Americans Vote for Fuel Efficiency. Why Do They Buy Guzzlers?

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With new fuel economy standards under consideration in Congress, James Surowiecki ponders why Americans continue to buy gas guzzlers when polls show that the majority would like to see the government mandate big increases in fuel efficiency. What does all of this have to do with professional hockey players wearing helmets? This was in last week’s New Yorker:

Americans may want to buy the biggest and most environmentally damaging vehicles available, but polls show that, given an option, some three-quarters of them vote for dramatic increases in fuel-economy standards-increases that may well force automakers to sell fewer (or at least smaller) S.U.V.s. We buy gas guzzlers but vote for gas sipping. This isn’t because people are ignorant about how higher fuel-economy standards would affect them personally; polls that explicitly lay out the potential trade-offs involved still find support for tougher standards. And it isn’t as if voters and car buyers belong to two different groups; one recent survey of pickup owners found that seventy per cent strongly favored tougher requirements. The curious fact is that many people buying three-ton Suburbans for that arduous two-mile trip to the supermarket also want Congress to pass laws making it harder to buy Suburbans at all.

What’s happening here?

Back in the nineteen-seventies, an economist named Thomas Schelling, who later won the Nobel Prize, noticed something peculiar about the N.H.L. At the time, players were allowed, but not required, to wear helmets, and most players chose to go helmet-less, despite the risk of severe head trauma. But when they were asked in secret ballots most players also said that the league should require them to wear helmets. The reason for this conflict, Schelling explained, was that not wearing a helmet conferred a slight advantage on the ice; crucially, it gave the player better peripheral vision, and it also made him look fearless. The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma: the players could protect their heads without suffering a competitive disadvantage. Without the rule, the players’ individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.

The same phenomenon is, to some extent, at work in the fuel-economy debate. People believe that bigger and heavier cars are safer in a crash (forgetting that, often, bigger cars are also more likely to crash). And people like the fact that driving a higher-horsepower car makes you look better at the stoplight. So our desires as individuals to protect ourselves and to outclass our neighbors encourage us to buy bigger and bigger vehicles with more and more horsepower. And the market doesn’t create counter-incentives that would push us in a responsible direction, since someone who drives a Hummer doesn’t suffer the effects of pollution and global warming any more than someone driving a Prius does, and isn’t charged more for the extra environmental damage.


Photo: mj*laflaca/Flickr

  • greg

    good analogy
    although thankfully people seem to becoming more rational.. a combination of eco “chic”ness and painful trips to the gas pump

  • Chun

    This concept applies to everything else as well. Such as buying a house in suburbia which causes sprawl. But people want to outclass the neighbors ( the Joneses ) and buy a larger house and nicer backyard. This further contributes to the sprawl.

  • Ed Crotch

    People want their cake and eat it too. Classic American Dream syndrome. They are oblivious to what is actually happening in the world around them and feel that they are not a part of the problem even if they are to everyone else. Denial ain’t just a river in Africa.

  • Bill

    “So our desires as individuals . . . to outclass our neighbors encourage us to buy bigger and bigger vehicles with more and more horsepower.”

    Do most Americans really think “more powerful/larger vehicle = higher class,” and are they class-envious of large SUV owners? I’m not sure. Maybe the lower class/underclass might think that, but middle and upper classes?

    Of course, living here for years without owning a vehicle does put me out of touch with the rest of the country, so maybe the article is right.

  • SPer

    Great analogy with clear public policy implications.

  • VDH

    Nice observation about hockey players but it does not carry over in this case.

    As I have posted before when talking about cars, all you have to do is look at sales numbers:

    For years the Ford Explorer far outsold any other SUV in the US. Peak annual sales were close to 500K. Well guess what? The public woke up and its sales have crashed. Latest numbers are 180K annual sales and the Honda CRV (a much smaller vehicle) is now the number one selling SUV out there with sales set to reach 180K this year.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601209&sid=a6t2iyxn_ANg&refer=transportation

    So are Americans continuing to buy gas guzzlers? Doesn’t look like it does it?

    I wish people would actually look up facts before they come up with a neat little theory that sounds great but where they have to make up falsehoods to prove the theory.

  • VDH

    BTW, I think it’s funny how commenters here simply bought into the viewpoint of that article without question, and were quick to criticize their fellow countryfolk.

    I’m a Brit living in NYC and I thought I was supposed to have the negative stereotyped views of America.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    People will vote for any technospin that looks like it will allow them to have their cake and eat it too. On the other hand, voting for something that actually works, fuel taxes, is a third rail. Forget standards, forget cap and trade, just tax it. Other nations trust their governments to tax carbon and then spend the taxes on a variety of social benefits particularly but not limited to mass transit and national health care. Until we trust our government to do likewise all the regulations and whiz bang techno solutions that require no sacrifice or civic trust will continue to divert and waste political and economic energy in the US.

  • See I think people DO want to have their cake and eat it too. What I mean in this context is that these people still want to drive big, powerful vehicles that as of this moment are inherently “gas guzzlers”.

    However, doing so is undoubtedly hurting them in the wallet (maybe their conscience?), so of course they’re all for increasing fuel standards on the bigger, more powerful vehicles. I’m guessing they see this as an opportunity to have their cake and eat it too.

  • Gelston

    The results of the SUV survey will be very interesting. I expect they will show an inordinate percentage of them in city garages, where they are doubling as storage annexes. People stash their bikes, kayaks, golf clubs, mother-in-laws, whatever in the behemoth.

  • VDH

    Big SUV sales collapse!

    Ryan, when you say the ppl who want to drive these big vehicles are getting hurt in the wallet, you are implying that habits are not changing and that people are not buying smaller vehicles now and in recent months instead of the behemoths.

    This is patently untrue if you look at the numbers I posted for the Ford Explorer sales which was the perennial #1 sales leader in the US SUV makret for over a decade. Not only that but the number sold annually was greater than that of the Toyota Camry which is the #1 selling car. Now they are at less than half the Camry’s annual sales.

  • Mark

    While VDH is right in a narrow sense, I see more and more SUVs on the streets of my neighborhood (UWS) every year. The total number of them is definitely growing. So it’s not unreasonable to conclude that people are buying them. And, all other things being equal, a big vehicle uses more fuel than a small one. My niece recently mentioned her desire to buy a hybrid SUV — but she’d save money and energy with a smaller hybrid sedan. I also object to VDH’s characterization of other posters as having negative stereotypes about the U.S. VDH, like most people posting here, I was born and grew up in this country, and I think my opinions about it are at least as valid as yours, if not more so.

  • Steve

    I think the problem is that VDH is looking at national SUV sales, and they don’t reflect what is going on here in NYC, the epicenter of conspicuous consumption. You won’t find many of those CRVs around here. NYC SUV drivers likely aren’t putting on much mileage compared to their counterparts in other parts of the country (and have much higher disposable income), so they tend to care less about the cost of gas. But boy do they love to strut their stuff in giant SUVs that are incredibly dangerous and impractical in a congested and pedestrian-dense urban environment.

    I think VDH is citing the wrong stats.

  • VDH

    Sorry Mark and Steve, you both missed my point and, it would appear, the point of this article.

    The article talks not only talks about the whole of the USA but also about the apparent dichotomy where the vast majority of ppl surveyed wanted tighter mpg standards but that these findings were not borne out in the sales of large SUVs.

    Read the article again and how it introduces the analogy of NHL players and how they acted vs what they said.

    All I am saying is that, for this to be true then the sales figures should show this. In fact, it is well documented that sales of the larger SUVs have cratered in the last couple of years whereas sales of the smaller SUVs and car based CUVs (with better fuel economy) are increasing at high rates. This disproves the whole premise of the article.

    What you two are talking about is interesting but nothing to do with the article’s premise.

    BTW Mark, I gave you a link to numbers. You can’t just make up facts like “the total number is increasing” with nothing to back you up.

    As to your comment about my characterization of other posters as having negative stereotypes about the U.S. just look at #2 and #3 for those negative stereotypes.

  • gelston

    To me, there is still much to worried about with an increase in smaller SUVs — what I would call the normalization of SUVs. It’s not just the size that is the problem. It is specifically their taller profile, which poses a threat to other cars (fueling the arms race) but also drives changes in infrastructure that destroys cities. Everything gets bigger and more fortified – widths, curbs, guardrails, medians, curves and ramps. They make every road a truck route.

  • VDH

    Have you seen the curb weight of normal sedans today?

    Even the VW Jetta (a compact car) is 3285lbs, it is 179.3″ in length, 70.1″ in width and 57.4″ in height.

    CRV numbers are 3415lb, 178″, 71.6″, 66.1″ respectively.

    Granted, the height differential is large but all other metrics are close. Hardly differences that would lead to the need to fortify and widen everything.

    This goes back to what another person posted on streetsblogs where he said that a lot of these smaller SUVs take up less road space than sedans. Don’t forget also that these car based SUVs have the same bumper and infrastructure height as sedans so collisions are less dangerous than if hit by a real truck with real truck frame (see Ford Explorer and its ilk).

  • Steve

    VDH, I did miss your point. It would be nice if the rest of the country is turning to smaller, less dangerous SUVs, as suggested by the evidence you present.

    However that’s not what is going on in NYC. The post is primarily an excerpt from an article in the New Yorker, and I think it describes pretty well what is going on here. It’s true that Jason’s headline and lead-in raise the national angle, but he didn’t suggest that he was presenting original research in any event.

    And I would be interested in hearing your response to gelston’s point about the significance of the taller profile. I think the higher position of a driver even in a “small” SUV tends to make it harder for those “down below” (pedestrians, bicyclists and sedan drivers) to communicate with the SUV driver via eye contact or signals, and also creates a sense of detachment from surroundings and encourages aggressive and riskier driving. It may be that “these car based SUVs have the same bumper and infrastructure height as sedans so collisions are less dangerous than if hit by a real truck with real truck frame,” but that does not apply to collisions involving pedestrians or bicyclists.

  • VDH

    Thanks Steve for the considered response.

    As much as I sound as if I am a car/suv supporter, I don’t own one, do use zipcar but would like to see many of the liveable streets projects, congestion pricing, two way tolls on the Verezano bridge, tolls on the East River crossings, etc., established.

    However, it pains me to see snappy headlines and covenient analogies when they are not backed up by numbers. See the headline and main thrust of the Green building (Solaire) clamps down on bike owners article as another example of just this kind of post by streetsblog.

    Back to your question; the thing I have always found ironic is that car drivers sit lower than pedestrians and cyclists. It is only minivan and suv owners that sit with their heads at the same height as pedestrians. Sedan drivers are definitely worse off than pedestrians and cyclists when it comes to the all important eye contact with SUV drivers.

    I honestly believe that the worst offenders are truck (big commerical and sanitation type trucks) and bus drivers. Look at the daily carnage on streetsblog to see how many cyclists and pedestrians have been killed in nyc in recent months by these big trucks vs by cars and sUVs.

    When I have driven a zipcar in the city I have not seen any more aggressive driving by SUV vs sedan drivers. I see a lot more weaving in and out of lanes by sedans. It is a lot more difficult to throw a high center of gravity frame based truck around.

    When it comes to passenger safety, the irony is that the higher hoods of the car based suvs may be safer for pedestrians than the lower hoods of sedans. In the EU, new rules stipulate higher hoods in order to absorb energy more progressively when hitting a pedestrian. This is due to the greater void or air space between the hood and engine.

    With respect to nyc and suv useage, I have heard many more complaints about southern california so I did not think that nyc was guilty of this. However, this last point is pure conjecture and I am willing to be educated on sales increases in nyc of SUVs.

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