“Hatchbacks on stilts.” Why SUVs are an arms race we must stop

There’s a lot of talk about how Australians are buying smaller cars, and how Australian car makers are stupid for pushing on with big petrol-guzzling cars nobody wants.

But Australians do want big petrol guzzling cars. They just want them to be tall.

The SUV category is going crazy. In April 2004, 12,351 SUVs were sold. By April 2014 monthly sales had doubled to 25350.

Meanwhile, “passenger vehicles” – your classic sedan, sold fewer. April 2004 saw 44,000 sold, but by April 2014 sales shrank to 39,000.

In 2014, even as the car market is having its worst year for a decade, SUV sales are creeping up.

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When people buy an SUV, they’re purchasing the ability to go off road. Right?

Not if you look at the details. Companies are pushing out two wheel drive versions of their SUVs and they sell fast.

The AFR’s motoring writer nailed this in a review of the new $90,000 BMW, which is two-wheel drive.

Some surprisingly large SUVs – including the X6 fastback from BMW – feel like hatchbacks on stilts,” he wrote.

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Reflecting: a BMW SUV in its element.

And there’s the key.

People want to be high up. It’s game theory. If the car in front of me is small, I can see over it really well from an SUV. If the car in front of me is tall, I want to be in an SUV or I won’t see anything at all.

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Externality would be a sweet name for the new Ford SUV. I imagine its prestige to come from being that little bit bigger, heavier and harder to stop than the Explorer, the Excursion and the Expedition.

As someone who drives a car that comes up to armpit height, I can confirm sitting in traffic involves looking at a lot of SUV bumper bars and having no idea what is happening in the traffic up the road.

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2048. Thank me later.

An elevated position doesn’t just permit a better view of traffic, but of other people in the traffic. I can’t see what that Range Rover driver is texting from down here, but they can sure see what’s on my phone (at right).

The light commercial category also shows the change. You can’t easily sell a ute you have to step down into these days. The 1.74 metre tall Nissan Navarra tops the category, easily out-selling the 1.5 metre tall Holden ute.

Buying a tall car is what’s called a dominant strategy, if you want to be able to see. It’s also a dominant strategy if you want to crash into another SUV, according to research.

In head-on collisions between passenger cars and SUVs … Drivers of passenger cars were more than four times more likely to die even if the passenger car had a better crash rating than the SUV.”

This is the classic game theory scenario of an arms race.

The arms race analogy is a good one. Like the proliferation of weapons, taller cars are costly and risky. They are heavier, take up more road space, cause more wear and tear to roads and emit more carbon. They may be more likely to roll in a crash. They’re exactly the kind of purchase decision in which a government might try to intervene.

For a long time, SUVS had lower import tariffs than passenger cars. That changed in 2010 when tariffs on cars fell. But by then, the proportion of SUVs sold was already steadily marching upwards.

Changes to the way we tax cars are possible in the next few years. The Henry Review recommends getting rid of the luxury car tax and fuel taxes, replacing them with congestion taxes or user pay systems. It is clear that our current system does little to deter SUV purchase. Could a well-designed licensing and user-pays system be better, or is the only stable game theory equilibrium one where we all drive cars like the Dodge Ram, that can barely fit in a lane?

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