Thursday, 8 May 2014

Middle-Class Status Symbols

In 2010, my daughter turned six. And just like any good Canadian kid, she also started playing hockey.

We did a dress rehearsal the night before and it was a proud moment as a father. She looked so cute in her gear. After, we packed all her equipment into a tiny bag barely bigger than an over-night bag.

The next morning she was excited. Her game wasn’t until 3:00 pm but she asked us if it was time to go every fifteen minutes.

Finally it was time to leave. The whole family piled into our car, a Subaru wagon - my wife and I up front, our two kids in the back seats and Kate’s equipment sliding around the trunk.

Like most Canadian kids of my generation, I played hockey growing up, but this was my first time going to a game as a parent. As a child, I was unaware of the games parents play. I was completely unprepared for the peacock show I was about to become a part of.

Upon entering the parking lot, I felt as if I had crossed into Brobdingnag - the place in Gulliver’s Travels where he was tiny. The other vehicles were enormous. Everyone had their middle-class status symbols: a jacket for their child’s team, their kids bag over their shoulder, and their huge SUV.

Now, I’m willing to carry my daughter’s bag for a while but as soon as she is able she will be carrying it herself. Also, I love my jacket. It’s a brown leather biker jacket I bought brand new for seven dollars at a thrift store. It was a steal and I’m not prepared to give that up. So I guess the only way for me to fit in with the other parents is to buy an SUV.

Up until now, I’ve hated SUVs because I thought they were bad on gas, bad on the environment and dangerous. Clearly I was wrong, because one out of four new vehicles sold is an SUV.

In the beginning, the SUV was born from military jeeps. GI’s needed a vehicle to get them to and from combat zones safely and reliably. The governments wanted the vehicle to be cheap. The result, the Willy’s Jeep; it was cheap and reliable enough. It was engineered so that if anything did break, it could be repaired quickly using the supplies soldiers already carried. The Jeep wasn’t fast, nor was it comfortable, but it inspired a host of post-war replicas and can be credited with the birth of the SUV.

After their military service was over, some of these utility vehicles were put into service by hardcore outdoorsmen, transporting them into deep woods or other inaccessible country so they could hunt, set traps or fish. This is where the early SUVs happily remained for several decades, evolving slowly, being built and sold in very limited numbers.

That is until the late 80’s, when Ford decided to bring the SUV to suburbia.

At that time, the cost of designing and building a car was rapidly increasing because of new government regulations and public demands for safer, more fuel efficient vehicles. Ford was also losing market share and needed something fresh and new to revitalize their image and boost revenue.

Stephan Ross, a young designer within the light truck division, was given the responsibility of convincing the Ford board of directors that a suburban SUV could be profitable. The top executives were unwilling to give him the resources to design a completely new vehicle, so he used spare parts that were around him.

He took a chassis from a Ranger, and then modified a Bronco cabin, making it longer to accommodate two more doors. To make it even more affordable, the new vehicle could be built on the existing assembly lines. Also, because it used a truck chassis, it was classified as such, allowing it to skirt the stiffer regulations on cars regarding safety and fuel economy. As a result, the vehicle was very cheap to build, meaning enormous profits for Ford.

In essence, this “new” SUV largely used the same principal as the early jeeps. However, the key difference was comfort. Because these vehicles were not expected to do any heavy lifting, the interior was made inviting and luxurious. The SUV was no longer just a special-interest vehicle.

Since going on sale in the spring of 1990, the Explorer sold exceedingly well. It has been said that it single-handedly saved Ford. It certainly ignited the explosion of the SUV craze.

Every manufacturer scrambled to get their version to market as quickly as possible to get a piece of the pie. They hastily designed SUV bodies and bolted them to truck underbodies that had been engineered for a completely different purpose. This was a deadly combination.

While sales went up and everybody blissfully ignored depleting oil reserves and a warming climate, death rates also soared. The public assumed that SUV’s were safe. It was hard to argue that perception when one was surrounded by so much steel and glass. Manufacturers encouraged this false logic through their advertising campaigns.

These campaigns bred a culture of passive safety; the idea that accidents are inevitable so instead of trying to avoid them, you should cocoon yourself with as much metal as possible and brace for the impact. Unfortunately, this idea also sold more SUV’s.

As mentioned earlier, SUV’s are classified as light-trucks, and while a cars face stringent safety tests, trucks do not. Fundamentally, trucks are meant to do low speed grunt work; carrying heavy loads over rough terrain. Trucks are not designed for highway driving. So when millions of SUVs, with their primitive truck suspension, took to our high-speed motorways, bad things were bound to happen.

And bad things did happen.

Everyone has heard about the high profile Firestone debacle. But, even without those incidents, SUVs are crashing at an alarming rate. The worst part about this is the physics are frighteningly simple.

SUVs are the heaviest passenger vehicles on the road and they also have the highest centre of gravity. When an object with a lot of mass and a high centre of gravity gets moving quickly, it is very reluctant to stop or change direction. Pushed past its very narrow limit, an SUV will act like a dog, roll over and play dead.

Unfortunately, its victims are not playing.

If someone buys an SUV, planning on having an accident and being the only one harmed, then that’s their problem. But, because it is often others on the road who suffer the most, we have a much bigger issue at hand. In SUV to car collisions, the occupants of the car are six times more likely to be killed than when colliding with another car. A quarter of the drivers on the road are threatening the lives of the greater population.

It has been said, as North Americans we love our cars. We must, because we’ve gone to war so we can drive them more. The internal combustion engines powering our vehicles are thirsty, but those found in SUVs are the thirstiest of the lot. A truck power plant, engineered to work best at low RPM, will burn a lot more fuel when running at high RPMs for an extended period of time on a highway commute. Again, thanks to the fact that they are classified as trucks, they are not subject to the same fuel efficiency regiments as cars.

The newest ploy by manufacturers to get more people into SUVs is hybrid technology. A hybrid SUV receives a huge lump of batteries and an additional electric motor to marginally boost fuel economy. However, the problem is these batteries and extra motor add considerable weight, reducing the effectiveness of the whole package and further limiting the braking and handling capabilities.

Now, after confirming that SUVs are as dangerous and inefficient as I thought they were, I certainly don’t want to buy one just to fit in with the hockey parents. I have resigned myself to being an outcast. My wagon may not raise my social status in the eyes of others, but it does what I need, safer and cheaper than an SUV.

Someday, ideals may change, and maybe then I’ll be considered a pioneer.

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