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America’s SUVs — Will Putin Come to the Rescue?

Can Russia’s President Vladimir Putin give a clue to U.S. Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge about taming the U.S. SUV frenzy?

February 8, 2002

Can Russia's President Vladimir Putin give a clue to U.S. Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge about taming the U.S. SUV frenzy?

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, there were worries that U.S. energy prices would skyrocket. So far, the opposite has proven to be true.

With national gas prices averaging out to about $1.16 a gallon, U.S. oil prices at the pump have fallen to as low as 1985 levels. And so, instead of seeing more fuel-efficient cars on U.S. highways, there appear to be even more gas-guzzlers and big Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

Of course, it doesn’t help the cause of promoting U.S. energy efficiency that many major carmakers offered zero-interest financing in order to stimulate sales in the faltering U.S. economy after September 11.

As a result, car purchases soared. General Motors reported a 31.2% increase in sales in October 2001. With 554,652 units sold, that is the highest monthly volume of sales GM has experienced in 15 years.

Moreover, five of the top 10 selling cars in the United States this year were SUVs or light trucks. But they get a pitiful 15 miles per gallon as a combined city-highway average, compared to 25.8 miles per gallon for compact cars.

In a nutshell, you can tell that there is a national crisis when even a prominent automotive columnist — in this case, the Washington Post’s Warren Brown — notes, “SUVs are rolling symbols of federal energy policy gone awry.”

On top of that, the unfortunate trend in SUVs for the 2002 model year as foreseen by the “Big Three” in Detroit seems to be that bigger is better. That matters, since at last count, 49% of new vehicles sold in the United States were SUVs and light trucks.

And the general design trend seems to go in the direction of more military-style vehicles that look far more menacing than necessary for the commute between the city and the suburbs (even though rush hour can be a mean affair in most U.S. cities).

Along those lines, GM recently introduced the Hummer H2 — a civilian version of the military vehicle that became a hit during Desert Storm. Even Mercedes is introducing its own G-class Wagen, inspired by German off-road military vehicles. Both of these military-inspired civilian vehicles boast bigger engines and heavier body styles. But problems of congestion in U.S. traffic patterns surely won’t be solved by building ever bigger vehicles.

The trouble is, once the genie is out of the bottle — and there are so many gas-guzzling SUVs — how to get them back in? The classic instruments are higher gas taxes, higher oil prices, or a luxury tax à la française.

Gas taxes are notoriously unpopular in the United States. Elected officials would never be willing to risk such a career-killing move.

And higher gas prices simply don’t stand in the way of the U.S. consumer. Even back in the fall of 2000, when gas prices temporarily went through the roof, SUVs remained surprisingly popular with U.S. consumers.

And a luxury tax, modeled on the French habit of tacking on an extra 20% tax for luxury goods like perfume and fur coats, would never work in the U.S. of A. either. SUV owners would always argue that their vehicles aren’t a luxury item — and they certainly are not just bought by the upper classes in the United States.

Leave it to Vladimir Putin to come up with an innovative concept to get the United States out of this mess. The Russian government has recently decreed that all owners of trendy SUVs in Russia have to register them with the country’s Ministry of Defense. The purpose of registering these vehicles is so they can be requisitioned in times of war — or national emergency. Sound like a good idea?

Well, as Governor Tom Ridge settles into his new post as Director of Homeland Defense for the United States, he is wondering about how to get appropriate military assets for his new homeland security force. Faced with all sorts of complications and competing interests of well-established government agencies, perhaps Mr. Ridge would be well-advised to emulate Russia’s new plan for domestic defense.

Following the example established by Vladimir Putin, he could set up a national registry for all SUVs. All of them can be considered paramilitary vehicles, at least potentially.

None of this is without precedent, of course. In making his move, Governor Ridge can argue that ever since the beginning of U.S. history, the U.S. government has reserved the right to requisition certain private-sector assets for military purposes.

U.S. merchant ships are one such example. As far back as the Revolutionary War, the fledgling nation armed private merchant ships — and used them to increase the ranks of its pitiful navy.

Even during World War II, merchant marines played an important role in the Allied victory. The use of merchant marine ships in World War II expanded the U.S. fleet from 55,000 to 215,000 experienced mariners by the end of the war.

So maybe the solutions to both the U.S. domestic defense and energy problems are one and the same.

If Governor Ridge chose to follow Russian President Putin’s example — and have all SUV owners register their vehicle with the Department of Defense — that may over time have a healing effect on Americans and their SUV craze.

After all, the mere prospect of having their Ford Explorer, Expedition or Lincoln Navigator first registered — and potentially confiscated by the U.S. military in order to chase down hijacking terrorists — would be enough to get ordinary Americans to think twice about what kind of car they are driving.

And ultimately, this measure might help free the United States of its dependency on foreign oil.