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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Cali SUVs

Air Date: Week of December 19, 1997

- There's another front now in California's seemingly endless battle against automobile pollution. Sport utility vehicles, vans and trucks are all the rage there. The boom in big, heavy vehicles is also threatening the state's air quality, and regulators there are considering steps to make these vehicles meet the same emissions standards as regular cars. Brian Zumhagen of member station KQED in San Francisco has more.

Transcript

CURWOOD: There's another front now in California's seemingly endless battle against automobile pollution. Sport Utility Vehicles, vans and trucks, are all the rage there, as they are across the country these days. Studies show that while these vehicles are often sold as safety enhancers, their poorer brakes and higher centers of gravity mean they are more likely to be involved in single-car accidents than cars. The boom in big, heavy vehicles is also threatening the state's air quality, and regulators there are considering steps to make these vehicles meet the same emissions standards as regular cars. Brian Zumhagen of member station KQED in San Francisco has more.

(Traffic sounds, motors, horns)

ZUMHAGEN: Time was when the Volkswagen Beetle was the unofficial vehicle of San Francisco. And through the 80s, the small Japanese import was the car of choice among the city's environmentally conscious residents. But nowadays, if you go to Market Street, the city's main thoroughfare, you'll see a steady flow of big, new vehicles: Chevrolet Suburbans, Jeep Grand Cherokees, and Toyota RAV-4s, to name a few.

(A car showroom)

CHERRY: This is a 1998 Ford Explorer over here.

ZUMHAGEN: Okay.

CHERRY: Let me show you some of the features about this vehicle.

ZUMHAGEN: Ken Cherry is a deal at S&C Ford in San Francisco.

CHERRY: And it drives just fabulously. You know, it has dual airbags.
And speaking of airbags...

ZUMHAGEN: Ken Cherry says the Explorer is his biggest seller. He says the roomy interior and the powerful rear-wheel drive make buyers feel like rugged adventurers, although most of his customers probably never take the trucks off-road. Mr. Cherry says sitting in a big truck high off the ground makes drivers feel that they and their children are safer.

CHERRY: The Ford Explorer offers that extra safety for them, you know, especially in the city driving here, you know, it's kind of dangerous. So a lot of people like to drive these now, especially housewives.

VARENCHECK: They've become the station wagons of the 90s.

ZUMHAGEN: Rich Varencheck is Public Information Officer for the California Air Resources Board. He says about half of all new car sales in the state are now pickup trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles, or SUVs. And he says California's air quality is suffering as a result.

VARENCHECK: The general rule of thumb is that a pickup truck or a sport utility vehicle will emit about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half times more air pollutants than a standard passenger sedan.

ZUMHAGEN: These vehicles don't have to meet the same pollution standards as regular cars because in the past they were used largely by tradespeople, like plumbers, carpenters, and construction workers. But now, California officials want to change that. The State Air Resources Board is considering new standards aimed at cleaning up the exhaust of SUVs and vans beginning with the model year 2004. But automakers remain resistant. They say the proposed regulations could price some prospective buyers out of the market. Richard Glemish is Vice President of Engineering for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

GLEMISH: We could do it. It's just a matter of cost, and you know, what effect this has on the consumer and all that. But it's not that it can't be done. The question is whether it's cost beneficial, whether it's a good idea.

ZUMHAGEN: It certainly may not be good for automakers' profits. Detroit makes much more money from the sale of light trucks than from other vehicles. Environmentalists think the proposal is a good idea, but they say the regulations would only do half the job. Janet Hathaway, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that California can only control smog emissions.

HATHAWAY: What they are not really given the authority to do is to set efficiency standards. In other words, to control the climate change emissions, CO2, carbon dioxide emissions, that occur from vehicles.

ZUMHAGEN: Carbon dioxide emissions are the direct result of fuel consumption. And SUVs, minivans, and trucks, which have far lower fuel efficiency standards, are the fastest-growing source of CO2 in the US. Changes in mileage standards would have to come out of Washington, but that's unlikely to happen any time soon. Still, California's move could start to turn the tide on sport utility vehicles. The State Air Resources Board is expected to rule on the proposed standards a year from now. For Living on Earth, I'm Brian Zumhagen in San Francisco.

 

 

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