Car bloat has been a growing problem in the US for more than 50 years. The vehicles have been getting bigger and bigger, and the public seems to have adopted this trend as normal, if they’ve noticed it at all. The result is monstrosities whose size is deadly, destructive, and, for almost everyone who has one, utterly unnecessary. Sedans have virtually disappeared, as the car industry has promoted SUVs and trucks, mainly because they make more money on the production of these vehicles than they do on smaller sedans.
The vehicle industry has also worked hand-in-hand with the oil industry, whose sole purpose is to sell more fuel: The bigger the vehicle, the more fuel it uses.
Here are some of the reasons why we should aggressively combat car bloat and force our politicians to impose regulatory restraints on this growing (if you will excuse the pun) problem.
- Research suggests that SUVs may be two to three times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians in a collision. In 1977, SUVs and trucks together represented 23 percent of American new car sales; today they comprise more than 80 percent.
- The story of car bloat—the continually expanding size of the typical American automobile—is one of carmaker profit, shifting consumer preferences, and loophole-riddled auto regulations. It is also a story of hidden costs: to the planet, to taxpayers, and to the American families whose lives have been shattered by a crash that could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, with a smaller vehicle. The auto industry plans to keep foisting ever-larger vehicles on the American public. The question is whether it will be allowed to.
- The origins of car bloat can be traced to a now-vanished auto company called the American Motors Corporation. In 1969, AMC acquired, and later repositioned in the market, the Jeep, a legendary military vehicle. They repositioned it as a car for everyday consumers. AMC promoted the Jeep’s four-wheel drive, even though its engineers and executives knew that it had little value for urban buyers. In a precedent-setting move, AMC convinced the federal government to categorize Jeeps as “light trucks” in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy/CAFE standards that were introduced in 1978. Intended to boost the engine efficiency of American cars after the Arab oil embargo, CAFE set looser fuel economy standards for light trucks (like pickup trucks). Later, even though SUVs were aimed at consumers as a substitute for sedans and station wagons, the feds decided to treat them as though they were being used for business operations. “We made damn sure [Jeeps] were classified as trucks, and we lobbied like hell,” Gerald Meyers, AMC’s former chairman, told Bradsher. A Sierra Club official, meanwhile, called the CAFE definition a “loophole big enough to drive a truck through.” As a result, automakers selling big SUVs, aided and abetted by the oil industry, felt less pressure to lower the average fuel economy of their lineups, either by selling more sedans or finding ways to make SUVs more fuel-efficient. That mattered because the weight of SUVs made them gas guzzlers. A 1984 Jeep Cherokee got 16 miles per gallon, 36 percent less than a Chevrolet Cavalier sedan, that year’s most popular car model. Today, the average “light truck” still gets around 10 miles per gallon less than a passenger car.
- AMC was absorbed into Chrysler in 1987; the establishment of SUVs as an emergent and lucrative market segment is its legacy. Other automakers soon followed AMC’s lead, and no wonder. In the early 1990s, Bradsher notes in High and Mighty, Ford’s profit margins on its Explorer SUV exceeded 30 percent. That’s many times the margin on a typical car.
- As SUVs gained popularity, pickup trucks were going through a metamorphosis. Although pickups had been around since the 1920s, they were typically used by farmers and workmen. That changed in the 1980s, as car companies sensed an opportunity—as with SUVs—to upsell customers who would otherwise purchase a cheaper and less profitable passenger car. They targeted urban dwellers who had little need for a truck’s bed or towing capacity but were nonetheless attracted to its macho image. According to a 2019 survey by Strategic Vision, a consultancy, 75 percent of truck owners haul something at most once per year, and more than a third place something in the truck bed once or never.
- “In the case of pickups, I think a lot of people are using them as people carriers, rather than stuff carriers,” Tony Posawatz, who led General Motors’ full-size truck division during the 1990s, told me. Truck designs have evolved accordingly: The first F-150s in the 1970s were 36 percent cabin and 64 percent truck bed, but by 2021 the percentages had almost flipped: 63 percent cabin and 37 percent truck bed. For many owners, the truck bed itself functions like a plume of peacock feathers—attractive, and mostly for show. Ford no longer sells any sedans in the U.S.
- American SUVs and trucks have steadily grown bigger. In 2021, the average SUV and truck were 7 and 32 percent heavier, respectively, than in 1990. The 2023 F-150 truck is around 7 inches taller, 15 inches longer, and 800 pounds heavier than its 1991 version. Electrification, which requires installing a battery large enough to move an already massive car hundreds of miles between charges, causes SUV and truck models to become even heftier. An electric 2024 Chevrolet Silverado, for instance, weighs 8,534 pounds, over a ton more than a gas-powered Silverado.
- Section 179 of the U.S. tax code, for instance, allows small-business owners like realtors and chiropractors to deduct the full price of a vehicle from their taxable income—but only if it weighs over 6,000 pounds.
- TO BE CONTINUED.
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.