It can be argued that through the way vehicles were forced to change in the 1970s and '80s, the federal government turned the American public on to SUVs. Now it's looking for ways to wean us off that addiction—so quickly that it might affect the improvements we've made in safety in recent years.
Automakers are currently reshuffling powertrains and pumping additional engineering resources into development to meet the federal government's 35-mpg fleet-average target by 2016—with the old distinction between passenger cars and trucks slated to dissolve. And one proposal being considered by the Obama administration would require a 62-mpg fleet average by 2025.
At the same time, everyone involved is concerned about how such a rapid change will affect safety. It's especially a concern when we've been making significant progress in reducing highway fatalities; this past year they were at their lowest level since 1949. And a safer fleet of vehicles has much to do with it.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), along with others analyzing injury and fatality figures (like the non-profit Informed for Life) have indicated that vehicle weight and size indeed play a role in survivability. As we pointed out in a recent piece highlighting what you should know about star safety ratings, the overall ratings don't compare across weight classes. And if you place your own safety above all else, the recommendation, from top safety experts, has been to choose a larger sedan or crossover that weighs around 4,000 pounds or just above that.
The chief concern is that, if newer vehicles were to be made considerably lighter while millions of much heavier vehicles remained on the road, it's possible that even loaded with newer safety features, occupant protection could suffer for those in the newer vehicles.
In 1999, federal data showed that SUV occupants in an SUV were three times as likely to die in a crash involving rollover than those in a passenger car. Overall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the fatality rate for SUVs was halved from then to 2009.
Although rollover is still a key concern for SUVs, electronic stability control and other safety features—along with the migration to car-based platforms, in many cases—have steered the numbers in a much safer direction. Considering only vehicles one to three years old, SUVs are now safer than passenger cars overall.
2011 Ford ExplorerEnlarge Photo
With vehicles like the 2011 Ford Explorer, with its soon-available 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, we've seen that automakers can manage a 30-percent or better improvement in the fuel economy of mainstream models without affecting performance, at only a somewhat higher cost. To do better in such a tight timeframe might require more advanced lightweight materials like carbon fiber or aluminum—which would drive up prices.
Either that, or somehow more of us will agree that small cars will do just fine. Right.