The Real Reason Why Are Trucks Getting Bigger

It's not "ego."

It's a claim that you encounter a lot—an insult really—that people are buying bigger and bigger trucks to compensate for… something. Here's one particularly cringeworthy example, because the person making it doesn't seem to realize the go-kart he's praising doesn't meet US emissions standards. 

whenever americans say that they *need* a massive pickup truck that gets 12mpg just show them the Subaru Sambar

utility vs. ego pic.twitter.com/NqexDbQcok

— sam (@sam_d_1995) May 11, 2022

In response, a lot of people will defend their big truck purchase by saying they need a larger vehicle for their family, their business, or just because they like it. And to an extent, market forces are partly responsible for the increase in truck sizes, particularly when it comes to features like crew cabs. But it turns out that even a lot of people who like the big trucks don't know the full story of how their trucks got so big.

The rest of the story is something the folks at Freakanomics might enjoy because it is a classic tale of unintended consequences. In brief, Obama-era fuel regulations incentivized automakers to build bigger trucks.

One particular goal of the Obama Administration was to increase fuel efficiency through the typical political process: telling someone else to do it. To that end, the DOT and the EPA handed down a series of standards that nearly doubled the miles-per-gallon requirements for cars and light trucks.

The administration praised their own new standards as "groundbreaking." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood predicted that the program would "result in vehicles that use less gas, travel farther, and provide more efficiency for consumers than ever before."

The intent was to put pressure on automakers and force them to work out the engineering to meet the tough new standards. Their blindspot was failing to recognize that by placing the regulations solely on cars and small trucks, they had created a much simpler solution. 

The new platform-based standards set fuel economy targets based on wheelbase and tread width, that is, how far apart the wheels are. If your vehicle is longer and wider, the fuel-economy targets shrinks. In the words of Dan Edmunds of Edumnds.com, "There was kind of an incentive to maybe stretch the wheelbase a couple of inches and set the tires maybe an inch [farther] apart, because you get a bigger platform and slightly smaller target."

The regulations meant to get better mileage out of vehicles also made it easier for larger vehicles to meet fuel-efficiency standards. In what should have been an unsurprising move, when faced with the choice between reengineering their vehicles or simply going bigger, automakers chose to go bigger.

As is often the case with unintended consequences, the story doesn't end there. Bigger trucks pose a greater hazard to pedestrians and smaller vehicles, not just because of their size, but also because operators can't see as much around them. This graphic from Consumer Reports illustrates the problem: 

graphic: Consumer Reports

While figures showing just how many accidents are attributable to larger trucks in particular are not available, roadway fatalities increased in 2020 despite fewer miles traveled and pedestrian fatalities have only gone up in the years since the Obama regulations were put in place. 

In 2020, the Trump administration eased what the then-president described as the "failed" emissions rule, citing among other considerations safety. Democrats, having learned nothing, criticized the move as "anti-science." 

If you found this article to be useful, here is a tweetable TL;DR version:

It’s not ego, it’s economics. Smaller light-duty trucks were regulated out of existence by tighter fuel standards. Because regulations were made looser on larger vehicles, the easiest way for automakers to meet the standard is to build a bigger truck.

Sources: 

"Obama Administration Finalizes Historic 54.5 MPG Fuel Efficiency Standards"

"Why Pickup Trucks Keep Getting Bigger and Bigger"

"The Hidden Danger of BIG Trucks"

"Trump finalizes rollback of Obama-era vehicle fuel efficiency standards"

Comments

  1. Very interesting and it makes a lot of sense so I'm glad you decided to update the blog with it (I don't have a Twitter account even with the threat of the Musk takeover shining light on the cockroaches there). They really do try to rush progress with poor results, huh? I hope more people realize this and things change for the better provided the Dems don't end up slithering back in and messing it all up again.

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    Replies
    1. Argent, so glad you are so loyal to the blog. I think I may have finally gotten notifications worked out so I won't miss your replies as often. I also figured out how to reply using the same account as I'm posting with. I tell you, Google doesn't make it obvious.

      I like to say that no one believes in market forces quite like progressives. They think that if they just ban all the things they don't like, the market will figure out how to produce what they do like. The only problem is, they're very bad at predicting what they won't like.

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  2. Well I've always enjoyed your thoughts on things around Commentarama so of course I'd be interested in keeping up with your own blog! I do get how tech companies just keep making things harder and less user friendly, too, so no worries there. Very well-put on how they believe in market forces in their own warped way, too. Here's hoping we get some people who actually understand how they work to clear the crap out soon, though sadly there are plenty of people who don't get it on the GOP side too.

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