SUVicide by design II: A discredited product category

The Mahindra XYLO rams its way into the Indian market at a time when the concept of the SUV is facing severe criticism across the world. Although the issues I’ve outlined below have been flagged repeatedly by anti-SUV activists, their flawless logic is only now becoming conventional wisdom.

Do you really see India learning from the bitter experience of those that went before us?

1. SAFETY

dark, deadly, dangerous?

dark, deadly, dangerous?

About a year ago, I spotted a XYLO test vehicle hurtling down the Bombay-Pune highway, clad and looking like an angel of death (see left). Indeed, the XYLO TV commercial shows the vehicle literally crushing a sedan – an unfortunate comment on what might occur if this SUV/MUV/Mad Max Wannabe were to run into any of its smaller brethren.

The perceived safety of SUVs is predicated on the fact that, in an accident, they are more likely to be the oppressor and will plough over anything with a smaller footprint. But they aren’t that much safer for their own drivers either.

There are countless studies which suggest that SUVs are more likely to kill – pedestrians, other drivers AND indeed the occupants of the SUV itself. I reproduce a US-market study below, which clearly shows that the biggest vehicles on the road are the most unsafe in accidents – both by the measure of the people they kill in other cars, as well as the people who die in them.

survey15

note: the pontiac sunfire and the chevy cavalier are the same vehicle

note: the pontiac sunfire and the chevy cavalier are the same vehicle

SUV occupant casualties are largely attributed to rollovers, which are an inordinate risk, what with the SUV’s impracticably high center of gravity (the XYLO looks at least two stories tall and has a teetering back end which yearns to get into an argument with the front end over Newton’s law of perpetual motion).

suv_safety

It's a bird...it's a plane...it's a birdbrained SUV!

Although rollover crashes are rare as a type of crash, the death toll from these crashes (on account of the softer roofs typically found on SUVs) accounts for a third of all US highway motor vehicle deaths, and is sixty percent of the deaths in SUVs.

The Mothers for Clean and Safe Vehicles remind us that another reason for the inherent risk of SUVs is they are built using “body-on-frame” construction, in which the vehicle body is bolted on to a stiff, ladder-like metal frame. Body-on-frame construction was phased out from car production in the 1970’s and was replaced with “unit-body” or unibody construction. Body-on-frame construction is cheaper for auto manufacturers, which is how they earn huge profits on SUVs. The results for drivers are, however negative: poor fuel economy, poor emergency braking and handling, and—due to the lack of shock-absorbing crumple zones that are now standard in cars and most minivans—poor outcomes for all concerned when crashes occur.

suv-crushing-miata1According to consumer anthropologist, Malcolm Gladwell, small cars are actually safer than large ones because they make their drivers feel unsafe and therefore cause them to drive and conduct themselves with a defensive attitude. Conversely, the illusion of safety promoted by the SUV actually allows drivers to nod off at the wheel, drive at unnecessarily fast speeds, etc. That feeling of safety isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

Gladwell references “French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose specialty is getting beyond the rational—what he calls “cortex”—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, “reptilian” responses. And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when SUV buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious. People who buy these SUVs know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer.”

afpThis idea is largely confined to North America. In Western Europe and Japan (the other members of the so-called “triad” of mega car markets), people think of a safe car as a smaller, more nimble car – and this philosophy guides their choice of vehicles, their road planning, energy taxation laws, etc. The preference for small, efficient, practical vehicles does not entirely stem from the fact that these populations have smaller or less hostile areas to cover – indeed a majority of US SUV drivers use their off-roaders to drive on paved roads for short trips to the mall and soccer practice.

Mahindra obviously knows about the safety shortcomings of the SUV – and at the cost of additional missing safety features (the XYLO has no ABS or passenger airbags) it has provided a uniquely Indian safety innovation. The central console of the XYLO has an LCD display, which shows a picture of your preferred God or Goddess! I wonder if this feature lowers your insurance premium.

2. ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS

This leads us to the pressing matter of the energy and pollution impact of SUVs on that neglected Goddess – Mother Earth.911-hummer-06 There is a remarkable irony inherent in the SUV’s military roots. America went to war to protect its supply of cheap oil in vehicles that would be prohibitively expensive to operate without it. These vehicles have found their way from the battlefield to the soccer field (ferrying soccer moms and their brood) in a form of power-porn and, for a while had become a central symbol of the so-called freedoms America stood for – ostensibly the freedom to pollute the environment, guzzle precious fossil fuels and intimidate fellow drivers.

The average gas mileage of a motor vehicle on American roads is about 24 miles per gallon (or 10km/litre). In Europe it is about 40 miles per gallon (or 17km/litre) and it is probably more in Japan (where, for four years now the top selling car has been the small Suzuki Wagon R).

According to the latest study by the Sierra Club SUVs spew out 43 percent more global-warming pollutants – 28 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gas consumed – and 47 percent more air pollution than the average car. Switching from driving an average car to a 13mpg SUV for one year would waste more energy than if you:

* Left your refrigerator door open for 6 years
* Left your bathroom light burning for 30 years or
* Left your color television turned on for 28 years

welcome_350The Bush administration played Nero to the environmental fires by broadening the CAFÉ norms for fuel efficiency – the 1970s conservation program had already delivered the unintended consequence of inspiring American car manufacturers to build personal passenger vehicles which weighed over the 8500 pound scrutiny limit in order to release them from any binding fuel-efficiency standards. Several additional loopholes were added to promote America’s love affair with the SUV – including progressive tax breaks for drivers who chose to buy heavier ‘light trucks’, rendering them almost free in some cases.

It is no wonder that a nation of cowboys in which cheap gas was a birthright became addicted to these (personal) tax saving, ego pumping behemoths. It is another matter altogether that these vehicles burdened America with myriad hidden costs and taxes in the form of environmental degradation, exhaustion of its political and military ($600bn and counting) capital, global economic upheaval, lives lost, etc – these costs were amortized over the entire globe and were meant to kick in long after the final term of the Bush administration, so they were gerrymandered through.

080731-chrysler-leases-hmed-850ah2The sudden escalation of gas prices over the last year hit Americans with an almost psychic pain and SUV sales dropped precipitously, for the first time since the introduction of these tank-like gas-tank gluttons. The Ford F-series pickup truck was bumped off the top selling vehicle spot for the first time since 1981, the Big 3 of Detroit hurtled towards bankruptcy, with tons of heavy metal stock lying unsold – and with most of their production lines stubbornly pumping out still more and GM even put its fabled Hummer division, the poster child of road-warrior excess on the block. Funnily enough, Mahindra was rumoured to be one of the companies in the fray to purchase the division.

THE INDIAN CONDITION

bus_very_crowded

We’ve got a lot of people in this country. And very low vehicular density. And poor roads.  And, despite the claims of the Railway Ministry, a full 80% of our passenger travel is conducted by road. This obviously adds up to the need for a very efficient public road transport system AND private modes of transport which are large and robust enough to carry many passengers over a largely inhospitable terrain.

really packing 'em in

really packing 'em in

Mahindra is correct in surmising that the sedan segment is currently grossly underserved by a fleet of vehicles which are not adapted to Indian conditions – have you ever tried sitting in the middle of the back seat of a typical new-model sedan? It is baffling to consider why product designers at these mega billion dollar companies will not create vehicles adapted to our family-of-7-plus-dog conditions. Why, for instance,  would Fiat bet its struggling local fortunes on the launch of the otherwise very attractive Linea, which however is bound to get into trouble with the moral police over the claustrophobic snugness of its rear seating, ostensibly designed to push its amorous Italian passengers into an embrace at every odd turn in the road?

Why hasn’t anyone learned anything from the maternal metaphors of the Ambassador, which still remains the best vehicle for our needs – what with its boat-like soft suspension and sofa seating?

misshapes, mistakes

misshapes, mistakes

We do need to pause here to give kudos to Mahindra – the Logan, with its wide back seat was absolutely the kind of innovate vehicle we needed – now, if only it weren’t so damn ugly and cheap looking, it might have fared better.

Although private four wheel vehicles are purchased mainly in urban centers (where the roads are considerably better) and used by the middle and upper classes (who have smaller than average families/passenger numbers), you could still argue that the local conditions recommend the appropriateness of mega passenger carriers, like the SUV. The XYLO advertising supports this thesis, talking about the advantage it has over sedans in the ‘acres of space’ it contains.

However, the proponents of this theory are missing one very important corollary – that the all-terrain brick (or SUV) is not the ideal vehicle to match these conditions. This market is far better served, in a safer, cheaper and more energy efficient fashion by a totally different set of vehicles – the minivan, the minibus and even the estate (or station wagon).

In a 2008 like-for-like test between the minivan, the crossover and the SUV concepts, Edmunds, the auto industry’s golden standard rating agency, gave the minivan a clear thumbs up as the most versatile, clever and dynamic performer. Indeed, the Toyota Innova, which is the only minivan we have on our shores, clearly trumps its competition in comparative tests run by our own car press. It’s a shame Honda hasn’t stepped forward with a minivan of its own – given its global success in the segment.

Edmunds admits that the only criteria on which the minivan falls short is image. And this is where we, as a consumer society are falling short too.  This brings me to the third criticism I have against the SUV.

3. STATUS

416w6mj8w6l_ss500_In High and Mighty, a startling confessional which exposes seriously ugly streaks in Detroit’s marketing machine, Keith Bradsher, ex-marketing head at Toyota USA, captures the wicked contempt with which auto executives treated and served up their almost devotional SUV fans. Their hubris was based on research findings which suggested that SUVs tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Fred Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, adds, “Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that.” One of Ford’s senior marketing executives was even blunter: “The only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 am.”

At a time when America has done the unthinkable and is said to be weaning off its SUV habit by replacing blind prestige with pragmatism – it is ridiculous for India to claim its birthright to slow-mature as a road-faring nation with profligacy, just as we argue for lowered corporate pollution norms until we are able to fully industrialize. One would have hoped that, just as we leapfrogged fixed lines and benefited by going straight to a mobile mass market, we would similarly avoid hankering for outdated technologies and travel philosophies – and move straight to small cars, hybrids, an alternative fuel infrastructure and even an efficient and vastly preferable public mass transport system.

suniel-shetty-hummerInstead we get Sunil Shetty – pandering his breed of sluggish and ugly musculature, ads suggesting SUVs as an entry into manhood and a panacea for midlife crises, and a clear polarization between the traditional Indian, collectivist values of the family car and the lure of the off-roader’s modernity, individuality and road-tripping, self-centered escapism.

After living with inconspicuous preservation and deliberate moderation, India’s status-seekers have unfortunately aligned themselves with the regressive western success norms of size, scale, flash and waste. Our heroes are photogenic vacuoles who dedicate themselves to being photographed at the maximum number of parties. We want to live like them in homes resembling many layered wedding cakes, accoutered with loud (and often cheap) vestiges of wealth. And, when we deign to mingle with the masses, we want to carried high up in palanquins favoured by the privileged, the politically connected, the po-faced. I still remember being completely flabbergasted when I saw Mayawati roll into Bombay for a political rally in a cavalcade which simply consisted of ten identical, brand new, gleaming white Land Cruiser Prados. So much for representing the downtrodden.

The auto majors are totally playing to the gallery here. They follow in the footsteps of the global tobacco lobby, which realized, long ago that they could make up for their struggling fortunes in the western world by dumping their products in developing nations – selling discredited notions of prestige,  cool and indeed, sophisticated machismo; taking advantage of pliant and ignorant governments with lax public safety norms.

From Jan to Oct 2008, China imported 179,900 SUV’s, which is a 62.2% increase on the same period from a year earlier. This is in addition to the stellar growth of its own home-bred SUV industry. Imports of regular vehicles (sedans, hatches etc) increased by 16.9% to 127,500 vehicles over the same period. Even though our import laws heavily protect local car makers, one has only to look at the growing incidence of vulgar Audi Q7s and Porsche Cayennes on our roads, in addition to the ever larger new additions being added to the stables of our local auto majors, to corroborate that kind of growth in India.

How do we deal with this?

We can get the government involved – the Bush administration in concert with the auto majors’ PR MACHINERY barely disguised its support for the freedom to four-wheel. Obama is making good on his green platform and has begun to overturn the profligate policies of the previous administration, with real targets and explicit agreements

However, I’m not sure about our government’s enthusiasm for the inconvenient truth – the precedent is one of supporting business over consumers and the greater good – try and explain the disappearance of this local commitment to remove third row seats from SUVs on safety grounds, which would have made a major dent on taxi operator profits and consequently, on SUV sales and profits (more on the taxi segment in the next post).

From a communications industry standpoint, the least we can do is to fight back cynical attempts at popularizing SUV-culture and its myths. The US ad industry did this through standalone SUV education campaigns – like ESUVEE.COM (does anyone know where we can play this game – the site’s been taken down). Did I mention that our ad folk have only recently rediscovered Sunil Shetty? Here’s a reminder:

endeavor

Let’s take a break – stock up on the venom – and attack the XYLO’s marketing in the next post.

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