Why the SUV-isation of our roads is a large mistake

This opinion piece appeared in the Business Day on 11 Dec 2017. The original article can be viewed here.

Not so long ago, sport utility vehicles — SUVs for short — were declared dead.

In the light of climate change, they were considered dinosaurs to be consigned to the scrapheap in favour of smaller, more efficient cars. In 2004, the then mayor of London stated that SUV drivers were “idiots”.

If SUV drivers are idiots, then there are lots of idiots in SA, and elsewhere in the world for that matter. In recent years, global sales of SUVs have soared. In Europe in 2016, 25% of all new car sales were SUVs, while in SA the figure is not far behind at 20%. Elsewhere, SUVs make up an even greater proportion of new car sales. In the US, the figure is 33%, while in China, it’s 40%.

Volkswagen has announced it will produce 19 SUV and crossover models by 2020. By the same date, Ford is promising 13 different models. SUVs now account for a third of Audi’s sales. The fastest-selling vehicle in Jaguar’s 95-year history is the F-Pace SUV, which makes up 55% of its sales. You can even buy a Maserati SUV, while Ferrari says it will build one too.

What does this mean for the environment and climate change-causing CO² emissions? It is true that due to pollution regulations in Europe and the US, CO² exhaust emissions from new cars have been falling. For example, between 2003 and 2014, they fell on average from 175g/km to 134. Therefore, does it matter that SUV sales are rocketing? Yes, it does, because these CO² emissions figures tell only part of the story.

The larger and more complex a car, the higher the life-cycle emissions. And cars are getting larger and heavier

They only tell us what exhaust emissions are produced by cars in idealised conditions. Research from the European Commission shows that emissions are likely to be 30% to 40% higher than the figures quoted by vehicle manufacturers (and that’s when they are not lying).

Numerous factors play a role — driver behaviour, traffic conditions, road conditions, the use of luxuries such as air-conditioning and so on.

More important is the need to consider the total carbon emissions of cars over their entire life cycles. Life-cycle analysis takes into account the mining and processing of materials needed for car construction, the construction itself, vehicle distribution and the recycling/disposal of cars when they are no longer roadworthy, in addition to exhaust emissions.

In 1973, the Honda Civic weighed 680kg, in 1974, the VW Golf weighed 790kg. Both now weigh about 1.2 tonnes. From 1980 to 2004, (before the SUV boom) the average car weight in the US increased by 12%.

Today, the average US car weighs 1.85 tonnes. The leading small SUV in SA, the Ford Ecosport, weighs 1.35 tonnes. The leading mid-size SUV, the Toyota Rav4, weighs 1.6 tonnes, while the large Toyota Fortuner weighs 1.85 tonnes.

To be fair, some of this weight comes from safety improvements, such as ABS braking and power steering, but much of it comes from luxuries we now take for granted — satellite navigation, air conditioning, electronic windows and seats, entertainment systems, roomy and comfortable interiors. The most worrying trend is that sales of more fuel-efficient hatchbacks and sedans are falling as SUV sales rise.

This SUV-isation of our roads is clearly not good for the environment. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology have produced an application that, while biased towards US cars, clearly shows the increased CO² emissions that come from SUVs over their life cycles compared to smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.

In SA, CO² emissions from cars are handled via an “environmental levy”, whereby consumers pay an additional charge at the point of purchase proportional to the amount of CO² released in exhaust fumes. The idea is that the “polluter pays” principle will act as a disincentive for South Africans to buy large cars.

However, research at Cambridge University has shown that the tax has not made the slightest difference to car-purchasing decisions, as the growth in SUVs being sold clearly demonstrates.

Does this make you an idiot if you drive an SUV?

Of course it doesn’t. But what it does show is that many people who buy new cars are not really thinking about the future health of the planet as they buckle their children into their SUVs.

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