IT’s the car of the future. It’s taking off in markets all over the world. The electric vehicle? Hardly. It’s the SUV (sports utility vehicle), the rugged, off-road gas-guzzler that America invented and the world increasingly loves to drive.
Spurred by rising incomes and lower gas prices, drivers in China, Australia and other countries are ditching their smaller sedans for bigger rides at a rapid pace.
For the first time, SUVs and their lighter, more carlike cousins known as “crossovers” made up more than one in three cars sold globally last year, almost tripling their share from just a decade ago, according to new figures from automotive research firm JATO Dynamics.
The ascent of SUVs and crossovers is already slowing progress in reining in emissions from the world’s cars and trucks, major emitters of the gases that are warming the planet.
Transportation accounts for an estimated 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and trucks making up the biggest share.
Between 2005 and 2008, the average fuel economy of new cars worldwide improved by about 1.8 per cent a year, according to the United Nations’ Global Fuel Economy Initiative. But, since then, that pace has slowed to 1.1 per cent in 2015, the latest data available, far below the near three per cent clip needed to simply stabilise emissions from the world’s car fleet.
There are no signs that the trend has improved since then, said Anup Bandivadekar, who heads the passenger vehicle programme at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-profit think tank affiliated with the UN initiative.
The global SUV boom is a roadblock in the march toward cleaner cars that has been aided by advances in fuel-saving technology and hybrid or electric vehicles. Compared to smaller cars, SUVs are less efficient, generally by about 30 per cent.
SUVs are also less likely to go electric soon. There are technological hurdles to powering a larger car with batteries, and the perception among many automakers remains that drivers of SUVs value power and performance, and don’t want to be constrained by the range anxiety of battery-powered cars.
For the moment, Tesla’s Model X is the only major fully electric SUV on the market.
The SUV-building bonanza contrasts with promises made by automakers of big investments in electric vehicles and other low-emitting vehicles.
At the same time, they are pouring resources into far more polluting SUVs.
The SUVs global dominance today has roots in the US of the 1970s, when automakers started confronting stricter auto-safety and environmental rules.
Authorised by a Clean Air Act amendment to set federal tailpipe rules for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency required automakers to more than double their average fuel efficiency over the following decade. But, vans, pickup trucks and other off-road vehicles escaped with fewer restrictions than traditional passenger cars.
Detroit’s riposte: Turn the truck into America’s new family car.
The Jeep Cherokee became an early runaway hit — a “versatile family fun machine that has the ruggedness, reliability and go-anywhere heritage Jeep vehicles are known for”, declares the brochure for its 1974 model — leading the way for others to turn working vehicles into family rides. Cherokees and Ford Explorers soon began replacing Tauruses and other smaller cars on driveways across America.
In North America, SUVs and pickup trucks outsell all other car categories combined.
The vehicles are now particularly popular in China, where the big cars have offered a sense of status, stability on bumpy roads, and room for larger families emerging with the phasing out of the one-child policy.
McKinsey, the global consulting firm, predicts that by 2022, one in every two cars sold in China will be an SUV. That could make it tougher for China to tame its urban air-pollution crisis.
Even western Europe has fallen for the SUV. Sales in that region have more than doubled over the past five years, a clip four times as fast as the overall market, according to JATO data.
Automakers have a strong financial incentive to build and try to sell more SUVs, which tend to be higher-end offerings with luxury trimmings that command premiums over the basic vehicles they are based on.
On the other hand, most automakers still lose money on each electric vehicle they sell.
The credit rating firm Moody’s recently warned that electric vehicles will likely generate low returns for automakers through the early 2020s.
Automakers point out that the bulk of the global growth has been in SUV crossovers, which are based on car underbodies (not trucks) and achieve better fuel economy than larger SUVs.
Current EPA rules remain ambiguous on whether crossovers are cars or trucks, allowing manufacturers to still classify many models as trucks, evading tougher fuel economy rules.
Crossovers have also been harmful to overall emissions goals because market research shows that many first-time buyers of crossovers had previously driven cleaner, smaller sedans.
More recent regulations have not helped. Fuel economy standards around the world tend to become more lenient as car weight and size increase. That means SUVs typically do not have to meet as strict a fuel-efficiency standard as smaller cars do.
One question that worries experts: Will the world embrace the SUV’s even-more-polluting cousin, the all-American pickup truck? There are signs this is already happening. --NYT