The major auto manufacturers shifted their focus to SUVs more than a decade ago. Sedans and subcompact cars are not where they make their money. Zoe Long and Jonn Axsen write:
When it comes to vehicular popularity, SUVs are winning in Canada. Eighty per cent of new vehicles sold in Canada in 2020 and 2021 were SUVs and pickup trucks. These sales levels were only 55 per cent a decade ago. Unfortunately, the trend comes at the expense of the climate.
In Canada, SUVs produce around one-third more greenhouse gas emissions per kilometre than cars on average. Over the past decade, our fuel economy standards have been improving the efficiency of new vehicles, but the switch towards SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans has been counteracting those efforts. From 1990 to 2019, emissions from SUVs and other trucks more than doubled in Canada, leading to a 40 per cent increase in total passenger vehicle emissions during that period.
This has threatened Canada’s commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 50 per cent by 2030, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. To explore the tension between the demand for SUVs and its climate challenges, we used a mixed-method approach to study consumer behaviour through consumers’ in-depth stories and the overall trends.
We surveyed nearly 1,000 representative SUV drivers, car drivers and non-drivers in Metro Vancouver and followed up with some of them in focus group discussions for our study. We found that while SUV users are drawn to the vehicle because of features that provide comfort, style and safety, some were willing to downsize due to policy changes.
In so many ways, the future is about downsizing. But downsizing isn't popular:
In the interest of shifting these trends, we explored the potential of different actions to sway people away from SUVs. In our survey, only 28 per cent of those planning to buy an SUV would consider downsizing to a car without any policy or other change.
But policy changes would help:
Some policies like financial penalties or incentives would encourage more SUV users to downsize. A drop of 20 per cent in insurance costs for cars would prompt 36 per cent of SUV intenders to downsize. Ten per cent higher purchase price taxes on SUVs would prompt 35 per cent to downsize, while a $5 toll to enter the City of Vancouver for SUVs only would prompt 33 per cent to downsize.
Today, Canada’s vehicle fuel efficiency standards are lenient towards SUVs and pickup trucks, which may have perversely incentivized the current trend towards SUVs. Carefully redesigning existing regulations to avoid such loopholes can be one option to address the climate change concerns posed by SUVs.
The current schedule for increasing carbon pricing in Canada could potentially shift buyers towards smaller vehicles over time by increasing the cost of gasoline. Unfortunately, car buyers are notoriously shortsighted at the time of purchase and tend to undervalue long-term fuel cost savings.
Other pricing mechanisms could include extra purchase taxes for gas guzzling vehicles or tax breaks and other fee reductions for buyers of smaller cars. Reduced vehicle insurance rates for smaller vehicles could be a win-win policy, providing road safety benefits and reducing GHG emissions, from the resultant downsizing.
Without pursuing a policy path, challenging the cultural and market entrenchment of SUVs will be tricky. Canadians are unlikely to end their SUV obsession on their own. We need policy actions to reduce the use of GHG-intensive vehicles and pursue our climate goals.
The SUV has had its day. We may want them. But we don't need them.
Image: The Tyee