SUVOA), wants to change that. Ignorance of the legitimate needs for light work trucks by anti-SUV groups pushed him to establish the group in 1999.
“People make a conscious choice when they buy a vehicle, and they base their choice … on their needs,” said Brouse. “What the bashers are saying about SUVs and light trucks doesn't take into account the value they can provide. For example, a utility fleet recently told me that these vehicles are the only type that allow it to go off-road with enough cargo capacity to carry tools and supplies.”
He's particularly incensed by The Detroit Project and the Evangelical Environmental Network. The former wants to convince Americans that using fuel-guzzling SUVs is tantamount to funding terrorism, since the U.S. must import more oil from the Middle East to meet vehicle fuel needs. The latter goes even further, saying Jesus himself wouldn't drive SUVs and pickups because their higher fuel consumption hurts the Earth.
“[Light truck] owners don't support terrorism and I, for one, think religion should be kept out of the garage,” said Brouse. This is an opinion I heartily endorse.
Let's look at the data that negates much of what light-truck bashers have spouted. While SUV critics focus on rollovers, which account for only 2.5% of crashes, they fail to mention that SUVs are two to three times more protective of their occupants than sedans in front, rear and side collisions, which account for 97.5% of all crashes, according to government statistics. In addition, annual SUV sales have surged over 200% since '90, yet rollover fatalities between '97 and '00 rose only 3.6%
On the fuel economy side, light trucks admittedly lag behind the mpg performance of cars. Though SUVs and other light trucks average 55% better fuel efficiency than their '70s counterparts, it's not enough at a time when we're importing more than 54% of our oil.
This is where Detroit has to take some heat. The Big Three aggressively fought efforts to improve light-truck fuel economy. Light trucks are very profitable, giving Detroit little incentive to make the necessary changes. And remember, the light-truck category, which includes SUVS and minivans, makes up 50% of the 16.5-million vehicles sold in North America each year.
The Big Three have also missed a huge opportunity to develop light-truck hybrids, i.e., vehicles that combine gasoline or diesel engines and electric engines. While Japanese car makers Honda and Toyota have rolled out production-line hybrid sedans and compact SUVs in the last few years, the Big Three are only now moving out of the prototype stage. With gasoline running roughly $1.70/gal., they're well behind the eight ball.
The government is at fault, too. Despite Congressional efforts to raise light-truck fuel economy standards, legislators shot themselves in the foot a decade ago when they forbid fleets to use hybrid vehicles as a way to reduce emissions and reliance on imported oil. Part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, that rule stopped U.S. hybrid development in its tracks.
But Brouse believes light-truck OEMs are now moving in the right direction in terms of design improvements. “They're designing and building light trucks with better fuel economy and emissions controls,” he said. “Those continuing advances in [light-truck] technology are going to wipe out a lot of the arguments.”
Let's hope they happen soon.