Have you seen the nation’s latest status symbol on wheels? You may have, but you perhaps didn’t recognize its significance. You simply may have thought, as I did, how odd it is to see a military vehicle painted yellow, operated by a civilian and patrolling your local mall’s parking lot.
I caught my first glimpse of this monstrosity on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, and I assumed it was on its way to the National Guard unit based in the famous Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and East 66th Street. As for the yellow paint, well, that was tough to figure out: a new kind of camouflage for a new kind of war?
Then, of course, I discovered to my horror that this armored personnel carrier from the days of the Persian Gulf war has been adapted for civilian use—that is, for the use of civilians willing and able to pay more than $50,000 for a vehicle formerly known as a Humvee. Now, in all its yellow glory, it has been rebranded as the Hummer. It burns fuel at the rate of 10 to 13 miles per gallon, and it’s all the rage among affluent Americans who apparently have tired of their pipsqueak sport utility vehicles. It is, in fact, an S.U.V. on steroids.
This particular vehicle sensation—a combination of conspicuous consumption and military chic—comes at a time when soldiers by the thousands are behind the wheels of real-life armored vehicles, preparing for another war in the Persian Gulf. It comes at a time when the people who control our most important source of oil—the House of Saud—have been accused of playing fast and loose with our terrorist enemies. It comes at a time when we are more dependent than ever on oil from the Middle East, which is ground zero for Islamic extremism.
And yet America’s patriotic auto companies, having long ago lost the battle to produce safe, inexpensive and fuel-efficient sedans, continue to churn out oversized gas-guzzlers that not only make the nation’s highways more dangerous, but make us ever more dependent on our undependable friends and bloodthirsty enemies in the Middle East. General Motors is the villain behind the Hummer, but all three U.S. automakers are to blame for flooding the marketplace with terrorist-friendly sport utility vehicles.
How in the world did it come to this? As some of us of a certain age will remember, twice during the 1970’s we saw just how vulnerable we were to oil blackmail. An Arab-led embargo of oil exports to the United States led to gasoline rationing, hours spent in line at the gas station and a depressed economy. For a time, we acted as though we had learned from that dreadful experience. The days of Cadillacs the size of boats were over. Americans sought out smaller cars that burned less gas, vehicles that would allow America to reclaim its independence from duplicitous oil producers.
Unfortunately, American car companies were ill prepared for this new, and apparently un-American, emphasis on fuel efficiency and safety. But Japan’s car companies were, as any short drive on America’s highways will demonstrate. (Personal disclosure: I drive a Honda and my wife, a Toyota. We shopped around, sampled the American products, but chose cars made in America by foreign companies because they seemed safer and less expensive.)
Rather than compete with the mid-sized sedans and compacts from Japan, G.M., Ford and Chrysler went back to their glory days of cheap oil and big, dangerous cars. And thus was born the sport utility vehicle, the bane of America’s highways, the killer of drivers and passengers in saner and smaller cars, the greatest homegrown threat to national security.
The Hummer is the ironic climax of S.U.V. social irresponsibility. It was designed to transport soldiers safely, but now it is a threat to civilian drivers too poor or too enlightened to be similarly equipped. And it celebrates attitudes (reckless individualism for starters) and grotesque choices (who cares how much gas it burns?) that may make a war over oil supplies inevitable.
A new book describes how the S.U.V. became a staple on the American highway despite its dangers and its downright treasonous gas consumption. In High and Mighty, the writer Keith Bradsher states plainly what he thinks of S.U.V.’s. The book’s subtitle calls them “the world’s most dangerous vehicles.”
The American auto companies used their money and political clout in Washington to create the S.U.V. market. This is not a story of the free marketplace run amok with too many choices. It’s a story of political chicanery and corruption. Congress went along with Detroit’s absurd contention that the S.U.V.’s were not cars but lightweight trucks. Thus, the S.U.V. was exempted from fuel efficiency standards imposed on other automobiles.
The automakers designed their monstrosities not for safety, but to make them look and feel menacing. Their market research, Bradsher reports, showed that affluent buyers wanted to feel more powerful on the road. They wanted the little people looking up at them, in awe of them. And so, with the blessings of Congress, the American automakers gave us such atrocities as the Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator.
These vehicles have gotten millions of Americans addicted to cheap oil. And that addiction may yet get us into a war to make the world safe for self-indulgence.