Drivers too fat for the environment?


Posted on: 02 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

The latest front in the eco/body fascist wars

A curious article on AOL Motors that claims Americans are too fat to fit into smaller, more eco-friendly cars:

...Growing waistlines simply prevent a lot of U.S. drivers from feeling comfortable or secure in smaller cars. So, unless the entire country goes on a diet, says Dan Cheng, vice president and partner at business consulting firm AT Kearney, we may be destined to keep driving big cars no matter how much a gallon of gas costs in the future.

Cheng says the number of light trucks – a segment of the car market that includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks – has increased steadily since the 1970s. And so has the percentage of adults in the U.S. who are classified as obese.

The number of obese people in the U.S. is expected to increase from 40% this year to about 43% in 2018, Cheng says. Cheng predicts that will keep almost half the population from even considering a small car except for purely economic reasons as small cars tend also to be cheaper than big cars or SUVs...

Now, Mr. Cheng is being a bit disingenuous here. Firstly, he's confusing causation with correlation. Americans may have been getting fatter (or rather, heavier which isn't exactly the same thing), but that doesn't mean they've been buying ever bigger vehicles to accommodate that bulk. (Unless you're already prejudiced and so looking for just such a connection.) SUVs were marketed heavily by car companies who found them easy to manufacture, and easier to sell, to a country that's always like big muscle vehicles.

In other words, Americans like big cars for cultural reasons. Not every SUV driver is overweight, after all. Nor is every Smart car driver on par with Kate Moss. But the former does represent a tendency towards the big, brash and tactlessly conspicuous - the American Dream at its most lumpen. 

The opening paragraph gives it away:

Karen Steelman, a stay-at-home mom from Athens, Ga., has tried to like small cars. She read plenty of reviews, kicked their tires, and has even taken a few test drives.

But none of them make her feel safe. And none of them make her feel comfortable.

Steelman has a body mass index of about 37 – seven points above the obesity mark. She's among a growing number of Americans who feel they are too big to comfortably drive a small car.

"I want to be environmentally friendly, but unless I am in an SUV these days ... I find no pleasure or comfort in driving," she says...

It seems open and shut. Spoilt American lard-o won't save the environment because she's too fat. But there's another reading here. This doesn't mean she can't fit into a big car, but rather she's already a little bit biased. Small cars aren't very American, and so unfamiliar. 

Walk along a British high street, however, and you'll see all manner of large people getting into and driving small cars without complaint. Culturally, we don't mind, but Americans do, clinging to the bizarre belief that the bigger something is, the less likely you are to die in it. Also, it makes you look successful.

Karen, meanwhile, already has preconceptions about what's safe and what's comfortable, and smaller cars don't meet them. It sounds like she's grown up in and around big cars, so that small, boxy little number in the corner of the showroom may be too much of a departure. People are drawn to the familiar.

Meanwhile, as some of those who've commented on the story have pointed out, there is another factor at play. Americans aren't just getting fatter, but taller - since 1960, men have gone up by an average of 1.5 inches, and women by an inch. Children have also been getting taller, boys by 0.7 of an inch and girls by 0.9. 

The other elephant in the mini here is a very American one - petrol is too cheap there and so it's feasible to drive a big hulking vehicle with appalling MPG. Again, SUVs are to blame, but the easiest way to wean Americans off cheap fuel is surely making the cars they like to drive more ecologically friendly in incremental steps. 

This means more research into hybrids and electric cars, and an unexplored market in conversion kits and modular car upgrades. The real problem facing the environment isn't big cars or bigger Americans, but unimaginative manufacturers and even more unimaginative consumers.

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Alexander Hay

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Trevor Bacon posted 11 June 2011

There are very few good reasons why car design could not be both efficient and large. My understanding is that as engines have become more efficient the American manufacturers decided to maintain the size of the engine and increase the power of already overpowered cars and trucks. So as far as I can see their are no logical reasons why comfortable large, if a little underpowered (by recent standards)  cars could not be produced. As fuel becomes more expensive I think most sane people would swap the 0 to 60 in so many seconds for a pleasant and comfortable and safe ride, whatever ones size. 


Alexander Hay posted 13 June 2011

The difficulty lies in winning the argument - it will probably take oil supplies collapsing or quadrupling in price before American culture moves towards a more sensible model.

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