March 6, 2019

Climate Change and Consumer Choice

Ford F-150 grill

I went in to work a bit later than I usually do the other day because I had a late meeting and figured a 10-hour day would be plenty. Not surprisingly, this decision led to me encountering more traffic on my commute than I'm used to. While stuck at a long light I could not see thanks to the new Ford F-150 pickup truck in front of me, I had some time to kill. I noticed that the F-150 in front of me was not only new but the top-of-the-line model. The driver was alone in the full-size tuck and appeared to be commuting to work just like I was. I wondered if he'd ever fill the bed of his large truck or use its big engine to tow anything.

My attention drifted to my right. Another F-150. This one was not brand new but couldn't have been older than a few years. Just like the truck in front of me, the driver of this one was alone. This truck didn't look like it had ever been used for the sort of things that would require a truck. Was I boxed in by F-150's at this light? I looked to my left to find another full-size pickup truck. But no, this one was a Ram. What diversity! The driver of this one did have one other passenger that I could see, and this particular truck looked like it probably did get some use as a truck. It did not appear to be a work truck, but it looked like it had done some hauling. I was mildly disappointed when my rearview mirror revealed a full-size SUV instead of yet another pickup.

Here I sat in my underpowered but relatively fuel efficient 4-cylinder compact crossover that is nearing the end of its useful life feeling a bit claustrophobic. I was boxed in on all sides by massive gas-guzzling vehicles that seemed to be overkill for what most people need in their daily commuter vehicle. Of course, some people really do need vehicles like this. Some of those who drive these trucks use them for truck stuff, and some of those with full-size SUVs have large families and/or towing needs. It is not realistic to expect they would not use them for commuting too, especially when one considers the relatively short commutes most people have in this area.

I am still not sure what I will replace my aging vehicle with. As I sat there feeling boxed in, something small and fuel efficient struck me as a good idea. I do not live in an area where a fully electric vehicle would be feasible, but a hybrid would be an option. If I had a hybrid, maybe I could offset some of the environmental impact of the massive trucks and SUVs that everybody seems to drive these days. I quickly returned to my senses. I don't think I want to drive a hybrid or anything else saddled with a CVT. As much as I complain about how joyless my current vehicle is, it is hard to imagine opting for one that would be even worse. Why should I live with something I don't want to be "socially responsible" when my neighbors persist in buying full-size trucks and SUVs?

There is a home on the street where I live, several houses away from mine that regularly has four relatively new full-size pickup trucks in the driveway. None appear to be work trucks. There are many good reasons someone might need a full-size pickup, but I'm having trouble thinking of why they'd need one for every member of the family. This family is hardly alone. Car sales have plummeted because Americans are buying large trucks and SUVs instead.

I found myself thinking about the "free-rider problem" where some people benefit from resources without paying while others bear the cost. Is there a sort of environmental free-rider scenario where some people drive whatever they want while others are getting screwed in the process? Maybe, but I'm not sure it is that clear. There is nothing stopping me from buying a full-size pickup (except that I don't want one). There is also nothing that says I must buy a fuel efficient vehicle. I could deliberately go the other direction and buy the least fuel efficient vehicle I could find that would meet my needs. I'm not saying it would make any sense to do this; I'm just saying I could do this. And so, my behavior does not necessarily have to be affected by what those around me are doing. On the other hand, I think one could argue that we are all incurring some sort of cost for the popularity of full-size trucks and SUVs.

The more I think about it, the more absurd the idea of any of us doing something we don't want to do in order to offset the harmful effects of what someone else is doing starts to sound. Automakers would have to start selling a hell of a lot more hybrid or electric vehicles to make any appreciable dent in what the F-150s are doing alone. They may eventually get there, but the trends seem to be heading in the opposite direction in terms of what consumers are buying.

The person who commutes to work every day in his F-150 is not considering what I drive. Why should I give any thought to what he drives? And if I don't want to drive the sort of vehicle that could theoretically help to offset some of the harm he's potentially causing, why should I consider it? It would seem to make more sense for me to select my next vehicle with the goal of being the right choice for me.

I have little doubt that climate change will eventually lead to severe restrictions in consumer choice. The days of gasoline engines are numbered, and I have to admit that I am very tempted to buy a fun-to-drive car with a V8 soon because I do not expect them to exist for much longer. The small turbo-4s we now see everywhere have already limited our options, and it is easy to imagine that electric vehicles will be our only option in the not too distant future. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, assuming they can get the infrastructure in place to support them, but I'm also not enthusiastic about trying to deal with one any time soon.