Ford's SUV shocker

Camille Paglia, David Horowitz, the Sierra Club and the Cato Institute on Bill Ford's corporate mea culpa.

Published May 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In a surprising announcement on Thursday, the Ford Motor Company publicly acknowledged what many people have known for a long time: Sports utility vehicles contribute more to global warming, emit more polluting exhaust and endanger other motorists more than standard cars.

In a report to company shareholders, Ford Chairman William C. Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, said that the company recognized the environmental impact of SUVs, which account for one-fifth of the company's sales, and was seeking technological solutions to address it. But he said that the company would continue to build SUVs to keep up with the strong market demand.

Ford told reporters he did not want his company to end up in the court of public opinion being linked with tobacco companies, which continue to manufacture a product that causes serious health damage (and have suffered enormous financial judgments against them). He pointed out that Ford had voluntarily kept tailpipe pollution emission well below legally permitted levels, and had voluntarily put bars below the bumpers of its Ford Excursion -- which weighs twice as much as a Jeep Grand Cherokee and gets 10 miles to the gallon in the city -- in order to diminish harm to other cars in collisions, though safety laws did not require the bar.

"If we did not provide that vehicle someone else would," Ford said, "and they wouldn't provide it as responsibly as we do."

Salon asked a number of people involved in transportation and environmental issues for their reaction to Ford's announcement.

Ron Harbour is president of Harbour & Associates in Detroit, which tracks the automobile industry.

It's kind of surprising [Ford] would make this kind of comment because SUVs are very important to the company. They make up more than 20 percent of Ford's U.S. sales. Bill Ford has been trying to put a green face forward, but it's a little contradictory because the company keeps introducing new SUVs. The whole issue about emissions and fuel economy is relative to size. Ford could make smaller SUVs, but that's not what people want. You can't blame Ford for building them, because that's what consumers are buying. Ford has built smaller SUVs and no one buys them. As long as fuel is relatively inexpensive, SUVs will remain affordable and people will still want them. Companies have a choice not to make them, but they'll be dramatically less profitable. So I guess they'll just apologize for them. But it's not like they're doing some dastardly deed. They're just satisfying customer needs.

Daniel Becker is director of global warming and the energy program for the Sierra Club.

The auto industry has denied for years that anything is wrong with these vehicles. But [Bill Ford] told my boss that if Ford doesn't improve emissions from its vehicles, the Sierra Club will turn it into the tobacco industry of the 21st century.

Ford has a long way to go. They make the Excursion, which we've named the Exxon Valdez of vehicles. It only gets 12 miles per gallon. It's the most polluting vehicle ever made. It creates 134 tons of global warming pollution over its 124,000-mile life expectancy. We'll watch and see what they do. We're very hopeful. I hope what they're doing is giving shareholders and analysts advance notice that they will put cleaner technology on their vehicles. If they're blowing smoke, we'll find out soon enough. This could have tremendous impact on the industry because if Ford makes cleaner vehicles, everyone else would follow. Auto companies are responsible for the SUV problem because consumers haven't had a chance to buy cleaner SUVs.

Jerry Taylor is the director of Natural Resource studies for the Cato Institute.

The Ford announcement is awfully weird. It seems really odd to me. This is just an example of corporate spin and P.R. For whatever reason, the company feels like they need to throw a sop to the environmentalists. The fellow from Ford basically said "Our products are really bad and harmful, but we're going to keeping selling them anyway." What the hell was that?

It's not entirely clear that fuel consumption has hurt the environment. Petroleum is growing more abundant, not more scarce, and auto emissions are not a real threat to public health. We've had massive gains in urban air quality at the same time so many SUVs are on the road. If Ford, however, feels that by all objective measures, their vehicles are harmful, then they have every right to say so.

But I disagree. If the environment is becoming cleaner and not more dirty, then I don't see a problem with SUVs. Even if SUVs did have an impact on pollution, there's no reason to stop driving them if that impact is marginal.

Environmentalists say that we don't really pay the true cost of fuel. What costs of gasoline aren't borne by consumers? It's nonsense. It's not true. The Clean Air Act put $30 to $50 billion of regulations on the oil industry, and that's passed right on to consumers. Ask an environmentalist, "What is the cost of a cubic foot of clean air?" and they answer: "I don't know."

Camille Paglia is a Salon columnist.

If I had the cash and the driveway space for two cars, I'd definitely buy an SUV (I've been ogling the gunmetal-silver, leather-lined, deluxe Nissan Pathfinder for years). But it's not a very practical vehicle for negotiating the mad congestion and pretzeling ramps of the Northeastern corridor.

As a gas-guzzler, the SUV is a cultural throwback to the grandiose, shark-fin Cadillac battleships of the 1950s, when pumped-up, fetishistically buffed American cars lorded it over the puny ladybugs (Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault) of economically pinched postwar Europe.

My quarrel with the SUV is that 75 percent of East Coast owners don't know how the hell to drive it. I go white with fear a dozen times a week as some white, middle-class soccer mom in a trance rockets past in an SUV with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone pressed to her ear: She can neither signal nor safely steer through turns, which the massive, high-held weight of the SUV makes especially tricky.

Monica Lewinsky's embarrassing wipeout on a California highway last year shows that the problem is not the SUV; it's ditzy owners of both sexes who need primers on how to handle a quasi-military vehicle. I blame auto companies not for making and selling the SUV but for their failure to educate the public about the difficulties and dangers of driving an armored tank on the open road.

James Barrett is an environmental economist for the Economic Policy Institute.

It isn't news to anyone. Everybody already knows that SUVs are horribly damaging to the environment, and Ford hasn't done anything to change that. If my memory serves correctly, Ford makes one of the highest-polluting vehicles on the market.

Talk is cheap. Until they do something about it, I can't see how this announcement makes any real difference. The technology is available for car companies to make vehicles of the same size and characteristics that are more fuel-efficient and less polluting. But every time we ask them to do something about that, they say they don't know how.

Currently, the problem is that American consumers are not required to pay the true cost of the gasoline. Nowhere else in the Western world are prices so low. They pay four times more in Europe, twice as much in Canada. Americans should understand that the true cost of a gallon of gasoline isn't just the fuel. There's the pollution, global warming, urban sprawl, the destruction of the wilderness, even the cost of our protection of the oil supply in the Middle East.

The way to remedy this is the "T" word: "Taxes." If we were serious about fighting the effects of these vehicles, we'd raise taxes on the price of gasoline. In that way, we'd align the market to account for the environmental cost of fuel consumption. But everybody screams bloody murder when the gas prices go up even a little bit.

The thing is, yesterday, everyone knew this was a problem, and nothing has changed. The Ford announcement is a drop in the bucket, but only that. Still, we probably shouldn't discount it 100 percent. Admitting that it's a problem is the first step in recovery in A.A., but after that, there are still 11 steps to go.

David Healy is an auto analyst at Burnham Securities.

Ford is probably a couple steps ahead of the competition in terms of environmental friendliness. SUVs are still gas guzzlers and emitters of a lot of pollution, and they're probably less safe to be in a collision with, but Ford has maintained higher standards on environmental issues and crash protection. Ford is probably just making a statement that they'd like to do better.

I don't know why it did this. You'd have to ask Billy Ford himself. The statement is a surprise, but this doesn't mean in any way that Ford is getting out of the SUV business. I think this might have some impact on the industry by ratcheting up environmental standards. It might speed up the pace. But the fact that this issue was raised is no surprise. Anybody who didn't know that SUVs are gas guzzlers and emitters of pollution is probably living on another planet.

Dave Snyder is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Surprise, surprise. Of course they're not going to cut back on SUVs. In fact, the environmental irresponsibility of building SUVs is just slightly different from the environmental irresponsibility of building cars, period.

Ford and other car companies and oil companies and tire companies have yet to even come close to atoning for the dismantling of urban transit systems across the country, which they undertook in the '40s and '50s. Back then transit companies were privately owned; very few were publicly owned. A consortium of car-related interests essentially bought them all up and ran them into the ground, shut them down, basically to trap Americans into having no choice but to drive cars. And look where that's gotten us. They got us addicted to cars back when there was more room on the roads. Now I think everybody wishes we had the choice again.

Whether it's an SUV or a hatchback, it doesn't make much difference if you have no choice but to drive. It's understandable people want SUVs, because if you have no choice but to drive on crowded, busy streets, you can't blame them for wanting to be in the biggest car, so that if they crash another car, they're more likely to survive. You can't blame the people for it, you have to blame Ford. And I don't for a second accept their apology, if they call it that. I want them to return their investment into public transit so that people have choices.

David Horowitz is a Salon columnist and author of "The Fords: An American Epic."

This is not a problem that has easy solutions. Of course there are a lot of people who think they can rearrange the world according to abstract ideas. But it's very practical: Americans want SUVs. The left has an easy solution, which is to deny people what they want, but if you really believe in freedom and choice, then you have to face the fact that there can be conflict between what people want and other interests -- for example, the environment.

One of the virtues and problems of the market system is that it answers to people's demands. And if you believe in democracy and freedom, then you have to recognize that the people have voted: they want SUVs. It would be the height of arrogance and, in my view, an ominous precedent to say we ought to override what people want and give them what we think is good for them. That is the totalitarian mentality.

An awful lot of environmental problems have been solved by technology, something the environmental movement doesn't always want to recognize. So I noticed in the Ford statement that they're looking for technological solutions, and I think in the long run that's probably the best path. I don't know that Bill Ford is either a Republican or a conservative, but in a year when compassionate conservatism is becoming fashionable, it's interesting to see a kind of corporate compassion announced by one of the world's premiere corporations.

I actually own an SUV. If you have a family, you understand why people want SUVs. Safety is really important. My wife feels a lot safer -- she's higher up over the road, and it's harder to carjack. A lot of people use it to get out to the countryside, a lot of people who have kids.

SUVs are probably saving lives -- if you get into an accident, you're much safer. It's not like SUVs cost twice as much as a normal car; you can get an SUV for less than you can get a normal car. People make their choices.

Kevin Berger, the executive editor of San Francisco magazine, is the author of "Where the Road and the Sky Collide," a book about automobiles and the environment.

I have the cynical response: It's greenwash because they've known about the problems with SUVs for quite some time. The greenwash campaign on SUVs is pretty old. The automotive manufacturers started a campaign in 1993-94 called "tread lightly" that promoted conscientious use of SUVs in the outdoors and told drivers things like "drive slow when crossing river banks" and so on At the time I interviewed a botanist on what SUVs do to the countryside and he said that if you drive your SUV off-road, you're absolutely decimating river banks and the forest.

It seems to me just another whitewash. Especially if you've seen the 5-ton Ford Excursion -- they're like Mack trucks. It's like Ford said: "We just have to make a bigger Suburban." They're really going to cause problems because other cars don't fare well in collisions with the Excursion.

An insurance industry group, the Institute of Highway Safety, did their first report on SUV safety in 1995 or so. They did the first side crash tests outside of the ones done by automotive companies. The automotive companies issued this huge public statement that said "The Institute's tests were really skewed." Now they're acknowledging that the Institute of Highway Safety was right. So how can you believe them?

But I also think that Ford's statement is really cool, because it shows that all the grass-roots efforts by the Ralph Nader group and the Union of Concerned Scientists have made this a huge issue. All the gains in fuel efficiency made by small cars in the 1980s have gone completely backwards since SUVs took off. It's almost like they're saying, "We here at Dow chemicals think that it's terrible that we're pouring chlorine into the rivers, but we're making a lotta paint here."

Ford's response is pretty savvy marketing responding to the backlash. It's not as if they're going to stop building them. I'm glad to see that the backlash has made it to the mainstream.

It's not just that Excursions themselves are a joke, it's a purely market-driven model. The Ford people do this tremendous market research where they get all these people in focus groups and then they realize the importance of SUVs, and somewhere along the way they realized that they're not big enough so they built the Excursion, and now they're going to apologize for it? It's insane.

By the Salon News staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Camille Paglia Environment