Responses to SUV Objections

Here I discuss some of the reasons why so many people hate SUVs and the reasons why I nevertheless still consider purchasing a BMW X5 something reasonable to do. This is a continuation of some of the discussion on my safest automobile page. I personally know a lot of people who dislike SUVs and feel some degree of disapproval towards SUV owners. And as mentioned in the above linked page there are many people who look down on those SUV owners who do not do serious off-roading as mere "poseurs." I have to admit that part of my motivation for creating these web pages was to justify my desire for an X5 to both of these groups with point by point responses to the typical arguments set forth against generic SUVs. Many of the important points about occupant safety were made in the above linked page. This page concentrates on some of the miscellaneous social and community concerns.

Height and weight endangering others

Of course, the safety benefits for multi-vehicle accidents that come from increased height or weight translate directly into disadvantages for the occupants of other vehicles. This is a good part of the reason why many people hate SUVs. This is a fundamental tradeoff. (It is related to the field of game theory, which studies such things as the prisoner's dilemma and also auctions. Indeed, the need to be higher and heavier than other vehicles causes a one-upmanship cycle in which people buy higher, or generally bigger, and heavier vehicles, much like an auction.) The problem is that you cannot get a bigger vehicle purely as a defensive move to prevent all the other people who have gotten big vehicles from reducing your visibility or causing more damage to you in accidents without also increasing the threat you cause to others. This is unfortunate.

Because of this, it would be nice if society only allowed better drivers to drive bigger vehicles. The fact that this is not the way it works contributes to the need for a bigger vehicle as a necessary defensive measure, if you want to optimize for safety. In my opinion, this justifies the purchase of higher and heavier vehicles, despite the risk this imposes to others, so long as you strive extra-hard to drive responsibly (and so long as you know that you can, i.e., that you don't have a bad driving record). Driving responsibly means the whole package: not driving while intoxicated, not driving while severely sleepy, not driving excessively fast, not allowing yourself to be distracted by constantly talking on cell phones, turning to children in the back seat, reading the morning paper, etc. If you are forced to violate responsible driving practices or if you just choose to regularly, then you shouldn't be driving on the road at all, but since you are going to anyway, you should at least have the decency to drive vehicles that will minimize the damage you cause to others. Leave the heavier, taller vehicles to those that pose less risk to others. Also you need to understand how to drive whatever bigger vehicle you are driving. If it's a traditional SUV, you must understand its handling abilities, rollover risk, etc.

Note that the attitude of wanting a bigger heavier vehicle isn't just a purely selfish disregard for all others, purely to save oneself. The other people who are passengers in my vehicle matter to me too. Personally, I feel a slightly greater obligation to keep these people's safety interests in mind, so long as I drive responsibly, than to optimize the safety of the other drivers on the road.

Design endangering others

Many SUVs (not to mention other trucks) are also worse for other vehicles in accidents due to their high bumpers that ride up over car bumpers in accidents, and due to their rigit body structure that does not absorb as much impact force as a unibody structure. Instead of absorbing much of the force, some SUV bodies can act more like battering rams in accidents (they are designed this way for reasons of utility and off-road performance). The X5 is one of a growing number of SUVs designed to be less damaging to other vehicles, and especially to lower riding cars, due to its unibody construction and excellent crumple zones, and also due to bumpers that are designed to be low enough to match the height of normal cars, not ride up over them.

Air pollution

Of course, increased weight has other negative consequences, such as decreased fuel economy which causes more air polution. It turns out that all the air polution caused by new passenger vehicles is a very small portion of world-wide air polution. The X5 is rated for CA's Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) standand which is 2 standards better than it has to be (and the highest standard of any non-electric or electric-hybrid car) so it pollutes less per gallon than many new vehicles and is probably better in terms of overall air polution than most sedans from a decade ago and way better than the 20+ year old vehicles, of which there are still many in normal service. The majority of the pollution from passenger vehicles comes from the aging, small minority of the vehicles that are exempt from today's emissions standards. Thus, you don't need to worry about X5s contributing excessively more than a normal car would to to the world's air polution problems. Conventional power plants (which world-wide cause more than 50% of the air pollution) would be a better place to try to make improvements. Even within the realm of internal-combustion-engine vehicles, buses and large commercial trucks cause far more overall pollution than passenger vehicles. In other words, it isn't the SUVs that are the real problem with air pollution.

(Personally, I try to bicycle to work when I can, so even with the reduced gas mileage of an X5 compared with a lighter sedan, I might end up burning fewer gallons of gasoline per year if I were to get an X5 than someone in a very fuel efficient car who drives every day.)

Misc. objections

Many people hate SUVs because they take up more than their fair share of curb space and thus reduce side-of-the-street parking space for everyone else (particularly problematic in urban environments). Well, the X5's length is much smaller than most mid-sized SUVs, and shorter than many passenger sedans, including for example, the VW Passat, the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Ford Taurus. The X5 is over a foot shorter than the Taurus. This small group of sedans represents some of the best selling automobiles in America. So you can't object to X5s reducing parking in your neighborhood without objecting to a whole host of other seemingly reasonable vehicles.


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Karl Pfleger
kpfleger@cs.stanford.edu
December, 2000