Today's New York Times has an interesting article about making the minivan "cool" again. It brings to my mind a regulatory issue that could be viewed as a front in the war between environmentalists and families with children.
I'm not talking about some kind of population control conspiracy, but rather the demonization of large vehicles, and the attempt to eliminate them through regulation. I'm referring to Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which require automakers to sell more small cars in order to offset the emissions of the larger cars they sell.
The problem is that Americans continue to prefer larger cars. Having gotten married and become a father within the last two years, I have finally begun to appreciate this as a matter of necessity, and not some misplaced desire for excess. For the first thirty years of my life, I did not own a car at all, and I was rather proud of it. I expected that if I ever did own a car, it would be a used 1990's Honda Civic, or something similarly tiny and fuel efficient, with a standard transmission.
But when you have kids, you suddenly realize that just isn't going to cut it. Car seats are big, and often mandated by law until children are quite old. Babies especially require lots of baggage and toys. And larger children require space. I shudder at the thought of a future in which I have to cram three non-infant children into the back of a Ford Focus. (Try convincing your wife that this would be a good idea: "Daddy, he's looking at me!")
When you next see that commuter driving his huge SUV all alone, don't scoff at him. Perhaps he has five children and can't afford a different car for every kind of trip he takes.
When federal CAFE standards first took effect, the most visible result was the demise of the best kind of family car available at the time -- the station wagon. Automakers responded to the rules by building a new family car -- the minivan -- on a truck chassis so that it fell into a different and less stringent regulatory category -- the "light truck." The sport-utility vehicle, also a so-called "light truck," became the next craze. To this day, our domestic automakers sell far more light trucks than they do cars -- in Chrysler's case, the ratio of sales in 2010 was greater than three-to-one. If you look at the linked table, you'll notice that Toyota and Honda both sell more cars, but their "light truck" sales are not far behind.
Why? Because families need big cars. They still need them when gas prices rise, and they still need them when federal regulators increase the costs.