Sunday, April 14, 2024

Monsters of the road: what should the UK do about SUVs? | Motoring

It’s midnight on the edge of Clapham Common in early September. The streets are eerily quiet as a shadowy figure in black shirt, shorts and baseball cap emerges from the common. He is wearing a red face mask, his features, except for some blond locks, hidden from view.

A university-educated professional, “Will”, as I’ll call him, is making one of his monthly late night rounds of various well-heeled London neighbourhoods. He is looking for cars, specifically big, high-end sports utility vehicles (SUVs) – not to steal or vandalise but to bring down in the world just a little.

While there is no strict definition of what constitutes an SUV, there is a general understanding about what sorts of cars are included in the description. They are bigger than standard cars, with a chunky, pumped-up look, as though a slightly smaller car had been placed on steroids. The larger ones can look like armoured vehicles (in the US, some SUVs are longer than the M4 Sherman tank which played a key role in the second world war).

Their defining characteristic, though, is that they all make a nod towards off-road capability, even if most don’t have it. Only a minority are four-wheel drive. But most have big wheels, a broader wheel track and a higher driving position, and some come with a running board or jutting fender, roof rack, ’roo bars or some other ersatz signifier of rugged outdoor living.

That is the cardinal conceit of SUVs: although the overwhelming majority of them are city-based and only a tiny fraction will ever encounter an obstacle more onerous than a speed bump, they trade on a familiarity with safaris and game shooting.

Tonight, instead of being the hunter, they are being hunted. Along the handsome avenues that lead away from the common, Will diligently stalks his prey. After a few metres, he drops to his knees near a huge black Land Rover Defender with a roof rack and a wheel case on its rear door. He unscrews the cap of one of the tyre valves, compresses it with a lentil, and screws the cap back on, trapping the lentil and leaving the tyre to slowly deflate.

Then he takes out a leaflet and affixes it to the windscreen. “Attention – your gas guzzler kills” is the headline. It goes on to state that “SUVs are the second-largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade – more than the entire aviation industry” and that studies show that SUV drivers “are more likely to take risks on the road”. It is signed “The Tyre Extinguishers”.

The whole process takes less than a minute.

A leaderless group of activists, the Tyre Extinguishers first emerged in March 2022. They claim to have a presence in a number of countries but it’s in the UK where they have gained most attention, following a protest event in August this year when activists operating under the group’s banner used power tools to puncture the tyres of 60 SUV vehicles at a car dealership in Exeter.

An activist from the Tyre Extinguishers at work in south London lets down an SUV’s tyres on a street at night
An activist from the Tyre Extinguishers at work in London.

The attack was said to be in response to an incident in south-west London in which a Land Rover had crashed through a school fence and killed two eight-year-old girls. Will says that one of the reasons he became involved in the group was that a good friend of his was very badly injured after being hit by a large car.

As he walks along the silent streets, passing several large cars without stopping, I ask him how he selects his targets.

“My rules of thumb are the most polluting and most dangerous, because obviously the danger of SUVs is not just pollution, it’s multifaceted. It’s about their use of road space.”

Aside from a couple of Land Rover Defenders, which weigh about 2.5 tonnes each, and another two Land Rover Discoverys (about the same weight), he also deflates a BMW X5, a Volvo XC90, and about 15 other similarly sized cars. The most he’s ever done in a night is around 60. Some of the cars he deflates are parked on the gravelled drives of expensive homes, where security systems trigger floodlights as soon as anyone intrudes on to the grounds.

Will is unflustered, and continues as if he were still in the dark. “They’re all tucked up in bed,” he says, adding that he’s never once been caught red (lentil)-handed.

The road traffic act of 1988 states that a person is guilty of an offence “if he intentionally and without lawful authority… interferes with a motor vehicle”, but only in circumstances that a reasonable person would deem obviously “dangerous”. There’s also a theoretical possibility that letting down a tyre could be seen as a “public nuisance” under common law, and also a more serious prospect of a charge of “criminal damage”, which can be temporary in form.

Will took up this form of direct action 18 months ago, frustrated at the “glacial” pace of decarbonisation. After a period of falling, the CO2 emissions of new cars sold in both the UK and the EU have been rising since 2016. Experts attribute the reversal to an increase in SUV sales. In 2006 SUVs accounted for 7% of new cars in Europe. By the early part of this year more than half of all new car sales in Europe were SUVs or SUV-styled cars. Between 2001 and 2022, in an outbreak of ongoing auto-obesity, the average kerb weight of cars sold in Europe increased by 21%. The International Energy Agency has said that annual CO2 emissions from the world’s 330m SUVs reached almost 1bn tonnes last year. According to the government, the transport sector is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the UK (accounting for 34% of the total), with the “large majority” coming from road transport.

A Range Rover in Regent Street, London.
A Range Rover in Regent Street, London. Photograph: Parmorama/Alamy

Will says he was inspired by How to Blow Up a Pipeline, by Andreas Malm, the Swedish author and associate ecology professor. The book argues for sabotage and damaging property as means of combating the climate crisis. Letting down a tyre is hardly blowing up a pipeline but it is a major irritant to the car’s driver. Will justifies this inconvenience as a mild response to what he calls the “socio-cultural contagion” of SUVs, which he says has been normalised by sheer weight of numbers. His aim is to make people step back from this new normality and see the damage and congestion their cars wreak.

SUV owners have proved stubbornly resistant to environmental arguments. It’s a paradox that has confounded environmental activists. In an effort to explain it, in 2021 the zero-carbon advocacy group Possible commissioned a study from the American psychologist Tim Kasser on the relationship between the dissemination of the environmental case and the use of SUVs.

Possible’s director of innovation, Leo Murray, says Kasser found that “there were no detectable effects of exposure to pro-environmental messaging on people’s purchasing choices”. However, says Murray, Kasser did establish that there “was a detectable increase in propensity to buy an SUV after exposure to advertising for SUVs”.

It wasn’t a lack of awareness about carbon emissions, says Murray, any more than smokers were ignorant of the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes. But in both cases the power of image proved greater than the fact of danger.

It’s a long time since I’ve driven a big car. For a couple of years, more than a decade ago, I was the car reviewer for the Guardian. I test drove very few SUVs, but on the rare occasions that I did, I experienced two distinct feelings. The first was a debilitating concern about navigating such a large vehicle through the capital’s congested streets. And the second, as that anxiety began to ease, was a sensation of being above the fray, apart from the crowd, somehow superior to my surroundings. As the celebrated German critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia: “Which auto-driver has not felt the temptation, in the power of the motor, to run over the vermin of the street – passers-by, children, bicyclists?”

Both feelings return with interest when I test drive a monster of a 4×4 SUV that is almost 5m long and weighs in at almost three tonnes. I won’t mention the make or model, but it costs more than £70,000, has a fuel consumption rate of about 20pmg and CO2 emissions north of 300g/km (for context about three times the amount of my hatchback). The salesman who accompanies me says that it is the ideal vehicle with which to drag a hot air balloon from a muddy field in Belgium. The idea is that this is the kind of activity a buyer of this vehicle might get up to (apparently one of his clients had done exactly this) or, perhaps more accurately, the kind of activity a certain sort of customer, usually male, might fantasise about doing.

I am more preoccupied with how I am going to back the thing out of the tight parking space on the salesroom site. As I tentatively reverse, I have a sense of foreboding, unsure I’ll be able to control this overgrown mechanical beast. I am posing to the salesman as someone who is seeking maximum protection on the city roads, yet I suspect that I look very much like a man who usually drives a tiny hatchback.

As I ease along the slip road, I see a line of stalled traffic up ahead and immediately begin to worry about how I am ever going to crowbar this tank into the queue. As the traffic starts moving the gaps between the cars are way too small to access. Am I destined to sit for ever, impotent in this embarrassingly large car, never knowing the glories of reaching the third of its eight gears?

Sensing the salesman’s incredulity beside me, I realise that I don’t need a large gap to drive into. I can just pull out into the traffic and one will appear, because who in their right mind would want to risk a collision with the three-tonne vehicle?

That’s precisely what happens, and the lofty superiority of the SUV driver is back. After a slightly banal tour of west London’s A roads, I ask the salesman what the car is like at negotiating speed humps.

“Try accelerating towards one,” he suggests.

On a deserted sidestreet I do just that, driving at the kind of speed over a “traffic-calming” hump that would rip out the undercarriage of my hatchback. The big-wheeled SUV glides over it. Thus measures implemented to protect pedestrians work very effectively with the cars that do least damage, but are next to useless with the cars that cause most harm.

If the art of consumer capitalism is to produce solutions to hitherto nonexistent needs, then there are few more impressive examples of this process than the rise of the SUV. Although globally they are a 21st-century phenomenon, their history is rooted in the mid-20th. The original SUV was the military jeep that served as the primary, light 4×4 vehicle of the US army and allied forces during the second world war. The crossover to civilian use did not really start until the rise of the Jeep Cherokee in the US in the 1980s.

According to Andrew Simms and Leo Murray, in their forthcoming book Badvertising: Polluting Our Minds and Fuelling Climate Chaos, between 1990 and 2001, $9bn (£7.4bn) was spent on advertising off-road-themed cars to an audience that hadn’t before shown much interest in driving down that path. In this century, SUV advertising has eclipsed all other car promotion.

In the US there were various factors that contributed to the SUV’s appeal, not least an exemption from fuel economy regulations for off-road vehicles, and the fact that large cars were part of an American tradition that had already produced five-lane freeways, sprawling suburbs and almost limitless parking spaces.

In densely populated Britain it has been a different story. Cars such as Land Rovers and Range Rovers were initially aimed at the privileged country classes. Range Rover ran an ad campaign referring to grouse shooting with the line: “There’s only one car for the double-barrelled.” But after the 1980s, such cars and their imitators – both off-road and off-road manqués – made increasing incursions into the urban market, a cramped environment in the UK of narrow streets with limited opportunities to hunt wild game.

As Simms and Murray note: “The part of the UK where the largest and most powerful 4x4s – so-called Chelsea tractors – are most popular is indeed the inner London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.”

Simms and Murray argue that manufacturers turned to SUV production because it afforded greater profits: “The early SUVs provided a 25% profit, compared to just 5% on ordinary cars: Ford were able to buy Volvo and Land Rover with their SUV profits by 1999.”

Murray believes that the reason the Ford Fiesta, the popular hatchback, has been discontinued is not because people stopped wanting to buy it, but because Ford stopped wanting to make it: “It’s the inexorable logic of business that you will focus your productive capacity and marketing spend on your most profitable product.”

The manufacturers developed two distinct ways to market SUVs to men and women. In the first case they revamped a sleight-of-hand on which cars have been sold since their invention – as a means of accessing “nature”. It was Henry Ford, the father of the mass-produced car, who quipped that “we shall solve the city problem by leaving the city”, and it is no coincidence that car adverts have traditionally been filmed or photographed in wilderness settings, a lone vehicle journeying into an unspoilt landscape (rather than stuck in traffic where most cars are more often to be found).

The Tyre Extinguisher leaflet activists leave on SUVs explaining their actions.
The Tyre Extinguisher leaflet activists leave on SUVs explaining their actions. Photograph: Getty/Tyre Extinguishers

The marketing of SUVs took this idea one step further by going off-road to a still purer nature, of which the car itself became a constituent part. On the website, for example, of the Ineos Grenadier, which is based on the old Land Rover Defender, you can see a beautifully shot film of the car in the Namibian desert tracking elephants and rhinos.

“Speeding through deserts and jungles, fording raging rivers, and even scaling the heights of Mount Everest, the SUV is routinely depicted in the most spectacular and remote natural locations,” wrote Shane Gunster in You Belong Outside, a study of advertising and SUVs.

Again the message was that an off-road car could bring you closer to the earthiness of mother nature, an empowering return to the primal swamp. Or as one advert for one of the carmaker Jeep’s larger hybrids put it, it was “inspired by nature”. So the very product that has done so much to damage the environment is presented, muddy and in situ, as nature’s creation.

In contrast, the message for women has been more nurturing, concerned with security and protection, offering a safe space in a harsh world.

Emily Caron is a north Londoner who drives a Land Rover Discovery Sport and prizes the sense of security it affords. “I’m not an aggressive or very experienced driver,” she says, “so I feel very safe [in the Land Rover]. It’s more spacious and because of the high roof it isn’t claustrophobic. And it’s a very smooth ride. I don’t like being low to the ground, it makes me feel vulnerable.”

She says she doesn’t encounter problems with the car’s size, and has never been the target of other drivers’ animosity. She acknowledges that it’s expensive to run because of heavy fuel consumption, and she is concerned about the environmental impact, but for practical reasons she’s not ready to make the jump to an electric vehicle at the moment.

“Carmakers realised that more car purchase decisions were being made by women,” says Murray, “who were thought to be worried about dangerous driving, their own and everyone else’s.”

I had an ominous encounter with this marketed anxiety one afternoon a while ago. As I carefully lined up my small hatchback to reverse into a parking space that faced out into a north London street, a great bulbous shiny black thing, like some armour-plated sci-fi machine, drove straight into “my” space and also occupied a couple of feet of the one next to it.

A moment later, an elegantly dressed woman in her 30s climbed down from the vehicle with its bumper wheels and blacked-out windows, and started to walk off. I called out that she’d left me no room to park. Exasperated, she complained that I should have told her when she was in the car, and reluctantly returned to re-park. After five or six attempts, she gave up and got out. She was still impeding the adjacent space, but not by as much.

“Excuse me,” I said, as she stomped off, “can I ask why you have such a big car?”

She looked at me as though I were some mad Unabomber-type, and in a voice quaking with righteous indignation snapped: “Because I’ve got a baby!”

At the time, it seemed an absurd response (it still does), but that woman’s perspective has become a cliche. The problem with building cars for the protection of those within them, however, is that it tends to have a deleterious effect on the protection of those without.

As Murray puts is: “If you’re driving around in a small lightweight vehicle and you have a collision with, say, a Land Rover Defender, it’s going to smash you to bits.”

That understanding, he says, has led to an escalation, a sort of arms race, in which everyone buys ever larger and heavier cars to protect themselves from all the other larger and heavier cars. Simms and Murray believe the heavily encased, elevated position of the SUV driver creates a “sensation of safety” that means they “will tend to ‘export’ their risk, putting other road users at greater risk”.

According to one American study, published in the Journal of Safety Research, children are eight times more likely to die when struck by an SUV compared with an average passenger car. Obviously no sane consumer would select a car on that particular basis. Like the woman with the baby, people are more interested in protecting their own children.

But according to some statistics, it appears that even this instinct may have been misleadingly exploited. In his 2002 book High and Mighty, Keith Bradsher found that occupant death rate was 6% higher in SUVs than in conventional cars, and 8% in the biggest ones.

“These figures suggest that SUVs were probably killing around an extra 3,000 people in the US a year at that time – more than died at 9/11,” write Simms and Murray. Roughly a third of those died in SUV rollovers, and another third from being hit by one. The final third were being killed by respiratory problems because of the extra pollution caused by SUVs.”

They estimate that if similar patterns apply in the UK, then it could mean 500-700 extra deaths a year. Yet these are all just figures, grimly real enough perhaps in life, but abstract on the page, and as the history of the cigarette industry tells us, figures can not only be contested on their own account, but also trumped by a suitably potent image.

“People like big cars,” says Matthew Hannon, professor of sustainable energy business and policy at Strathclyde Business School. “I think it’s now plugged into the subconsciousness of the average consumer.”

And SUVs do offer comfort, space and a sense of control. Moreover cars, as Simms and Murray note, are consumerism’s ultimate “positional good”, a phrase that refers to an item’s social value as a status symbol. As such they are largely immune to rational criticism and satirical mockery (what effect did the term Chelsea tractor have on impeding the SUV phenomenon?), or other means of moderating behaviour.

Even the slow switch to electric cars is an unsatisfying solution. EV design favours SUVs because the elevated seats allow space for the battery pack, but they tend to make electric SUVs even heavier than the petrol versions.

“With bigger vehicles,” says Hannon, “you’ll get less kilowatt/hour efficiency, more material used to build them, bigger battery packs, and there are serious supply chain concerns around precious metals and minerals that go into these vehicles, and questionable ethics associated with how they are mined and processed.”

Whether petrol, diesel or electric, SUVs also, he says, make an unsustainable demand on urban space. Added to which Murray says that an overlooked issue is micro-plastic pollution through tyre wear, which disproportionately affects SUVs. Then there is the cost of overweight cars to road surface repairs, and the extra use of limited resources that entails.

Simms and Murray conclude that, following the example of cigarettes, an advertising ban on the biggest polluting cars would be effective in bringing down sales and emissions. A recent report by the Transport & Environment thinktank called on the government to introduce a new weight-based tax on the heaviest and largest vehicles and tax incentives for smaller electric models. As the government has set back the ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles from 2030 to 2035, these are measures that demand consideration.

Sold as a means of escape from the concrete realities of the modern world, a symbol of individualism and the pioneer spirit, the SUV represents instead a uniform kind of selfishness, a collective indifference to community to which, alas, we are all more or less prone.

“An SUV is a complete indulgence,” says Will, before he disappears back into Clapham Common, “an unnecessary luxury. I understand in other cases when people say, don’t force your hairshirtedness on other people, but with this issue it’s utterly clear.”


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