High and Mighty: SUVs¨the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way|
by Keith Bradsher
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|A Car and its Driver
by Maurice Mierau
Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) is a name with self-contradiction built in. Keith Bradsher has written an important history and analysis of the SUV phenomenon that should resonate well with an environmentally conscious readership. Anyone who thinks High and Mighty will have the same impact Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed did in 1965, though, is overly optimistic. A mere book is not likely to affect the SUV business because of the American economy's heavy reliance on SUV profits. Another problem is the book's style; Bradsher, the long-serving Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times, is just not a storyteller like Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. Perhaps because he lacks a strong narrative gift, Bradsher tends to preach to the converted, and over too many pages.
Bradsher does persuasively document the safety problems of the SUV. In his introduction he estimates that
"Óreplacement of cars with SUVs is currently causing close to 3,000 needless deaths a year in the United States ű as many people annually as died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001."
Bradsher also notes that "there are no government standards for the two main safety problems posed by SUVs¨rollovers and damage inflicted on other vehicles." The reason for the rollovers and the damage on other vehicles is simple: "SUVS remain little more than modified pickup trucks," which is precisely what makes them cheap and profitable to build. SUV bumpers, higher than sedans and small cars, tend in a collision to run over bumpers, hoods and crumple zones of smaller vehicles, with horrific consequences for passengers. "Crash compatibility" is the industry jargon for how well things go when vehicles collide, and the collateral damage increases when manufacturers do things like raise frame rails underneath an SUV, which no existing regulations prevent them from doing.
Bradsher devotes one of his best chapters to Clotaire Rapaille, a French medical anthropologist by training, and the leading consultant to the automakers on consumer psychology. The chapter on Rapaille shows how the auto industry exploits consumer irrationality. Rapaille has no respect for our superficial obsession with reason: He begins his "discoveries", as he calls focus groups, by asking subjects to speak for an hour about their rational responses to a vehicle. "They tell me things I don't really care about, and I don't listen." Then he has them spend another hour pretending to be children on another planet, fantasizing out loud about what they might do with an SUV. Rapaille also ignores these responses. The last phase has each consumer lie in near darkness and talk about his or her earliest associations with vehicles, a kind of vehicle Rorschach test designed to elicit a primal or 'reptilian' response to a proposed design. Here is where the truth comes out. Consumers' paranoia about crime and hostility toward their fellow-citizens are deep feelings that can be assuaged in the chalice of an appropriate product.
The psychosexual component of this marketing is pretty clear in the TV ad for the Chevrolet Avalanche that goes "we didn't intend to make other trucks feel pathetic and inadequate, it just sort of happened." The so-called war on terror that began after Rapaille had already established himself as Detroit's leading Freudian obviously fuels SUV sales as well. Irrational fears of crime and violence, a widening gap between rich and poor furthered by tax cuts aimed at the rich, and a decaying public sector all make for a society in which everyone wants to drive high above the road, with tinted windows and a dominating gaze downwards at a frightening world.
Consumer irrationality is tough to explain though. Salon, an American e-zine, interviewed Bradsher this spring, and an offended reader wrote a letter to the site posted in May:
"I don't know about you, but in the world I live in most SUVs are not especially intimidatingÓ. We have a Ó Nissan Pathfinder because we have two babies and a dog, and today's car seats take up a lot of spaceÓ. Frankly, we find it is frequently too small Ó."
The offended party doesn't explain why he bought an SUV rather than a minivan, since there are many minivans that would be safer, more fuel-efficient, less polluting, AND have more room for "today's car seats" than his SUV. His rejection of the intimidation factor in buying the gentler, kinder Pathfinder seems convincing. But there are at least two other issues that affect even those who voted for Ralph Nader and Canada's New Democrats. One is the fantasy that you need an SUV to enjoy the great outdoors. The other is that SUVs are much cooler looking as fashion accessories than minivans or cars.
Bradsher does a good job of explaining the paradox of all those affluent, nature-loving boomers buying SUVs: "Óthe off-road capabilities of SUVs meant that they were marketed heavily at first to baby boomers who thought they might someday want to explore the great outdoors." "Thought they might" is the operative phrase here ű the marketers knew that "what counted was the fantasy of what [consumers] might want to do during a vacation," not the reality that they almost never get the vehicle out of the city. Although Bradsher sees the boomer-dominated environmental movement catching up to the importance of SUVs, he also notes that:
"Incredibly, no environmental group kept even a one-person office in Detroit dedicated to keeping an eye on the nation's biggest industry through the 1990s, nor does such an office exist even today."
The auto industry understands precisely how the coolness of the SUV connects intimately with its pointlessness. Market researchers like Ford "vehicle strategist" Jim Bulin cite fashionistas walking around an Atlanta mall in hiking boots suitable for Mount Everest. He calls this phenomenon "preparedness chic." Whatever you call it, the road of excess leads to the palace of profit.
Few boomers would be flattered by the portrait that auto industry market research has painted of the typical SUV buyer:
"They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities."
What has made the incredible growth of the SUV marketplace possible, especially in the United States, which largely determines the "standards" for Canada and other smaller economies? Bradsher argues that "a public policy disaster" started almost forty years ago and continued to the point where the whole American economy is now highly dependent on "inefficient, unsafe, heavily polluting SUVs." Bradsher tells how a trade dispute in 1963 between the European Economic Community and the United States over chickens led to a retaliatory tax on imported light trucks that persists to this day. This 1964 tax sheltered Detroit automakers for many years from foreign competitors in the light truck and eventually the SUV market. Bradsher also explains clearly and in detail all the sneaky loopholes that industry and union lobbyists found and won so that bigger and bigger SUVs could be classified as light trucks, freeing them from government regulations which applied to cars in the areas of fuel economy and safety.
Bradsher also makes it clear how politically difficult it will be to cure America's addiction to supersized vehicles:
"Michigan and Ohio residents in particular are so evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans that these states are crucial in every presidential election that is not a landslide. "
Right now GM and Ford each have seven times the sales revenue of Microsoft. That revenue would be threatened by any politician who dared take on an industry that has put family vehicles on steroids.
Bradsher issues a clear warning about a future in which there are more SUVs on the road than ever, and used SUVs flood the market so that younger drivers and drivers with poor safety records start using them. Failing brakes and maintenance problems, combined with the inherent safety problems of an unstable vehicle that accelerates easily to dangerous speeds make for a chilling prospect. Bradsher's warning will be largely ignored, however, unless North Americans elect politicians willing to regulate industries that are truly unsafe at any speed. ˛