Keep on Trucking â€“ Not!
This will be the first of several columns on the state of transportation in the U.S. Regular readers of this column know that for years I have predicted the current high price of oil, the sales collapse of the truck and SUV markets and the need for electric cars. In addition it has been stated here that the future of U.S. transportation must include high speed trains, and a better integration of airplane, train and local mass transit. Finally it should start being clear to anyone paying attention [still too few of the population] that the now permanent high price â€” relative to prices since the mid 1980s – of gasoline will have a profound effect on behavior and our perceptions of where to live and work and how to live. Our culture, our society, our economy and the landscape of this country are about ready to undergo significant and massive change.
The recent news that SUV and pick up truck sales had plummeted compared to last year is worthy of comment. The obvious reason is the price of gasoline. As I wrote here recently, $4 a gallon gas is finally inflicting enough pain to change behavior. All the cars that showed the greatest sales growth year to year were small cars that get good gas mileage. For the first time in 17 years, a car, rather than a truck was the best selling vehicle. It is about time.
Decades ago trucks used to be vehicles that were used for business or professional reasons. Then in the 1980s they crossed over to the consumer private vehicle market. I never fully understood why a man living in a city would drive to and from work and around town in a huge pickup truck. It was one of the more absurd manifestations of big is better that is rampant in America. Huge trucks, jacked up on big tires must be compensating for something. In the 1960s if a man wanted to be a manly cowboy he smoked Marlboros. In the 1990s he drove a truck or a big SUV.
It is funny how quickly these big pickup trucks and big SUVs now look dated and seem so out of place. The â€œsmall is the new bigâ€ state of mind from what used to be called the environmental movement has taken root in the automotive market. Hollywood stars and power brokers used to drive around in Hummers and other big SUVs, now they drive hybrids and get on waiting lists for electric and hydrogen cars. Suburban mommies who still drive massive SUVs now speak apologetically about driving them, when just a few years ago they thought of them as status symbols. Anyone who has tried to trade in a big vehicle for a smaller, more gas efficient car in the last two months has found that the trade in value has plummeted, in some cases close to zero as dealers know they wonâ€™t be able to sell them.
I have been certain for 3-4 years that this fundamental change in the vehicle market would occur. Peak oil and the explosive growth of developing economies assured that oil would reach current price levels and that these price levels would cause a radical shift in vehicle purchasing behavior. Psychologists and sociologists for decades have known that sometimes behavior will not change unless pain, in some cases severe pain was experienced. This economic pain at the pump is changing behavior at last. It is this pain that is and will forever change the vehicles that Americans drive. The world has changed and Americans are actually accepting as fact that gasoline will never again be cheap.
The personal self indulgence that was represented by driving wasteful vehicles and the total lack of an energy policy on the part of the U.S government for the last eight years, is now causing a lot of pain all the way around. The long term good news is that pain is often the first step toward transformation.