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SUV Challenge
Jamais Cascio, 20 Apr 04

As much as many of us don't like it, Americans love SUVs, believing them to be safer than passenger cars (even though statistics say otherwise). Those of us who look at giant sport utility vehicles on the highway and see nothing more than many added tons of annual emissions have few choices: we can hector and lecture SUV drivers, nagging them to change their sinful ways; we can simply hope that the SUV trend will eventually go away; or we can try to change the SUVs to make them less harmful. While the hectoring and lecture approach may be satisfying, and the waiting for market trends to shift approach may be simplest, the attempt to change SUVs approach is likely the smartest. And we are all about smart responses here...

So is the Union of Concerned Scientists. They've started the "SUV Solutions" website, which takes a double-barrelled shot at unsafe, environmentally unsound SUVs. Both of their approaches are worth taking a closer look at -- and participating in.

Firstly, they are trying to get at least 50,000 Americans to send email (or, better still, paper mail or a phone call) to Jeffery Runge, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official reviewing public comments on SUV safety regulations. Right now, SUVs are treated by law as "light trucks," not automobiles, meaning that safety and emissions regulations are comparatively lax. The UCS form letter (which you can readily personalize) is fairly tame, as it doesn't suggest specific changes, only that the changes that do emerge should not push people towards buying trucks, encourage manufacturers to make vehicles heavier, or reduce fuel efficiency in the name of safety.

Closing the loopholes that let SUVs avoid the stricter automobile regulations would go a long way towards making SUVs better vehicular citizens.

The typical industry response to such demands is to claim that it's impossible to make SUVs that can meet these requirements with current technology, or in forms that consumers would want to buy. The second arm of the UCS approach is to create a blueprint for a sport utilty vehicle which gets much better mileage, produces far fewer emissions, is safer in accidents, and still provides the size that consumers seem to slaver over -- all using off-the-shelf technology. They call the SUV design the "Guardian" model, and claim that adding its features to current model SUVs would add around $750 to vehicle costs.

The Guardian design won't make an SUV competitive with a Prius or Insight when it comes to mileage, but that's okay; when the best midsize SUV gets a whopping 25 mpg (the Saturn Vue) -- and most others get far worse -- even mileage in the 30-35 mpg range is almost revolutionary.

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I believe there are plans for the first hybrid-engine SUVs to be rolled out in 2005.

Posted by: Jennifer on 20 Apr 04

Indeed, although they will be fairly small models (Ford's Escape(?) mini-SUV and a Nissan Pathfinder, if I recall correctly). They'll also be a couple of thousand dollars more expensive than comparable non-hybrid models. That said, I do hope they're popular.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Apr 04

The Guardian design looks modest when compared to the Rocky Mountain Institute Hypercar project.

Posted by: Tatu Siltanen on 21 Apr 04

You're absolutely right. It is very modest in comparison -- but the hypercar is not an SUV, and the US market right now still really wants SUVs. The Guardian blueprint is intended to show how easily and inexpensively current SUV designs can be made significantly more fuel-efficient and safe.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Apr 04

How much you drive is way more important that what you drive. People who slam SUVs are avoiding the real issue.. we are all to blame.

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 21 Apr 04



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