The Many Problems With Big Cars

Annie Lowrey reports that “[t]he average new car weighed 3,221 pounds in 1987 but 4,009 pounds in 2010” with bad results for the safety of the country. She cites research from Maximilian Auffhammer and Michael Anderson at UC Berkeley and concludes that when you control for own-vehicle weight, “being hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier results in a 47 percent increase” in the probability of dying and that it gets even worse with SUVs and pickups.

To me, this is one of the more frustrating elements of the conversation around electric cars and other miracle approaches to reducing gasoline consumption. The reality is that cars have gotten more fuel efficient on average despite getting a lot bigger. If stringent fuel economy standards or — much better — drastically higher gas taxes were imposed, the first-order response would be to start pushing car weights back down. After all, European auto fleets are much less gas-intensive than American ones not because of miracle alternatives to the internal combustion engine but simply because their cars are smaller. Some people need big cars some of the time, of course, but mostly people are just driving to work and so forth in a mostly empty car. And at a lower car size equilibrium, drivers would be both safer on average and less of a deadly threat to cyclists and pedestrians. It would also be easier for innovators to put tolerably safe electric cars (or autonomous robot cars) together if they didn’t need to share the road with as many giant vehicles.