08/25/2011 01:35 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

High-MPG SUVs: The Wrong Answer

Toyota and Ford just announced that they are partnering to develop hybrid fuel systems for monsters -- I mean, large SUVs and light trucks. This partnership will allow SUVs and light trucks to remain players in the U.S. market after the higher miles-per-gallon regulations kick in. As an owner of two Toyota Priuses and a Nissan Leaf, I'm not cheering the move. Higher gas prices have been painful, but they have had a blissful effect: more and more drivers are switching to smaller, more fuel-efficient or alternative-fuel vehicles. I'd hoped that in a few years these giant, gas-guzzling dinosaurs would be extinct. Now, unfortunately, drivers whose egos demand that they rule the road from their lofty perches inside their armored behemoths will get a second wind. And that is not only bad for the environment but dangerous for everyone on the road.

In most countries outside the U.S., one sees roads filled with reasonably sized passenger cars: small cars for one or two occupants, and medium-sized cars if some carrying space for families or cargo is needed. Only in the U.S. do you see freeways jammed with giant vehicles, empty except for a solo driver who often has the tendency to speed, tailgate and try to bully smaller and slower cars out of the way. Just when the economics of driving these tanks were forcing these bullies to rejoin the rest of the driving human race, a way will be found to keep these bulldozers in play.

Heck, if a Ford F150 can get 50 miles to the gallon, isn't that good, you might ask? Not really. Because if a Ford hybrid truck could do that well, a more modestly sized vehicle, such as a hybrid Ford Focus of that comparable stage, would probably be getting 75 miles to the gallon or more. The solo driver of the latter car would be doing much more for the environment than her counterpart in the truck. And even if we assume that both drivers are cautious and law-abiding, the Focus driver is likely to do less damage to other cars and drivers if she causes an accident. A 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics showed that SUVs, despite their thousand-pound weight advantage, are no safer to occupants than passenger cars. Furthermore, they cause more damage and injury to smaller vehicles in case of a crash. In fact, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, engaged in advanced simulation models to study crash behavior, notes that bumper elevation and the effect of braking and interaction of suspension dynamics and vehicle weight lead to "mismatched contact in vehicle collisions." Smaller vehicles pay the price.

I often drive a crowded stretch of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles that was built in a narrow canyon and has narrow lanes that curve sharply in multiple esses. Instead of building a rapid transportation system to replace some of the need for automobiles, the Department of Transportation has narrowed the lanes even more to allow for construction of yet another lane on the highway (one that is likely to become jammed as soon as it opens several years down the road). To reduce the risks of travel on that stretch, the DoT has lowered the speed limit to 55 m.p.h. for both trucks and cars, including on the small carpool lane that abuts it, literally, on the concrete median. As a Nissan Leaf driver, I have HOV privileges, even when not carrying passengers, till 2015. Driving at the speed limit, or a couple of miles above it, I am besieged daily by trucks and SUVs with two in the cab that ride on my tail, honking and blinking their lights at me, because I choose not to risk my and others' safety and violate the law by going over 55 or 60 m.p.h. It is terrifying to be in a compact sedan and see a giant vehicle filling your rearview mirror, trying to force you to speed up.

When they finally pass me at an exit and entry point (or illegally, over the double yellow lines), these behemoths rev their bloated engines and shoot down the carpool lane at 75 or 85 m.p.h. until they are blocked by the next careful driver. My terrified, hands-free calls to the California Highway Patrol have gotten me only sympathy; budget cuts do not allow the CHP officers to patrol the freeway and catch speeders to a significant extent. Were these monster vehicle drivers "socialized" to drive a medium-sized or small car like the rest of us, I doubt they would be flexing their horsepower muscles in such a rude and frightening fashion.

(Frankly, these "cars" should not be allowed in the HOV lanes no matter how many people they carry; for example, a Prius gets 50 miles per gallon, while a Hummer gets only 20 on a good day, so the Hummer would need to transport not two but three occupants to offer the equivalent gas-mileage savings of a Prius with a solo driver. These enormous vehicles should be labeled what they are, trucks, and have to follow the rules that larger truck drivers must obey [i.e., generally a speed of 10 miles per hour less than auto traffic, and staying in the right lanes]. Alas, many have witnessed this aggressive behavior even when truck drivers use the right lanes, especially at entrances and exits.)

My fervent hope that we would see a diminishing number of these bullies is now dashed by this corporate partnership that will promote the persistence of giant vehicles. But aren't there those who need such transportation for their work? Of course. As with all transportation, we should look at new models to save energy and reduce fuel consumption. Some options: First, only drive what you need. If you carry only a few things occasionally, you don't need a giant truck most or all the time. Use a smaller truck or large car, or drive a more fuel-efficient and "polite" car for commuting. Second, rent rather than own. If you need to transport elephantine cargo, rent a vehicle for that specific purpose or join a cooperative fleet that allows you to "borrow" a larger truck when you require it for a task and then return it to pick up your small car for the drive home.

I would support such a partnership if its goal were to provide fleet vehicles to be rented or borrowed for serious personal or professional purposes. But for Sunday driving (or Monday commuting), please, don't enable bullying narcissists to continue their rule of the road by allowing large trucks and SUVs to survive the new (and too lax) miles-per-gallon requirements.