All in all, car bloat has increased vehicle prices while making autos more destructive to human life, natural ecosystems, and pavement alike. Because the full societal costs of crashes, pollution, and road repairs are not borne by owners of SUVs and trucks, every American is effectively subsidizing car bloat. Even if they drive a sedan, and even if they don’t own a car at all.
It has taken decades, but the world is starting to recognize the dangers of unfettered car bloat. U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy has spoken publicly about the resultant risks to road safety, and the issue has attracted coverage in outlets including National Public Radio, the New York Times, and NBC News. Even some auto executives have admitted to having reservations. “It’s frustrating for me how heavy cars have become,” Ned Curic, the CTO of Stellantis, told Automotive News in July. “It’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for resources, it’s not good for efficiency.”
However, such views are far from universal within the executive-suites of American automakers. Last summer, Mike Levine, Ford’s North America product communications director, responded to a claim that the rise in pedestrian deaths was due to car bloat by claiming that the surge in pedestrian deaths was due to “street lighting” – an obvious deflection.
American carmakers do not want to draw attention to the growing size of their lineups, given that their profits rely on the juicy margins of big SUVs and trucks. Such revenues are essential to finance multibillion-dollar investments in electric, and autonomous, driving technologies, as well as to cover the increasing labor costs enshrined in new union agreements.
Posawatz, the ex–GM executive, has said that he suspects automakers’ top brass understand the downsides of car bloat, but that they see no alternative. “In fairness to them, in their hearts, they want to be responsible,” he said. “But they have to create positive cash flow to fund various opportunities.” They also have to cater to their shareholders, who demand ever increasing returns on their investments – unregulated capitalism.
Cash-flow pressures are hard to overcome. In theory, external market dynamics could cause a sharp shift in car shoppers’ preferences, as they did in the 1970s when a spike in oil prices led consumers to embrace gas-sipping “subcompacts.” A comparable surge in gasoline prices could likewise tilt purchase decisions toward smaller, gas-powered cars, but it wouldn’t shift consumers away from bloated EV models.
The sole remaining force capable of curbing vehicular enormity is the government. Congress, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could intervene in the name of public safety, the environment, or market efficiency, by slapping new taxes on the heaviest cars, as France has done, or adding crash tests that evaluate the risk that over-size car designs pose to pedestrians and other vehicles in a collision.
There’s just not strong public support, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, has said publically. “You’re up against all the marketing of car companies,” he said. “Every football game, you’ve got 15 commercials about the freedom of the road.”
The Department of Transportation, for its part, seems scared about any move that could be interpreted as preventing Americans from expressing their freedom by driving humongous-sized vehicles. “They haven’t done anything to address the issue of heavier and bigger vehicles—at all,” Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, has said.
In February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was asked in an interview in Fast Company what role regulations can play in managing the safety issues created by large SUVs and trucks. He ducked the question, replying that “it’s important to do further research.” In December, DOT shared a picture of President Biden grinning inside a gargantuan Hummer EV in a social media post celebrating car electrification.
With the federal government failing to act, it has fallen on state and local officials to push back against car bloat. The good news is that a growing number are doing so. In 2022, the District of Columbia revised its car registration fees to charge those with especially heavy models $500 per year, seven times more than owners of small sedans. Since then, Colorado and New York have proposed similar moves. Such policies hold intuitive appeal: Buyers are still free to purchase a big SUV and truck, but they must pay extra to account for the costs their purchase inflicts on everyone else.
However, this is a frustratingly piecemeal approach to an issue that affects all Americans, and besides, cars can be driven across jurisdictional lines, and thousands, or perhaps millions are every day. To truly get a handle on American car bloat, the federal government will need to shake off its lethargy and enact new fees, regulations, or both. Given the power wielded by an auto industry invested in the status quo, such moves are unlikely in the absence of popular outrage that forces federal action.
Convincing Americans to rethink auto regulations—and then get very fired up about it—is not easy, but it is possible. In the 1960s, a surge in crash deaths, a series of Senate hearings, and the explosive publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s jeremiad against the car industry, led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the enactment of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and the establishment of road safety as a federal responsibility.
That 1960s reformist movement focused on risks to cars’ occupants. The current car safety crisis in the U.S. revolves around risks borne by those outside modern SUVs and trucks—including people walking, biking, or inside a smaller vehicle. That dynamic makes political mobilization harder, since some SUV and truck owners may resist it because they do not see themselves as beneficiaries. If so, they would be mistaken: A nation with smaller cars would confer a myriad of benefits on every citizen, not only through safer streets, but also cleaner air and more affordable mobility.
Building political momentum to address car bloat will take time, particularly because many Americans are unaware of the steep, often hidden costs that it imposes on them, regardless of how they travel. A good first step is to simply name hulking SUVs and pickup trucks for what they are: monstrosities whose size is deadly, destructive, and, for almost everyone who has one, utterly unnecessary.