This is the second blog on car bloat; the story of how and why vehicle manufacturers, mainly in the US but elsewhere as well, have indoctrinated us with the idea that we must buy bigger and bigger versions of their products.
What, or whom, deserves the most blame for car bloat?
Disentangling the influence of automaker choices, consumer preferences, and federal policy on car bloat is a daunting task for even the most meticulous of researchers. But if nothing else, one thing is clear: The “engorgement of the American vehicle,” as University of Iowa law professor Greg Shill has called it, has been a defining trend of the automotive market over the last 40 years. We are only starting to reckon with its consequences.
Of the various societal ills attributable to car bloat, its effect on road safety may be the most intuitive. The sheer weight of big SUVs and trucks adds force in a collision, putting anyone walking, biking, or inside a smaller vehicle at greater risk.
Because of inertia, heavier cars will travel farther before coming to a halt, making it harder for a driver of a big vehicle to avoid a collision. Added height creates its own problems, since taller vehicles are more likely to strike the torsos of pedestrians rather than their legs. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that vehicles with hoods higher than 40 inches are 45 percent more likely to kill pedestrians than smaller cars. (For context, the hood height of a Jeep Gladiator and a Ford F-250 are above that threshold by 10 and 20 inches, respectively.)
Taller cars also limit a driver’s vision; for instance, by concealing pedestrians behind their A-pillars (the sides of windshields). Even if a driver is looking straight ahead, vehicle height expands blind zones: In 2022, a TV station in Washington, D.C., sat nine children in a line in front of an SUV; all were invisible to the woman sitting in the driver’s seat.
A growing number of studies have linked car bloat to the surge in deaths among American pedestrians and bicyclists, both of which recently hit 40-year highs. University of Hawaii economist Justin Tyndall attributed 1,100 pedestrian deaths in the U.S. to the shift from cars to SUVs in the period from 2000 to 2019, a figure that did not include effects of pickup trucks, or the expansion of model sizes. Notably, most other rich countries, where large cars are not as widespread, have seen a decline in crash fatalities, while the American death toll has surged.
Lost lives from collisions may be the most immediate consequence of car bloat, but the size of huge SUVs and trucks also endangers us in the long term due to their effects on the planet. The problem is due to basic physics: Heavy cars require substantial power to propel them down a road. Although some SUV and truck models have grown marginally more efficient in recent years, the biggest ones remain gas guzzlers: An eight-cylinder Cadillac Escalade gets just 16 miles per gallon of gas, about the same as a new Chevrolet Silverado—or a 1984 Jeep Cherokee.
Electrifying such behemoths is only a partial fix. Electric vehicles generate no tailpipe emissions, but heavy vehicles need huge batteries that impose an environmental toll through the mining of minerals like cobalt and lithium, as well as the generation of electricity consumed during charging. On the extreme end, the 9,000-pound Hummer EV has a battery so enormous that driving it produces more total carbon dioxide than some gas-powered sedans. One study, published in January 2023, found that electric SUVs require such massive batteries that they might worsen climate change by consuming scarce materials that could otherwise electrify a greater number of smaller cars.
The environmental toll of car bloat extends beyond its impact on global temperatures. Vehicles’ added weight causes tires to erode faster, lofting tiny, toxic particles into the air and onto the ground. Such tire pollution is a kind of microplastic, and scientists have only recently begun examining its effects on human health and aquatic ecosystems. Studies have already linked one chemical, known as 6PPD, to the collapse of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and found it to be deadly to other fish species as well. All cars create tire pollution, but bigger ones generate more of it.
Just as heavy cars put greater pressure on tires, they also cause pavement to break down faster. Although an individual SUV or truck will cause only marginally more highway wear than a sedan, most are loaded onto auto haulers, en route to the dealerships, where they are sold. Because roadway erosion grows at the fourth power of vehicle weight per axle, car bloat can turn these auto haulers into veritable asphalt shredders. As roadway maintenance costs rise, everyone ends up footing the bill.
Americans pay for car bloat in other ways, too. The dominance of SUVs and trucks has increased the cost of owning a car, which is a near-necessity in most of the United States – public transportation is non-existent in most places. As automakers retire smaller models, the bigger ones that remain cost more. The added expense extends beyond the purchase price; SUVs and trucks usually require more gas or electricity than sedans, and their insurance premiums are higher, too. AAA recently found that those factors together have raised the typical cost of owning a car in the U.S. to over $1,000 per month, around 70 percent of the cost of the average American house rent.
“The gorge keeps getting deeper and wider,” Bailo, a former Nissan executive, said. “There are people who can afford to buy what car model they want, and then there are those who can’t afford to buy a new car at all.”
The third and final chapter of car bloat will appear in next week’s blogs.