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the road ahead

A car is fuelled up at a gas station in Vancouver on July 17, 2019.The Canadian Press

These days, even gas-guzzlers don’t quite guzzle like they used to. The trouble is, we’re driving more of them than ever before.

For instance, Ford’s latest generation of its Expedition, a full-size SUV, boasts a fuel economy of 12.4 litres/100 km — nearly 2 litres/100 km less thirsty than the previous version. And with that new generation, sales are up. Ford sold nearly 4,400 Expeditions last year, nearly 1,600 more than the year before.

“Almost every new vehicle moved in the marketplace today is 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than the previous generation,” says car-industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. “But overall fuel-efficiency has gotten worse because people have moved from cars into trucks and SUVs.”

In 2000, light trucks – a category that includes anything that’s not a car, including SUVs and pickup trucks – counted for only about 45 per cent of vehicles sold.

Last year, light trucks counted for nearly 75 per cent of the vehicles sold in Canada. That’s expected to keep growing.

“The compact-car market has cratered,” DesRosiers says. “Compact-car sales peaked at 400,000 in the middle of the decade, and last year there were 270,000 sold – that’s down by 130,000 units in the last five years.”

Cars are more fuel-efficient than similar-sized SUVs, DesRosiers says. But we’re just not driving them.

“When you move over from a car to a light truck, you move over to a less fuel-efficient vehicle – you lose, give or take, around 2 litres/100 km,” DesRosiers says. “When you get into high-end trucks, the large SUVs like the Suburban, the difference from full-sized cars is even greater.”

Carrot or stick?

Worse fuel efficiency means more carbon-dioxide emissions. Despite talk of climate change, most of us, especially drivers over 30, don’t “walk the walk” when we go to choose a vehicle, DesRosiers says.

Young people – growing up in the age of climate-change protests and Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg – might buy electric cars or smaller, more fuel-efficient cars when they’re older. But right now, climate-change worry isn’t pushing drivers to buy smaller.

“Consumers say, ‘Wow, I can buy an SUV now because it’s more fuel-efficient,'" DesRosiers says. “It drives the vehicle companies nuts because they have fuel efficiency requirements – but it’s not the car company that chooses the car, it’s the consumer.”

So how do you make consumers buy more fuel-efficient vehicles? One way is incentives on electric vehicles. But even with incentives, EVs haven’t made a real dent in the market yet.

“We all forget how good the current gas-powered vehicle is, how good it is as a conveyance for the average family,” says Robert Karwel, senior manager of automotive practice in Canada for J.D. Power. “We won’t see gas-powered cars go anywhere for a very long time because they’re very good at what they do at a good price point.”

Starting in the 1970s, government regulations were able to get the industry to make all cars safer and reduce smog-causing tailpipe emissions. But those regulations targeted car companies and not consumers.

“It didn’t matter whether the consumer bought a Hummer or a Smart car, there were no air contaminants,” DesRosiers says.

There are other ways that governments could push people into more fuel-efficient cars. For instance, they could add a surcharge to SUVs to make them pricier. Or they could make gas more expensive. DesRosiers doesn’t think either is likely.

“One way would be a buck-a-litre tax on gas, but politicians are terrified of that,” DesRosiers says. “There isn’t a politician in the country who would target the consumer.”

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