As peak-oil enthusiasts keep vigil over world petroleum statistics, they can find comfort in America's sudden, rapid descent from a different summit: the peak of sport-utility vehicle (SUV) production. In the early 2000s, combined sales of SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans (which together make up the "light truck" class) caught and surpassed sales of passenger cars. But in Summer 2008, automakers announced that high gas prices caused their sales of SUVs and full-size pickups to plummet by as much as 50% compared with a year before.
With big-box vehicles waddling off into the sunset, we can expect the nation's roads to become safer and less crowded. But just as the end of the Cold War failed to bring with it a promised peace dividend, the end of the SUV era is unlikely to bring a "green dividend"--unless it is accompanied by much bigger changes. The numbers show that even the complete disappearance of SUVs from the nation's roadways, without other fuel-saving developments, would put only a slight bend in the rising curve of national fuel consumption.
First, the good news
In May 2008, for the first time in 17 years, the top-selling vehicle model in America was not a pickup truck. In fact, Ford's F-150, the perennial leader, was overtaken by three small import-car models. Ford's June truck sales were down 41% from a year ago, and its SUV sales are now in free-fall, down 55%. Sales of Dodge Ram pickups tumbled 48%. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were hit hard, and all have announced plans to close or suspend production at plants that make trucks and SUVs.
The post-SUV world will come to pass only gradually, but as it does, we can look forward to getting at least some relief from the damage that the reign of the big boxes has done:
* Less gas will be burned, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The average SUV is driven 20% more miles per year than is the average car. That, along with its low fuel efficiency, means that it burns more than 800 gallons of fuel per year. The average pickup is only slightly less thirsty, at 700 gallons, compared with just under 500 burned by the average car. But without greater restraint by all drivers, how much can the demise of the SUV reduce fossil-fuel consumption? As we will see, not much.
* Drivers of all vehicles will be less likely to die in a car crash. Michael Anderson, assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley has shown that increasing popularity of SUVs and pickups led to an increase in annual traffic fatalities. Of the additional deaths, he wrote, "approximately one-fifth accrue to the light trucks' own occupants, and the remaining four-fifths accrue to the occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians." Put another way, getting most SUVs and pickups off the road will make everyone safer--especially those who don't drive them.
In High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, his definitive 2002...