Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
April / May 1999


Sport Utility Vehicles: Higher Profits, Higher Pollution

By Bill Myers, Chair, Metro Air Committee


Despite automakers’ encouraging rhetoric about promoting electric, hybrid-electric and fuel-cell powered cars, sales are higher than ever for the dirtiest, least-efficient vehicles: gas or diesel powered pickups, minivans and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

Automotive News reported in December that 1998 SUV sales were the highest on record, exceeding 1997 sales figures for every months to that date. Total SUV sales for that 11-month period were 2,494,375—an increase of 14.4 per-cent. These vehicles, classified by regulators as "light trucks," now account for half of all new passenger vehicles sold in the United States.

Bigger cars increase automaker profits, but also increase environmental damage. The largest light trucks emit 2.3 times more smog-forming pollutants and about 50 percent more CO2 than the average passenger car.

With gasoline prices at historic lows, we are likely to continue to see more SUVs tooling around our streets, getting 12 to 15 miles per gallon. This is about the same fuel economy as the aver-age car had in the early 1970s before the first oil crisis.


Why the Concern?

SUVs are subject to less stringent fuel economy standards and less stringent emissions standards for smog-forming pollutants than cars. Federal regulations require the average fuel economy of each automaker’s yearly sales to meet a target of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks, which includes pickups and minivans.

Federal regulations also allow most light trucks to emit from 1.6 to 2.3 times more smog-forming pollutants than cars.

Three decades ago, when light trucks made up only about 10 percent of our light-duty vehicle fleet and served mostly commercial purposes, these differences were not a serious problem.

Now, with light trucks grabbing 50 percent of new passenger vehicle sales, these loopholes are a serious concern for the environment.

In terms of CO2 and smog-forming pollutant emissions today, SUVs are the worst environmental offenders—Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, Dodge Durango, Chevrolet Suburban, Toyota Land Cruiser, and Land Rover Range Rover at the top of the list.

To minimize the environmental impact of your vehicle, buy the most fuel-efficient and least polluting vehicle that will fit your needs. Ask yourself whether you really need a full-size SUV or if a station wagon or car might do.

Consider whether public transport couldn’t serve instead of a second car.

And, each day, decide whether you can leave your car or truck in the garage!


Rocky Mountain Road Challenges Ahead

The auto industry must invest heavily now if it is to produce the green cars that tomorrow’s environmental regulations are likely to require. But, reinventing the vehicle must involve remaking market signals, which currently encourage demand for dirty gas-guzzlers.

Government policies to encourage a market for cleaner, more efficient vehicles, such as higher gasoline taxes, stricter regulations, and incentives to purchase cleaner cars, are badly needed.

Consumers need to start asking regulators and automakers: "Why can’t I buy a clean and efficient vehicle today?"

For more information, visit the Union of Concerned Scientist’s web site ( or read the Green Guide to Cars and Trucks by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Edited from Roland Hwang’s article, "Where is Detroit Heading?" Publication of the Union of Concerned Scientists, 20 Nucleus No. 2, Summer 1998.