The Rapidian

Is it finally time for America to really reassess its transport choices?

Everybody has to get on board if we are to slow down the advance of climate change, yet even with gas prices steadily climbing, the Ford F-series Pickup remains the best selling auto for 2012. What is the reason for the unerring popularity of these vehicles?

With tough new vehicle emissions legislation being rolled out in California including a mandate to have 1.4 million electric and hybrid vehicles on state roads by 2025, it would stand to reason that the popularity of Pickup Trucks might take a hit. “Today’s vote … represents a new chapter for clean cars in California and in the nation as a whole,”stated Mary Nichols, California Air Resources Board leader.

The three Detroit Automakers publicly support the targets, but with the folklore of Pickups deeply embedded in the American psyche, how successful can we hope to be when it comes to persuading “vanity” pickup drivers, which Ford estimates make up 17% of the truck driving population, to choose more efficient vehicles? Journalist Mark Hertsgaard states that “If history is any guide, California’s vehicle policies will have a powerful ripple effect. Seatbelts, unleaded gasoline, and hybrid vehicles are but some of the vehicle innovations that spread throughout America after being introduced in California.”

A discussion in Detroit this Janurary saw Automakers discussing the new rules proposed by President Obama that all vehicles produced between 2017-2025 would have to achieve an average mpg of 54.5. According to Union of Automakers President, Bob King, this could be great news for Michigan. “This is an exciting time to be involved in the American automobile industry. After coming perilously close to the brink of disaster during the global financial crisis, the industry is coming back strong.” King added that “The UAW believes that the fuel-economy and tailpipe pollution proposals put forward by the Obama administration deserve the support of everyone who has a stake in the ongoing revival of the auto industry.”

A Michigan Radio story aired in November of last year saw interviewee Margaret Wooldridge, a professor at the University of Michigan, speculate that bringing fuel efficiency up is a not a scientific conundrum, it is an issue of “creature comforts.” Wooldridge reasons that to make a car more fuel efficient drivers might have to relinquish things we have come to expect as standard in most vehicles, such as electric windows. “there are many regular, inexpensive gas-powered cars that get more than 40 mpg. The real race is to do that with all kinds of cars, from the showy luxury cars to economy cars.”

This quote brings us neatly onto the subject of Pickup trucks. For many Americans, the pickup is not just transportation. These vehicles have come to represent something else entirely. To many they are a bastion of the American working man, the huntsman, the lumberjack, the farmer. Pickups have traditonally been associated with toil and hard physical labor, and considered a necessary tool. Contemporary notions of masculinity, safety and even patriotism have given pickup trucks a new, shinier, lease on life. Fewer and fewer drivers need a pickup truck to complete daily tasks, yet an NPR story aired in mid 2011 claimed that the countries most popular pickup sold more than all hybrid vehicles put together.

Out of the top 20 bestselling cars in the USA last year, four of them were pickups. Overall this is an encouraging statistic: the list also includes a variety of hybrid and low emissions cars; an indication that many Americans are making environmentally conscious decisions when it comes to their choice of transportation. However, the Ford F-Series pickup emerged triumphant for the 35th year in a row. It was placed at number one with almost 585,000 purchased, 200,000 more than the first ordinary passenger vehicle on the list. The 2012 Ford F-series truck averages a combined 17 miles per gallon provided it contains no flatbed cargo.

Although it is widely acknowledged that cars are responsible for part of the country’s overall pollution levels, it is not always realized quite how large a part. The Environmental Protection Agency states, “Today, motor vehicles are responsible for nearly one half of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), more than half of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, and about half of the toxic air pollutant emissions in the United States. Motor vehicles, including nonroad vehicles, now account for 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions nationwide.”

America is a vast land mass. As a consequence people are often driving increasingly hefty distances, and if they aren’t, these vehicles perform pitifully in the city not just in terms of gas mileage but also in size. Their dimensions can render them cumbersome, imposing and dangerous. These actualities beg the question: what is the reason for the unerring popularity of these vehicles?

Jeannie B. Thomas, author of “Pickup trucks, horses, women and foreplay: The fluidity of folklore” believes that the popularity and love of pickup trucks in the states has led their decoration to become culturally symbolic. “Decorative additions are often made to trucks, and these additions do not always follow solely utilitarian functions. Rather, they help negotiate and present group membership, notions of masculinity, and patriarchal images of women. They also continue to reaffirm the control of man over nature.”

Auto Trends Magazine ran an article proposes that “pickup trucks get a lot of bad press for being inefficient, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not the pickups that are bad – it’s the people who use them wastefully. Let’s stop blaming the product and start changing the people.” There is no doubt that some people genuinely require these vehicles to complete daily tasks. Nick Van Dyke, Michigan based retired veteran who has resides in a rural setting and has owned a pickup for much of his life explains that for many people “a pickup is necessary to live.” He continued,  “I have owned six trucks, all Fords. I drove all of them into the ground, except a Ford Ranger; it was too small. I purchased the Ranger for the gas mileage. I will always have a truck.”

“My dad and my mom, my brothers and sisters (two of my sisters still have one) and most men that I have known have trucks. We use them. My wife and I use it. We have discussed that if we have to sell a vehicle, we will keep the truck.”

Forum members provided answers to their reasons for pickup truck ownership. One man stated: “A lot of people buy them because they need them. They may have a boat, RV trailer, dirt bikes, ATV’s, etc.” These observations are correct, according to figures from Ford Motor Company (published in the June 1, 2009 issue of Automotive News) 44% of truck owners use their vehicle for “personal towing.”

Answers on whether owners of trucks would give up their vehicle if they were only hauling cargo “once or twice a year” was unanimous. One owner answered “No. I would keep it because it’s what I like and what I want. [I am] not interested in political correctness or what someone else thinks would be more efficient. If they want to be more efficient, they can walk.” If these trucks prove useful on a daily or weekly basis then it probably merits ownership. If they prove useful on occasion, why not rent or borrow one as required?

Tundraheadquarters.com speculates that “Because pickups are so much more expensive than cars (even a simple Ford Ranger is more expensive than quite a few sport coupes), it stands to reason that image buyers probably aren’t nearly as motivated by finances as the typical consumer. “It therefore seems likely that these people will not be persuaded to trade in their trucks for a more economical vehicle by rising gas prices.”

The debate will undoubtedly remain fraught, but the fact of the matter is that the bigger and heavier your vehicle, the more harm it is likely to cause not only to other road users, but the environment. It is this environmental impact that needs to be the standard by which America chooses it’s transport.

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One thought on “Is it finally time for America to really reassess its transport choices?

  1. I think you’ve definitely tapped into consumer motivations for buying trucks, but I don’t know that truck owners are unique in their desires to “reaffirm man’s control over nature.” American consumers, as a general rule, purchase vehicles that are typically much larger than they need, be they trucks, SUVs, or sedans. After about 8 months spent in Asia and Central America in 2008 and 2009, I came to the following revelation: Many Americans view their cars as extensions of themselves, both in a physical sense as well as an emotional sense.

    In the physical sense, many drivers seem to think that their car is entitled to more space than it actually occupies. If you squeeze your car in front of someone else’s car on a busy road, some drivers will be visible upset about being “cut off,” even if your action has no effect on their commute or their safety. Contrast that with drivers in Asia, Central America, or parts of Europe – these drivers don’t get upset when someone “cuts them off” because they don’t expect that their vehicles deserve some sort of territory beyond their actual physical dimensions. They drive bumper to bumper (as safety allows), and cutting in and out of traffic is perfectly acceptable.

    American’s physical extension of vehicles is also demonstrated by the typical desire to own a vehicle that “sits up higher” than the rest of the road. While this is justified under the guise of safety, the fact is that high profile vehicles (like an SUV or crossover) aren’t any safer than a similar sized car. Instead, this is just a consumer’s desire to be taller than everyone else (a desire which, I’d like to point out, isn’t exclusive to men).

    As far as vehicles being emotional extensions, I think you’ve covered that ground pretty well. However, I think it’s a mistake to single out men for this behavior. Any luxury car owner is an example of this as well – luxury cars are not practical or frugal, yet at least a million of them are sold every year. Luxury car owners need their cars to “say” something about them too.

    Frankly, many hybrid owners fall into this category too – the financial benefits of buying a hybrid can take years to accrue, and the environmental benefits aren’t substantially better than a basic gas-only economy car. If a hybrid consumer is so rational, why do they pay a premium for a gas-electric powertrain that won’t start paying back for 5-7 years?

    The Answer: Hybrid car buyers are trying to send a message about themselves too.

    In short, a lot of car owners (myself included) are a little crazy. We buy a car that’s not 100% practical because we need that car to tell the world a story about us. While I agree with your point that truck ownership is worse for the environment than buying a new Ford Focus, I think a healthy amount of introspection is required before making judgments about trucks and their owners.

    If you personally aren’t guilty of treating your vehicle like an extension of yourself, someone you know and love probably is.

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