Dumping All Over American Trucks Goes Mainstream

It's not just a bunch of enviro hippies anymore

Now this is safe.
Now this is safe, a bull bar on a Ram.

Lloyd Alter 

Two recent articles in not your usual sources of environmental news give me hope that the tide is turning for SUVs and pickups.

After a British organization recently proposed Treating SUVs Like Cigarettes and Banning Advertising I suggested that this wasn't enough; we had to learn from the entire anti-tobacco campaign, which not only banned ads but also regulated cigarettes and perhaps most importantly, made smokers into social pariahs. Cigarettes were no longer a personal choice but became "everybody's business."

The usual suspects like Treehugger or Streetsblog have been railing against light trucks (the proper name for SUVs and pickups) forever, but now, complaints about light trucks are everybody's business. An article by Ryan Cooper in The Week is interesting for a number of reasons. Titled The case against American truck bloat, Cooper uses humor and sarcasm to reinforce his case. Cooper notes, as we have, that the main reason for the jump in pedestrian deaths has been the proliferation of light trucks, and wonders why.

Trucks and SUVs do not make up 70 percent of automobile sales nowadays because Americans are now 70 percent contractors and HVAC repairmen. Nor has the average pickup gained 730 pounds since 2000 because 100 million people have taken up cattle ranching. The vast majority of SUV and truck drivers would have driven a sedan in previous ages, and for these people it's about looks, power, speed, and perceived safety for drivers. Thinking about pedestrians might upset this comfortable arrangement.
Ford Transit Connect
Ford Transit Connect. Vauxford on Wikipedia 

In fact, if you look around, most HVAC contractors drive Ford Transits or Sprinter style vans, designed to European safety standards with low pedestrian-absorbing front ends and good visibility.

Volkswagen pickup truck
Volkswagen pickup truck. CC/ C5Carl on Flickr

Both designs could have the boxes chopped off and be turned into great pickups, just like Volkswagen did decades ago, but that's not what people are buying. Cooper notes that the big front end is entirely a marketing gimmick:

Don't take it from me, take it from the guy who designed the latest GM Sierra HD: "The front end was always the focal point... we spent a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it's going to come get you. It's got that pissed-off feel."

Cooper blames the automakers for "deliberately ranking insecure faux-macho looks over the safety of pedestrians as well as regulators for failing to rein them in" instead of having sloping noses with good visibility. When he tweeted about this he caught criticism from the likes of Ted Cruz and others who love their trucks.

Conservatives were quick to inform me that only beta male soyboys could possibly drive such a vehicle. It seems thousands of dead pedestrians — who are incidentally about 70 percent men — is just the price to be paid so the right can have another postmodern culture-war grievance in their eternal quest to own the libs.

Wall Street Journal Writer Comes to The Same Conclusion

Trucks are for working
Pickup trucks are for working.  Ford Motor Company 1946

It's probably a stretch to call The Week a mainstream publication, but the article is getting spread around because it wasn't paywalled. Dan Neil also wrote a great article in the paywalled Wall Street Journal on the same subject, also with a bit of humor. This is key; in my writing, I am often sanctimonious, but Neil and Cooper make the drivers of these things look like insecure weenies.

Dan Neil explains how pickups changed from working vehicles to a different profile of customer:

That’s right: Gucci cow­boys. His­tor­i­cally aimed at com­mer­cial cus­tomers, sole pro­pri­etors, horse-haulers and mega-RVers, heavy-duty pick­ups are stronger and taller than or­di­nary (half-ton) trucks, with cabs mounted high above re­in­forced frame rails and heavy, long-travel sus­pen­sions. But HD trucks have evolved in the past decade, ir­ra­di­ated with the same pres­tige-lux­ury rays as light-duty trucks.
Chevy front end
Front end of a Chevy.  Lloyd Alter

He also blames the marketers for this, with one noting that “The face of these trucks is where the ac­tion is; a Ford has to say Ford from head-on, a Chevy must shout Chevy. Every pickup has be­come a rolling brand bill­board and the bill­boards are big.”

You don’t have to be Steven Pinker to see that truck de­sign­ers are lean­ing into the bully with these lantern-jawed bumpers and walls of chrome. De­troit’s blithe cod­i­fi­ca­tions of pur­pose­ful and pow­er­ful pickup de­sign fail to de­scribe the in­tim­i­da­tion fac­tor from the out­side.

The Pinker reference is significant, given that he studies mental imagery, shape recognition and visual attention. Both Neil and Cooper are writing in the same week, pretty much the same story: Pickups are all about image, about marketing, about being in your face.

There are many who will defend pickups for their practicality; one justified it in comments on the last post saying "I need my SUV/Pickup to tow my boat/trailer/ATV/jetski/snowmobiles which I do every weekend, and I need it to carry 4+ people with all their luggage for 1-to-20 days over 200+ km long trips." I can't argue with that but suspect that people like this are few and far between. Another commenter was true to form, noting that "pickups are very useful"– for crushing protesters' bicycles in Portland.

Both of these articles are important because they change the approach from complaining about the safety or the fuel consumption and carbon footprint of pickups, but instead, talk about the people who buy them and the motivations that drive them. About the marketing, and the need to look intimidating.

This could be the beginning of the end for the pickup truck, when non-Treehugger types write in non-treehuggerish publications about how silly these trucks are. They could finally become socially unacceptable and turn into a niche sideshow, the vehicle of choice for the anti-mask brigade.