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SUVs: Bigger, Better or Bummer?

June 24, 2000|ERICA ZEITLIN

As sales of sport utility vehicles accelerate, the debate over air and road safety hazards typically posed by these vehicles is not downshifting.

Sport utility vehicles are allowed to pollute more than regular-sized cars and reportedly pose deadly road risks because of their larger size and heavy weight. Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. recently raised concerns about his own company's popular SUVs. ERICA ZEITLIN spoke with representatives of those who champion SUVs and those who believe they pose a danger.

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JAMES CONE

Berkeley environmental health expert; member of the American Public Health Assn. and a former SUV owner who has studied sport utility vehicle environmental and safety issues

Car manufacturers continue making and selling SUVs because they're not interested in giving up profits. [Meanwhile] we're actually subsidizing SUVs: The laws don't hold SUVs to the same emissions standards [as other cars] and their drivers receive preferential tax incentives because of the vehicles' ostensible utility--even though they really tend to be used for taking the kids to soccer practice and music lessons.

The more SUVs are purchased, the less likely the U.S. will meet its Clean Air Act goal of reducing harmful emissions by 2010. In fact, SUVs are expected to contribute one-third of the increase of CO2 over the next 10 years. They're certainly a major threat to the environment in that sense. It's admirable that some car manufacturers are attempting to redesign the SUVs to address [such] pressing concerns.

They also are dangerous because they're so much higher than [other] cars that they obstruct the view of those behind them. While they are not a significant proportion of the total fleet of automobiles, it turns out that SUVs have become a major threat in passenger and automobile accidents: There were more deaths in 1996 due to SUVs than regular cars. SUVs have a tendency to roll over and to cause the deaths of those in passenger cars who are unlucky enough to get hit by one.

The average weight of a car is about 3,000 pounds, while the average weight of an SUV is about 4,000 pounds--with the bigger ones weighing even more than that. SUVs are like tanks and pose hazards to everyone they run into, including pedestrians.

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GLORIA BERGQUIST

Vice president of communications, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

SUVs meet the needs of families, small businesses, farmers, ranchers, tradesmen and outdoor enthusiasts. However, some people enjoy bashing SUVs, perhaps because they are popular. In 1999, SUVs represented 19% of the new vehicles sold. While as many pickup trucks were sold as SUVs, the sport "utes" have been singled out for attention.

Whether used for sport or not, SUVs of all sizes are popular because of their utility. Many drivers simply enjoy the greater visibility of the road that comes from sitting up higher.

In terms of environmental impact, today's SUV runs cleaner than a car did in 1993. All cars and light trucks are at least 96% cleaner than their counterparts in the 1960s.

Nationwide, SUVs must soon meet tough new emissions standards--the same as for cars. In December 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new federal emission requirements that dramatically reduce tailpipe emissions for cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs of all sizes.

Under California's new Low Emission Vehicle program, SUVs must meet the same emissions standards as cars starting in 2004.

The average SUV gets about 21 miles per gallon, while a compact car in the 1970s got about 13 miles per gallon. It is tougher to increase the fuel economy of light trucks without compromising the functions for which they are designed, such as towing and load-carrying capacity and greater room for cargo and passengers. Technologies that resulted in significant car fuel economy improvements, such as front-wheel drive and aerodynamic improvements, aren't always practical on SUVs. But, manufacturers are now focused on developing advanced engine technologies--such as lean burn, compression ignition, direct injection, hybrids, electric vehicles and fuel cells--that could dramatically increase fuel economy for SUVs in the near future.

America's roads carry very diverse vehicles today, including SUVs, pickups, minivans, a range of different-size cars and many types of commercial vehicles. This diversity challenges auto engineers, as never before, to design a vehicle with an eye toward all the other vehicles on the road. For example, auto makers are improving protection for side-impact crashes, one of the most significant issues in crashes between different types of vehicles.

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