This Sunday my wife left our apartment, crossed the park and entered the local municipality  to vote in the Paris SUV election. Only 6% of Paris’s registered voters made the effort, with a slight majority favouring tripling parking fees for SUVs and other heavier private cars.  

David Belliard, Paris’s deputy mayor who is in charge of public spaces and transport for the city, will be satisfied with the result. With mayor Anne Hidalgo, he is slowly turning Paris into a post-car metropolis, something many other cities are keen on. Why have cars got so big and what are the impacts?

If you grew up in the 70s or 80s you may remember that iconic Camel ad. The one with the macho guy trekking through impenetrable jungle in his 4×4; lighting up to that unforgettable tagline: “It’s a whole new world”. The Camel Trophy was an off-road vehicle adventure competition, with Land Rover supplying the vehicles. It started in 1980 as a marketing gimmick and quickly grew into a global phenomenon. It was a match made in marketing heaven for big tobacco and big auto; until tobacco advertising was banned in 2000.

In the early 90s, I lived the Camel man dream when working in the Okavango Delta managing a tourist camp. It was fun driving a Land Rover 4×4 through rivers, sand and mud. But these were big, clumsy vehicles; I never imagined they would become popular for city driving. 

The car marketing men knew better. Like the Camel ads, they targeted suburbanites dreaming of freedom, convincing them to pay a premium for a vehicle that can go anywhere, should they suddenly decide to escape suburbia and head off into the jungle to ford surging rivers, cross dilapidated bridges, and commune with forest tribes. 

The original SUVs were built on a ladder frame chassis like a truck and had proper four wheel drive, with a transfer case. They handled like a truck, and consumed fuel like a truck. Today’s SUVs are made on car platforms and are basically raised station wagons, with the higher driving position and a shape that gives a nod to that camel man legacy. 

There are now an estimated 330 million SUV-type vehicles on the roads today, up from only 35 million in 2010. In 2022, SUVs accounted for 46% of global car sales, and over 50% for Europe, from a measly 8% in 2006. They consume about 20% more fuel than their slimmer predecessors and therefore produce 20% more emissions. According to the EIA, SUVs’ global annual CO2 emissions are nearing 1 billion tons and are the second biggest contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions after power generation. 

I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the motor industry for the rise of SUVs, capitalism is all about selling bigger at better margins. But they now have to reduce emissions or face penalties. 

Rivian Motors, with their tagline “Vehicles made for the planet”, are trying to position themselves as the Patagonia of cars by creating an all-electric all-SUV brand. The Rivian R1S comes in at $86,000 (but costs $126,000 to make) and weighs almost four tons. Unfortunately road infrastructure is not built for vehicles like this and America’s guardrail system can’t handle heavy EVs, as you can see in this frightening test.

Paris’ new parking fines are for combustion cars with a curb weight of 1.6 tons and EVs of 2 tons, so a Rivian owner will pay €18 per hour to park in Paris. Unfortunately, there is no way of making an SUV sustainable. If you go the EV route like Rivian, tires wear quickly (a major environmental hazard) and you need to dig up a lot of earth to build a big enough battery to push such a heavy chassis that fast (0-100km/h in 3.5 seconds). 

Passenger car sales, 2010-2022

Like smoking, SUVs will become unfashionable sometime in the future when consumers understand the total costs of use… to them, other road users and the planet. Until then, we will have this tension between OEMs, consumers and policy-makers. As always it would be better for European authorities and cities to align with the European auto industry and build a new mobility ecosystem that is good for people and the planet.