M-P-G…It’s Low On My S-U-V…

Posted on January 2nd, 2003 in Commentary by EngineerBoy

(to the tune of A-B-C by the Jackson Five, apologies in advance)
M-P-G…it’s  low on my S-U-V…but don’t say that you’re better than me, unless you  regular-ly, commute bi-ped-al-ly while hugging a tree!

I read a story  recently about a television commercial that equated driving an SUV with  supporting terrorism. The ads are using the same idea as the the ones about  drugs supporting terrorism (I actually sort of agree with the drug ads). The  logic is that a) SUV’s are less fuel effecient, so b) SUV drivers buy more gas,  and c) most gas comes from Middle-Eastern oil, so d) the dollars we spend on  gasoline support Arab terrorism. I drive an SUV. A big old four wheel drive Ford  Expedition. It gets about 13 miles to the gallon during my regular commute. I  would prefer that it were more fuel efficient, but fuel efficiency was just one  of my selection criteria.

Safety
My first selection criteria  was the safety of my family. The Expedition outweighs the majority of personal  vehicles on the road, which means that it transfers more energy than it absorbs  if there is a collision. If you’re unsure about the physics of that, think of an  18 wheeler colliding with a VW Bug and think about which would sustain the most  damage. This means that in most accidents the occupants of my vehicle would have  a slightly higher survival rate. Also, I sit way up high while driving, giving  me very good visibility of the traffic around me. This provides slightly better  odds of not getting into an accident in the first place. I live in Houston,  which is prone to flooding, so the four wheel drive provides slightly better  capabilities of slogging through racing water in order to escape danger. Also,  the high ground clearance provides the ability to handle higher water without  the engine dying. Also, being such a big vehicle means that people are more  likely to be able to see me, and thus not run into me, if avoidable. And, while  Fords are not nearly as reliable as some other cars, the Expedition is a  reasonably reliable vehicle, according to Consumer Reports, so there’s a  slightly lower chance of being stranded compared to some other  makes/models.

Now, none of this guarantees anything, but it’s all about  playing the odds. I have stacked the deck in favor of me and the occupants of my  vehicle (usually my family) being more likely to avoid an accident, and to  survive an accident if it occurs, than someone in a smaller, lighter, lower  vehicle.

Comfort
The second most important factor in selecting  the Expedition was personal comfort. I’m 6′ 5″ and not small and I fit  perfectly in an Expedition. I fit okay in my wife’s Toyota Tundra pickup,  but am a bit cramped and not comfortable on longer drives. We have done a bit of  vehicle shopping over the years, and the list of vehicles that I am comfortable  in is very short. And that’s comfortable as in physical comfort and not being  cramped, not comfortable from a  how-do-others-perceive-me-because-this-is-what-I-drive perspective. I care very  little about any status conveyed by my vehicle.

Convenience
The  third decision factor was convenience. We have two big old dogs, and they fit  perfectly in the back when we take them places. Plus the Expedition is great for  hauling around a bunch of folks, picking up groceries, lugging home bounty from  Home Depot, etc.

The Real Cost
So, I get 13 MPG. Let’s compare  that to the mileage of a fairly standard vehicle, let’s say a 6 cylinder Honda  Accord sedan, shall we? According to EPA estimates, the Honda Accord EX V-6 gets  21 MPG in city driving. So, compared to this fairly standard vehicle, I get  eight fewer miles per gallon. I drive about 10,000 miles per year, so that works  out to about 293 more gallons of gas over the course of a year. That’s less than  one gallon a day. That’s not insignificant, but let’s get the whole  story.

The Whole Story
I live less than five miles from my  place of work. That is not an accident. We pay a premium to live where we do  (close to downtown). If we moved to the suburbs we could get an equivalent  residence for about half what we paid. Also, if we lived in a suburban school  district, we wouldn’t have to pay private school tuition because the public  schools are safer/better than the inner-city schools. So we pay a big monetary  cost to live close to our places of employment. We also love that living in town  means we’re closer to movies, shopping, arts, nightlife, dining, etc. We live  where we live because it’s worth it to us. One of the side-effects of this  choice is that we have a very short commute. My commute is less than 10 miles  total each day. Less than 5 miles each way. And I’m not sitting in any  bumper-to-bumper traffic, either. I toodle right along the whole way. Compare  that with the average commute and it more than makes up for the one  gallon a day. So, why do most people have a longer commute than I do? Because  they chose to live in the suburbs because a) it’s safer and/or b) it’s cheaper  and/or c) it’s more convenient and/or d) they’re more comfortable in a suburban  environment.

So, for their convenience, comfort, safety, and  lifestyle ($$), suburbanites use much more fuel than I do. Where is the hue  and cry to eliminate suburbs? Where is the demonization of suburbanites? Can you  imagine the laughability of claiming that living in the suburbs equates to  supporting terrorism?

The Real Solution(s)
The real solution is  for each of us to do what we can to conserve fuel, and for the government to  force the hand of automakers to create better engines. I would gladly pay  a reasonable premium for a more fuel efficient vehicle that met my needs, but  there isn’t one. And don’t even get me started on how government and industry  should be working together to move away from internal combustion engines  altogether (and into the Age of Hydrogen).

And before you ask me  to sacrifice my safety, comfort, and convenience by buying a smaller vehicle,  you must first be willing to sacrifice your safety, comfort, and convenience by  moving in from the suburbs. Or by carpooling. Or by riding the bus. Or by  telecommuting. Or by buying the smallest, most fuel-efficient econobox that you  can squeeze into. Or by leaving for work earlier to avoid sitting in traffic. Or  leaving for home later to avoid sitting in traffic. Are you doing those things?  If so, then you are setting a great example. And I think I am, too, by spending  my hard-earned dollars to live close enough to my job so that I don’t burn  excess fuel commuting. Feel free to send me a thank you card.

Otherwise  I suggest you park your car and start doing your daily commute on your high  horse, because he seems to be raring to go.

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