The coming SUV wars

Is the tide of public opinion turning against these metal monstrosities?

By Arianna Huffington

Published November 25, 2002 6:14PM (EST)

Once again, America is a nation divided.

I'm not talking about the irreparable, brother-against-brother split between those who think the Bachelor should have proposed to Brooke instead of Helene. I'm talking about a contentious clash that is just beginning to rage. Call it the SUV war. As you read this, the opposing camps are staking out their turf.

On one side sales of the gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing, downright dangerous behemoths continue to soar. And apparently, the more fuel-inefficient the better: Dealers are having a hard time keeping up with the demand for the Hummer H2, GM's new $50,000 barely domesticated spinoff of the Gulf War darling, which struggles to cover 10 miles for every gallon of gas it burns. The symbolism of these impractical machines' military roots is too delicious to ignore. We go to war to protect our supply of cheap oil in vehicles that would be prohibitively expensive to operate without it.

There seems to be no shortage of Americans who think that consuming 25 percent of the world's oil just isn't enough. Maybe the next model, the H3, will need to be connected to an intravenous gas-pump hose all the time. And there would still be people eager to buy it.

These are the same folks who don't give a whit (this being a family newspaper) that at an OPEC meeting last month, the oily group's secretary general announced that one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy world was the U.S.'s seemingly unslakable thirst for its product. How nice it must feel for SUV owners, knowing that their swaggering imprudence is helping the world's anti-democratic oil sheiks sleep just a little better at night. Call this camp the Bigger Is Better crowd. Their motto: "Burn, baby, burn ... 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars." How about this for a bumper sticker: "Honk if you hate the ozone layer!"

Lining up on the other side of the SUV DMZ are a disparate collection of groups and individuals whose aim is to win the hearts and minds -- and change the driving habits -- of the American public.

These include the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is promoting greater fuel efficiency through a provocative TV ad campaign that asks: "What would Jesus drive?" Hint: I don't think the answer is a Hummer. (Turning water into oil wasn't really his thing.) This comes at the same time that Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars, a group I co-founded with film producer Lawrence Bender, environmental activist Laurie David, and movie and TV agent Ari Emanuel, is producing ads parodying the drugs-equal-terror ads the administration is running. In this case, we're linking driving SUVs to our national security. When Hollywood progressives and the "WWJD?" crowd independently hit on the same idea, you know that something is up.

Even as SUVs continue to roll off the assembly line and out of car dealers' showrooms at a record pace, there is a growing sense that the tide of public opinion is turning against these metal monstrosities. A tipping point in the push to wean ourselves from foreign oil has finally been reached. The SUV makers have won a few battles, but they may be about to lose the war.

The new mood is very similar to the consciousness-raising that followed the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Designated Driver campaign. Before that, the prevailing attitude was, "Hey, what's the big deal?" The campaign hammered home a very compelling answer to that question, and the public's perception of drinking and driving was changed forever. Getting loaded and getting behind the wheel went from being cool to being antisocial. With luck, getting behind the wheel of a loaded gas-guzzler is about to undergo the same transformation.

To see how the SUV fight is going, take a look at the media, usually an excellent weather vane when it comes to these kinds of societal shifts. In the last week alone there has been an explosion in the amount of positive coverage given to the anti-SUV movement, including segments on all the networks' nightly news shows. This is no small thing when you consider the megamillions in advertising dollars the auto industry represents.

And in Washington, after steadfastly opposing any raise in fuel efficiency standards, the Bush administration let it be known last week that it is considering a proposal to increase the standard for light trucks and SUVs by 1.5 miles per gallon by 2007.

While Team Bush hailed the proposed boost as a major victory in the battle for energy independence, Sen. John Kerry, who along with Sen. John McCain last spring proposed raising the SUV standard by 50 percent, called the 7 percent increase "window dressing." Others labeled it "political theater" and "almost an insult in its modesty." A thousand dittos.

It does seem woefully inadequate -- especially when you consider how many loopholes have already been driven through by light trucks and SUVs, which are currently allowed to average 7 miles per gallon less than regular cars. And the ultimate absurdity is that if an SUV is massive enough, it is entirely exempt from federal fuel economy standards. That's right, build one with a gross vehicle weight of over 8,500 pounds -- like the Ford Excursion or the new Hummer -- and the leviathan's lousy gas mileage doesn't even have to be reported to the government.

Chew on that one and see if it doesn't rev your engine: Automakers are rewarded for being particularly inefficient. There's the Bush Free Market for you.

Even the muckety-mucks in Detroit are starting to get the message. Ford, for instance, whose executives met last week with representatives from the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, has pledged to boost the overall fuel efficiency of its SUVs by 25 percent over the next three years, and plans to introduce a hybrid gas-electric model that will get around 40 mpg.

Of course, much of the industry's "we care" message is little more than a desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable and put a pretty P.R. bow on a very ugly reality. Their real message is: "We care about making money, and if doing that now means we have to make it seem like we care about the environment, then so be it." Take, for example, this "faux" socially conscious reminder offered in the new Hummer brochure: "With the power to cross any terrain comes the responsibility to protect that terrain and its potentially fragile ecosystems."

The war's not going the SUV makers' way, and they know it. So now they want to make it look like we're all on the same side. At the moment, they're trying to figure out just how far they have to go to quell the uprising. It's in all of our interests to let them know that a 1.5 mpg improvement is not enough. The consequences of our addiction to foreign oil are no longer an abstraction.

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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