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SUV arms race puts climate and safety at risk

Image credit: Dreamstime, E&T

Progress in selling more electric cars is offset by the growth in sales of larger and more polluting sports utility vehicles. SUVs present greater threats to both safety and climate change. E&T consulted experts and examined the data about the future of the bulky vehicle class.

Sports utility vehicle (SUV) advertising is often libertarian. Advertisers never fail to show the tall and bulky vehicle in front of a vast, secluded landscape, but there is often a lack of people or other vehicles around. Reality is nothing like it. The chances are extremely low that a 4x4 SUV model will drive more than half of the time on the untouched off-road terrain where it excels.

In war, truth is the first casualty. The same logic applies for SUVs, where advertising and reality misalign. Car ownership is growing in the UK, except in London. SUVs are mostly bought and driven in overcrowded and traffic-jam-ridden cities. Their added power and elevated driving position, which shine in off-road settings, appear wasted on slow-moving urban roads. As energy efficiency climbs up the to-do lists of government officials in an effort to tackle climate change, SUVs are under examination.

Warning sticker on SUV ad

Image credit: Adfree Cities

SUV ads are misleading, critics say: “It is true. Most SUV drivers use their vehicles off-road. ‘Off-the-road’ when they leave them parking,” jokes Professor Jillian Anable, a transport researcher at the University of Leeds.

Outside the UK, it’s not only in 4x4-obsessed America that SUVs are bestsellers. In Paris, France, nearly every second car registered is now a SUV, up from 22 per cent in 2015. The greatest demand is from wealthy Parisians in the city’s suburbs.

Not meant for off-road

E&T’s investigation reveals that SUVs often don’t come with off-road or all-terrain tyres, an indication that sellers don’t expect drivers to leave the tarmac roads. “Some SUVs are portrayed as outdoor exploration vehicles, but often come without the appropriate tyres”, confirms Robbie Gillett, a campaigner at climate charity Possible, which together with the New Weather Institute think tank, recently called for a ban on SUV advertising.

Some review sites also argue that buyers don’t require all-terrain tyres if they spend less than half of their time off-road. Off-road tyres can affect the fuel economy of models and add to emissions. Factors that improve fuel economy metrics, such as city tyres, are dear to car dealers as they know customers care about ongoing fuel costs. Riding off-road is often not even the goal anymore. E&T found several car-buying websites that offer guidance on which SUVs are best for driving in cities. 

Environmental concerns

Proponents of modern SUVs argue that advances in fuel economy statistics are so considerable that buyers don’t need to fret about their impact on the environment. The first part is true and the US Environmental Protection Agency admits progress. Automakers use those metrics increasingly in their sales pitch, E&T found.

But critics note the comparison may be unjust. Emissions, as well as air pollution levels from heavier vehicles, are higher, by default. Heavier cars require more energy for acceleration. Larger models from German brands like BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche contributed to an increased share of emissions. CO2 emissions surged to 132g/km in 2019, up from 129 in 2015 for new cars. That’s far from new EU emission targets of 95g/km that will come into force next year, one researcher points out. A 10 per cent change in vehicle weight can alter fuel economy by six to eight per cent, experts reckon. The trend is motivating some SUV automakers to experiment with lightweight components.

Another drawback: bulkier types will usually need more raw materials. That’s equally true with SUV electric vehicles, where heavier models rely on larger batteries requiring more rare raw materials like lithium, which is increasingly in short supply. EVs are now 10 to 25 per cent heavier than petrol and diesel-fuelled cars in their category.

“It’s a horrible dilemma”, explains Anable.  More people demand bigger cars as they fill the streets. Research confirmed a trend towards taller and heavier cars. Weight, paradoxically, also increases as automakers stuff new cars with more technology to cut emissions.

Bigger cars in combination with a decline in car occupancy – on average, British cars carry 1.58 persons, down from above 1.8 in the 1980s – helps perpetuate the toll on the environment. A 2019 IEA report found SUVs are the second-largest contributor to the surge in global CO2 emissions since 2010. It eclipsed heavy industry like iron and steel, cement, aluminium, as well as trucks and aviation.

Progress in introducing electric models is less valuable if it’s offset by growing sales of SUVs. For the first time, an increase of SUVs outweighed growth in sales of EVs. In 2019, one fully electric car was sold every 15 minutes compared to 14 SUVs in the same time.

Things are not necessarily improving. A year earlier SUVs sales outweighed EV sales by only 11 times, though first-half 2020 numbers look more hopeful. SUVs now outsell EVs by a factor of five. This might have something to do with the impact of the pandemic, which saw EV sales soar according to SMMT figures. Across Europe the same trend is visible, though not elsewhere. Within the EU, EV sales for the first half of 2020 were up by more than 45 per cent. Given that the rise is fuelled by a combination of new stimulus programmes, new model launches and automakers trying to meet new carbon dioxide emissions targets, it's uncertain if the momentum can be maintained beyond the pandemic.

Next to emissions affecting climate change, SUV critics say the vehicles cause higher air pollution levels. A lot of particulate-matter pollution comes not from vehicles’ exhausts but from tyre and road wear: the heavier the vehicle, the faster the tyres wear and add to local air pollution, experts say.

SUV engine power and the city seem largely incompatible. In crammed places like London, the average speed is just above 16 miles per hour. This is one reason why politicians are increasingly calling for restrictions on heavy vehicles in urban areas.

Why so popular?

SUV sales figures are exploding. Currently 200 million of them plaster the streets around the world. Even in times of a raging pandemic, analysts found that demand for heavier cars increased by 28 per cent for June and July, compared with the same period last year. Why do SUVs keep selling like hot cakes?

The environment isn’t a key selling point – it’s safety, expert say. “A bigger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter one”, states US based IIHS, a non-profit organisation funded by auto insurance companies. E&T encounters safety as a bedrock feature in SUV advertising. One of the core markets for SUVs is young families. SUV ad critics say it’s an arms race for vehicle size. A lighter vehicle will always be at a disadvantage in collision with a heavier one. It would increase fear among people who have smaller cars as larger cars form crowds around them.

“You suddenly feel much more vulnerable driving a low-down car”, says Leo Murray, a climate change advocate. More safety equipment installed in SUVs adds further ballast. Car companies capitalise on greater safety and comfort. But selling safety per se is deceptive. Car testing found taller cars - of which many are SUVs - are more susceptible to dangerous rollovers. Occupants are at higher risk. 2003 statistics from the United States found SUV drivers and passengers were 11 per cent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars.

It’s not just car occupants at risk. Experts worry more about keeping everyone else safe in traffic, especially pedestrians. In the US, a 2018 report from IIHS looked at why pedestrian accident rates had surged to new heights, and noted that crashes were increasingly likely to involve SUVs and high-horsepower vehicles.

Often, SUVs have adaptations that jeopardise pedestrian safety, experts warn. For instance, front-bars that give SUVs their bulky look can create unintended risks for children. “Those cars are designed to protect your vehicle if it hits a branch or a kangaroo in Australia”, Gillett says. A higher bumper on the vehicle can make collisions with children more deadly. Greater weight is a contributing factor to how survivable a crash is, the Department for Transport found in a study from 2007.

It is difficult to gauge whether SUVs also jeopardise safety in the UK. E&T failed to find class-specific accident statistics. A representative from the Department of Transport says that SUV data is wrapped up in statistics for all cars. Why can’t the UK record class-specific accidents like the US? Some evidence suggests engine power plays a role in fatality. A report for road-safety campaign group Action Vision Zero found that pedestrians hit by cars are 43 per cent more likely to die if the vehicle engine size is greater than 1800cc than for smaller engines. A collision with a 2.4-litre car is 70 per cent more likely to kill pedestrians than for 1.6-litre models.

Are SUV buyers oblivious? Giulio Mattioli, transport researcher at the Technical University of Dortmund, attributes the blindness partly to what experts call ‘compensatory green beliefs’. Consumers are bad at estimating how much impact their choices have. Mattioli says people overestimate impact from recycling, and hugely underestimate emissions for flying to the US. People also lack the ability to compare. They often treat emissions like sins. “They think doing something more carbon-intensive, like buying a SUV, can be offset by doing something else that counteracts it. Their sense of what constitutes as a viable trade-off is often inaccurate”.

The SUV supply side provides answers, too. Critics blame ever more convenient SUV financing schemes to add to sales. They allege they destroy incentives for buyers to purchase less-polluting vehicles. In the UK, Vehicle Excise Duty was aimed at new car buyers to sway them to switch to cleaner cars. The problem, Gillett says, is that tax was wrapped in a finance package of monthly instalments that buried it in loan repayments. Financing packages may hide the larger up-front costs of SUVs. UK car market analysts at Autotrader told E&T that better financing deals for SUV are feasible. SUVs tend to have a higher residual value than compact cars, which means there is higher profitability.

Anable believes algorithms determining the resale value of SUVs may add to buyers’ appetite. It gets them a better deal than with lighter cars or EVs. For EVs the argument is solid: “What [auto sellers] have been doing with EVs is being pessimistic about the resale value. The cost of an EV on finance has been much greater [than for SUVs]”.

SUVs are more lucrative for automakers. Elevated driving can sell at a premium price. But for how much longer? Most automakers offer SUV models now. In 2018, higher SUV profits motivated Ford to stop selling still popular smaller cars. New ‘white space’ vehicle silhouettes were planned to combine the best features of cars and utilities, such as higher ride height, space and versatility, Ford said. As Ford and GM lost even more money on lighter models, like the sedan [saloon], the firms ramped up marketing budgets for SUV classes.

The eco-labelling scheme to sway demand is out of its depth compared to the fortunes spent on SUV marketing. Anable doesn’t believe [current] environmental car labelling is fit for purpose. “It doesn’t really matter whether you put the environmental credentials up in flashing lights with a ringtone. It will be a secondary factor, only after all other criteria, like size and safety, are met”. There’s a disconnect between how people think fuel economy metrics benefit the environment. Such metrics advertised aren’t likely to sway consumers to opt for more environmentally friendly models when comparison is class-specific.

Instead, when fuel economy labelling is compared and communicated across classes and use case, it’s more effective. UK’s Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership researched the best way to communicate green-targeting labelling and created a new label with the Department for Transport and Vehicle Certification Agency: “Comparisons must compare like with like and make it clear whether they relate to a model range, specific vehicle or attribute.”

The comparative information required for people to reconsider their choice for a large vehicle class is to offer information that includes other classes, Anable says. “If you went for a different class of car altogether, you’d get so much more for your money, each time you drove it”. It’s about fuel efficiency comparison and cost per mile. Fuel prices change, and ideally car drivers have a QR code to check real-time fuel prices, exposing “what this is going to cost me to get to work and back, or what this is going to cost me to get to grandma’s and back. That’s what really matters to people”. 

SMMT, which lobbies on behalf of motor manufacturers and the trader sector, takes the familiar stance that overall, vehicles contribute much less to the environment than before: “To single out a particular body type is to ignore advances in emissions and powertrain technology made with every new model, says CEO Mike Hawes.

Vehicles of all types are the cleanest in history, with average CO2 emissions from dual-purpose vehicles (those designed for carriage of both passengers and goods) more than 43 per cent lower than 20 years ago. Yet calculations covering a more recent period shows a different picture. Calculations on 300 models by consumer magazine Which? found: since 2017, the average CO2 for cars increased by 10.5g/km, or seven per cent. The emission surge was far higher for mid-size petrol SUVs, growing by 20.4 per cent from 157.6g/km to 189.8g/km. The most concerning upwards trend is for the petrol-hybrid class, where emissions grew by nearly a third (31.7 per cent).

Greg Archer at campaign group Transport & Environment says current labelling is ripe for an update. Energy efficiency labelling was adopted over 10 years ago. Now the UK’s departure from the EU gives another reason to make long overdue changes. EU car labelling regulations are “complex and largely obsolete”, he says: “We can build something better”. 

Some think interpretation of fuel efficiency measures could grow more complex. The status quo is extremely complicated. Recently, some automakers had to buy credit from Tesla to bring their average emissions down on paper because they fell short in selling zero-emissions vehicles.

SUV ad ban: How effective is it?

Critics of a SUV ad ban say it wouldn’t have much effect. “People spending £70,000 on a new car are probably not swayed much by ads – they’re attracted to the prestige brand. I suspect banning adverts wouldn’t make a great deal of difference”, says RAC Foundation’s Steve Gooding. Yet authors of the ‘Upselling Smoke’ report and its online petition (which garnered 6,000 signatures as of August 2020) only demand banning ads for the dirtiest and biggest SUVs. Those include cars emitting more than 160g/km of CO2 or more than 4.8 metres long.

SUV ads

Image credit: Adfree Cities

A ban is unlikely, but it is inevitable that the manufacturers will respond. There is increasing pressure on average emission targets by the regulator. The most feasible response is to see many automakers switch to SUV-like EVs to keep cashing in on a premium price. For SUV critics, that’s not the answer: “An electric SUV is the heaviest car out there”, Leo Murray comments.

Lack of research makes it harder to discourage SUV buying. Giulio Mattioli studied the topic and says a paper search on Scopus (Elsevier’s abstract and citation database) drew up 25 results on SUVs involved in the sustainable energy transition (most were about technical aspects of the vehicles). The SUV field is overlooked, he says.

Powerful lobbyists are a deterrent for legislative changes. “In the US, what we see is very intense lobbying around Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets and that is very much linked to the expansion of the SUV segment within the wider automotive industry”, according to Influencer Map, a think tank investigating climate lobbying.

Not all SUV buyers have no case to offer. Even critics admit there might be legitimate use. People with special needs, people living in remote areas or farmers, are examples. Anable suggests one solution is to issue special licences for larger cars. Critics say most people buy cars with extreme use cases in mind, like driving off-road, even if they only use it a couple of days a year on more difficult terrain. Having guaranteed access to a larger car when they need it is perhaps all that’s required.

91 per cent of UK’s new car market is financed and accessed via leasing schemes, leaving just a few who own their new car outright. The jump from leasing to a flexible scheme to access large vehicles ‘on demand’ isn’t far, Archer says. Some manufacturers have already started serving the market in this way.

Archer trusts that SUV sales will slowly die down “as buyers will get it” following a recent drop in diesel sales. “We will start to see a switch back to slightly smaller vehicles,” he says. In June, a LowCVP survey found half of buyers said choosing an environmentally friendly new car is now more important than before. But Anable says climate change did little to sway demand for diesel cars. Instead, what helped was bad press and how much diesel cars added to bad air quality. Also, environmental motives hardly played a role in car fleet car sales. Around half of new cars are fleet purchases. Users didn’t switch to EVs but to plug-in hybrid vehicles, mainly because they’re more fuel-efficient than standard petrol cars, she says. 

Despite increased pressure by government and new labelling schemes under way, opponents and proponents of SUVs can agree on one thing: there has never been a better time for the SUV salesperson. Bias towards heavier vehicles will continue and benefit carmakers. According to the EU Commission, manufacturers of heavier cars are permitted higher emissions than manufacturers of lighter cars in the years to come.

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