Electric or Not, Big SUVs Are Inherently Selfish

About 30 years ago, during the filming of Kindergarten Cop in Washington state, a military convoy of about 50 Humvees passed Arnold Schwarzenegger on the road. As they drove past, Schwarzenegger stopped his own vehicle and said “I’ve got to have this car,” the actor later recounted.

Schwarzenegger, whose carefully crafted public image made him synonymous with American machismo, understood how driving around in a military vehicle would match his persona. Although the Humvee was only for military use at the time, his persistent lobbying changed that. Many affluent Americans would follow in his footsteps and drive a lightly modified military vehicle around American roads.

The Hummer brand—including the original H1 and its successors, the similarly monstrous yet half-priced H2 and even more affordable H3—sold more than 308,000 vehicles in the U.S. between 2002 and 2010 when it was discontinued as part of General Motors’ restructuring following its 2009 bankruptcy and $50 billion government bailout.

During the Super Bowl, GM announced the Hummer is back with a 30-second ad spot featuring Lebron James. And not only is it back, but it’s electric.

GM is betting it’ll be able to sell the Hummer for all the same reasons it used to, with the added pitch that electric drivetrains provide better performance, such as a zero-to-sixty time of three seconds. Saving the planet will not, it seems, be a big part of the sales pitch.

The sidelining of the environmental benefits of EVs aligns with the role Hummer and other gigantic SUVs have played in our environmental challenges. The Hummer, in all its militaristic aggressiveness, is the very embodiment of the wasteful excess that contributed to the climate crisis in the first place. Cars are inherently about projecting a self-image, and hundreds of thousands of Americans chose to project one of profound, pathological selfishness. The electrification of the Hummer is not a signal of climate progress. It is a declaration that it’s still OK to be an asshole.

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In 2002, Keith Bradsher, the former New York Times Detroit editor, published his book High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUVs. Inside, Bradsher called the increasing popularity of SUVs “a triumph of image and marketing over practicality.” It was deeply irrational for most anyone to buy an SUV, he argued. Yet millions of people kept doing so.

Bradsher’s book is a thorough examination of how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.

Car companies managed this remarkable feat because they ran—and continue to run—quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet. They knew what people really wanted: to project an image of selfish superiority. And then they sold it to them at a markup.

The picture they painted of prospective SUV buyers was perhaps the most unflattering portrait of the American way of life ever devised. It doubled as a profound and lucid critique of the American ethos, one that has only gained sharper focus in the years since. And that portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

Perhaps this sounds farfetched, but the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

The evolution of the SUV from rugged military cosplay to the vehicle for everyone can be seen in its most potent form with the H2, which sanded down the H1’s rough edges while retaining the hulking figure and bestial attributes.

Electric Hummer grill

The electric Hummer grill. Photo credit: GMC

This was a stark contrast with, say, minivan buyers. Those same studies found minivan drivers considered themselves parents of the neighborhood and not just their own children. They thought about how the design of the vehicle would enable them to do the things they did most frequently, such as transport lots of children or help senior citizens in and out of the vehicle.

But that’s not how SUV buyers thought. Bradsher quotes a Honda marketing executive as saying, “They are buying the image of the SUV first, then the functionality,” because, according to their research, SUV-buyers were “very concerned with how other people see them, rather than worrying about what is practical.”

Car companies marketed SUVs towards these people with advertisements featuring SUVs dominating roads, climbing boulders, and other extreme feats even though, by the auto industry’s own research, somewhere between one and 13 percent of SUV owners actually drove their vehicles off-road, and most of those who said they did considered flat dirt roads “off-roading.” In other words, auto companies spent billions of dollars on marketing every year to nudge people to buy over-engineered, inefficient, and expensive vehicles in order to allay irrational fears far out of touch with the lives they actually had.

This cynical marketing worked stunningly well. In 2019, the seven best-selling vehicles in the U.S., and 13 of the top 20, were either pickup trucks or SUVs (pickups, of course, now incorporate many of the same marketing tropes as SUVs from the early 2000s). According to the Detroit Free Press, pickups and SUVs now account for 60 percent of new vehicle sales.

Perhaps no vehicle exemplified this trend more than Hummer. Owned by AM General until GM bought the brand in 1999, Hummer embodied a specific time and place in the American psyche that embellished the SUV persona of overcompensation for insecurity and fear.

Michael DiGiovanni, a GM market researcher who persuaded GM to buy Hummer and ended up running its Hummer operations, told Bradsher the $100,000 vehicle was marketed to “rugged individualists” who were “people who really seek out peer approval,” a delicious irony considering how much other road users loathe Hummers. Like their general SUV-owning brethren, few used the vehicle for actual off-roading.

The H1’s successor and slightly smaller variant, the $50,000 H2, was similarly designed for “successful achievers” who are “daring in the sense they may take a big stock market position…but it’s really important for them that people tell them how successful they are.” These people are, DiGiovanni added, “teenaged boys at heart” who never performed military service but wish they had. To wit, DiGiovanni said prototypes had the word “FIRE” on the push-to-start ignition button, but GM’s lawyers made them take it off.

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This would all be harmless fun if it was indeed harmless. Unfortunately, it was not. SUVs are worse for the world than smaller cars. The proliferation of SUVs has made our streets more congested, our roads more dangerous, and our environment more polluted for no good reason.

In 2000, several researchers used a video camera and a stopwatch to time how long it took thousands of vehicles to get through stop lights at two large intersections. They found, as the New York Times reported, people followed SUVs, pickups, and minivans at a greater distance than cars. As a result, a large SUV took the same amount of road space as 1.41 cars. The article quotes Professor Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas, one of the study’s authors, predicting traffic jams will get worse as more people switch to SUVs.

She was right. Traffic in virtually every American city has gotten worse, especially since the introduction of Uber and Lyft (both of which allow you to hail an SUV specifically as part of an upscale offering).

“Big cars are cumbersome,” Kockelman told Motherboard. “They do lumber through intersections and they cost everybody time.”

SUVs don’t just cost society time. They cost lives. At the height of the original SUV boom in 2004, SUV occupants were 11 percent more likely to die in a crash than people in cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, despite the common conception that people in bigger vehicles are safer. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, from 1993-2003, car and SUV occupants in vehicles between one and three years old died at roughly similar rates; Bradsher explains in great detail this was because SUVs were inherently more dangerous due largely to deadly rollovers, but the higher position and stiffer frame of SUVs made them more dangerous to other road users, especially those in smaller cars, which evened out the death rate.

SUVs are more deadly for pedestrians, too. Last year, the Detroit Free Press revealed “the SUV revolution is a key, leading cause of escalating pedestrian deaths nationwide, which are up 46 percent since 2009,” affecting minorities in urban areas at a disproportionately high rate. And that’s without the threat of a silent Hummer accelerating to 60 miles per hour in three seconds.

Since then, SUVs have become safer for the people inside of them thanks to better design and a lower risk of rollovers. But they’re still dangerous to others. Starting in 2004 and continuing through 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, car occupants die at more than double the rate of SUV occupants.

In other words, buying an SUV makes you more likely to kill other people, and yet people buy them in ever-increasing numbers. Rapaille’s reptilian brain concept has surpassed marketing theory and become a real-world experiment about how much Americans value the lives of others: not very much.

Equally profound has been the giant step back SUVs represented in CO2 emissions. A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report found “SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010” other than the power sector.

Even though cars got much more fuel efficient over the last two decades—some small, cheap gas cars now get fuel economy on par with the first and second generation Priuses—the actual fuel economy of cars on the road has gotten worse because people are driving more SUVs. And SUVs get worse gas mileage because they’re heavier and taller, which makes them less aerodynamic.

According to the IEA, efficiency improvements saved some two million barrels of oil a day, but the rise of SUVs more than canceled those efficiencies out. Instead, SUVs were “responsible for all of the 3.3 million barrels a day growth in oil demand from passenger cars between 2010 and 2018.” The rise of SUVs in lieu of far more fuel efficient cars is a cautionary tale for those who hope we will innovate our way out of the climate crisis. The innovation occurred, but people opted out.

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Of all the societal costs SUVs have presented, the electric Hummer addresses only one of them. Although GM has not yet released the exact specifications such as battery size, and the Environmental Protection Agency is a year or so away from revealing its energy usage statistics, it’s a safe bet the EV Hummer will be decent enough for the environment.

For starters, the EV Hummer will easily clear the microscopically low bar for fuel efficiency its diesel predecessor set with 13 miles per gallon combined city and highway. The EPA calculates how much energy in kilowatt-hours it takes to power an electric car and then converts it to an MPG equivalent for a rough comparison between energy consumption for electric and gas cars. The very least efficient EV on the market today, the Porsche Taycan Turbo S, is still rated by the EPA at an equivalent to 68 MPG. Larger EVs like the Tesla Model X and Audi e-tron get more than 70 MPGe.

So, even though the EV Hummer is likely to be gigantic and have an accompanying gigantic battery—which will increase emissions during the manufacturing process—it will almost certainly be more energy efficient than most every other car on the road, save perhaps plug-in hybrids and other electric vehicles.

The exact emissions math may also depend on where one lives and what energy source the electricity is coming from. Parts of Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin, for example, still have relatively dirty electric grids—but EV owners typically make up for the higher energy use during the manufacturing process within 18 months of use, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Since 2009, the electric grid has gotten cleaner, making EVs better for the environment, and most experts predict that trend will continue.

“I would love to see this drivetrain ‘yesterday’ on all pickup trucks in this country,” said Kockelman. “That is the only good thing about this vehicle, from my perspective.”

But it’s unlikely anyone considering an EV Hummer will be diving into the emissions math. Indeed, GM has decided to de-emphasize the environmental benefits in its marketing campaign. A cursory mention that the Hummer is “zero emission,” buried at the bottom of the press release and casually mentioned by Lebron at the end of the 30-second ad spot, is overshadowed by the tagline “Hear what powerful sounds like” and the performance specs of 1,000 horsepower, 11,500 lb-ft of torque, and the aforementioned zero-to-sixty time.

This is what makes the electric Hummer such a confounding product, the solution we need in the vehicle least appropriate for it. The original Hummer was conspicuous overconsumption in an industry already known for overconsumption. An electric Hummer may get some people into an EV who otherwise wouldn’t consider one, which would be an obviously good thing, but it still leaves us with a society addicted to and in celebration of the very consumption we need to reassess.

Back in 2014, Schwartzenegger, once again ahead of his time, converted his H1 to an all-electric prototype. The emissions saved from this gesture, while appreciated, will not go a very long way towards offsetting those from his 720-mile daily commute (each way) via private jet from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he was governor.

The problem with the Hummer was not that it got 13 miles per gallon. It was the entire apparatus that targeted and celebrated the reptilian brain. The Hummer was a symbol of a society that granted permission, and even idolized, consumers who were deeply, profoundly selfish. If any of those auto industry marketing studies were about a single person, that person would be an asshole. But it wasn’t about any one person. It was about us. And we’ve embraced it.

An EV Hummer will have zero emissions, but it reinforces the ethos that you can and should think only about yourself when buying something that affects other people, as nearly all of our purchases do. As long as that continues to be our society’s reinforcing principle, GM could sell 10 million EV Hummers, but it wouldn’t solve a thing.

“We want people to drive the most efficient vehicle that meets their needs,” said David Reichmuth from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “however you want to define that.”