I am about to cover the most contentious topic in all of modern auto writing. It isn’t the classic arguments that leap to mind first — electric motor vs. internal combustion, Ferrari vs. Lamborghini, turbocharger vs. supercharger — it’s something much more mundane. Is a truck an appropriate purchase for the majority of people that buy them?
First, some background on the subject matter: Pickup trucks are massively popular in America, with the Ford F-series truck being America’s best-selling vehicle for a staggering 39 years straight. Pickups made up five of the top 10 best-selling vehicles in the country in 2020, and if SUVs and crossovers (sold in the U.S. as “light trucks”) are included in the grouping of trucks, 75 percent of passenger vehicles sold last year were a light truck of some sort. Why on Earth are Americans so addicted to the pickup truck?
The typical argument for truck enthusiasts is what amounts to a success story for the unencumbered free market. Americans vote with their dollars, and the utility, increasing comfort over successive generations of pickups, and ever-increasing sales must mean that for the people that purchase them, a pickup is the correct choice — the rational consumer of the macroeconomic model personified.
To the detractors of the truck upswing, the popularity of light trucks symbolizes American wastefulness and supersizing culture. Trucks are excessive, and the machismo and utility they exude are chosen specifically by purchasers to signal status, much in the same way a luxury car does. A truck, to their detractors, stands as a shorthand for “making America great again,” with massive American-produced pickups capable of bullying others out of the way. They are purchased for masculine posturing and hardware store trips that never end up happening, a markedly wasteful “just in case” purchase that comes at the expense of the environment and other drivers.
I believe the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle of the two camps. As with many aspects of American life, a combination of systemic factors and individual tastes have brought us to the current day.
For starters, let’s cover the systemic reasons that drive truck sales. Truck enthusiasts are at least partially correct about rational consumers choosing them, albeit not in the fully free market sense. Our regulatory environment heavily favors light trucks. CAFE (Combined Average Fuel Economy standards) for manufacturer fleets have a vastly less-punishing average MPG for trucks vs. cars before regulatory punishments and fines are enforced on the manufacturer. Light trucks also avoid a gas guzzler tax imposed on inefficient cars no matter how poorly the EPA rates their mileage, which allows the purchaser to avoid up to $7,000 in fees on even the least efficient vehicles. To further sweeten the deal for consumers, in 2020, one out of every five trucks was sold with 0 percent APR, often in loan terms longer than the typical 60 months. Additionally, for small business owners, vehicle deductions are uncapped for new long-bed pickup trucks and commercial vans, leading to literally tens of thousands of dollars worth of tax savings for purchasing a pickup as a work vehicle as opposed to a sedan, even if the business could be served with a passenger vehicle.
This truck fever comes with a massive environmental and human toll, which lends weight to truck detractors’ arguments. Pedestrian fatalities in the US have been on the rise for a decade straight, with trucks killing vastly more Americans than passenger cars due to high hood heights, poor visibility, and longer braking distances. Light trucks, due to the less-stringent EPA classification, generate an average of 70 percent more carbon monoxide per mile and 70 percent more carbon dioxide per mile than passenger cars do. Additionally, microplastics generated by tire wear are toxic to waterways and produce particulate air pollution, and heavier vehicles generate more tire dust, leading to higher levels of air contamination even with an efficient truck.
Clearly, something as complicated as a vehicle purchase is never going to be a case of black and white morality, but I think even above the statistical data, there are deep emotional and psychological reasons to favor a truck. I see them in other owners, and I see them in myself.
Although I am not a truck enthusiast, I have personally owned a 1996 Chevrolet Suburban 2500 — with the optional tow package, 31-inch Wildpeaks, and a Vortec 454 under the hood — for a few years now. It’s given me some insight into why the truck is an American staple.
My truck is quintessentially American. It has a simple yet attractive body-on-frame two-box design, with a rudimentary throttle body injection system dumping fuel into the second-largest Chevy motor ever offered from the factory at a whopping 7.4 liters. It comfortably seats eight or can haul full sheets of plywood with the seats folded. It is rated for 10 thousand pounds of towing capacity. It has a 43-gallon fuel tank and gets a real-world 8.4 miles per gallon according to my own gawking at the pump, as well as some back-of-the-napkin math on the rare occasions I finally put the needle on E.
I have been considering selling my Suburban for a number of reasons, chiefly that it is vastly excessive for my current lifestyle as a DINK lesbian who rents a house in the suburbs and solely works in an office. I also fully believe that climate catastrophe is upon us, and feel irresponsible driving a nearly-6,000 pound truck that gets single-digit mpg, even if I drive it as infrequently as possible. Despite my lack of affection for trucks, I find many reasons to keep this one in the driveway. That’s what led me to uncover the core reasons for our obsession with them.
Part of what fascinates me about automotive culture is that cars reflect the society that produces them so well, whether it was the svelte wedges of the cash-flush ’80s or the space-age futurism of the ’60s, and even here at the end of history our vehicles are no different.
We are a country in an arms race with ourselves. Our culture has grown less violent on the whole but is nonetheless on the precipice of collapse over very basic questions of identity and justice. In the 20 years since 9/11, America has turned into a paranoid society. We have given up countless civil liberties in exchange for security from supposed pervasive, invisible threats. Our invasion of the world has come home to roost, as imperialism always does, and manifested in militarized police and the proliferation of privately-owned weapons primarily purchased with personal protection in mind. None of these trends show any sign of making any of us safer. Police are not better protected when they drive through suburbia in ex-Fallujah surplus APCs, owning a gun actually increases the risk you will be killed by a firearm, and January 6th still happened despite $51 billion spent on the Department of Homeland Security in 2020 alone.
And that brings us back to the American obsession with the truck. Trucks are vastly more dangerous to other drivers and increase the driver’s odds of dying in a rollover, but they are more likely to protect the driver in a multi-car accident (frequently at the expense of drivers of smaller cars). Driving any of my collection of smaller coupes around town, I am blinded by oncoming traffic, I cannot make right turns when a truck next to me is waiting to go left because I cannot see over their hood, and I am routinely cut off and generally treated like I do not exist by other drivers. All of this comes with the knowledge that if any one of those truck drivers makes a mistake, the odds are it will come at the expense of my life.
Suddenly, I get into my Suburban. I can drive at night without needing to shade my eyes, because I sit at the same ride height as the rest of traffic. No one cuts me off in traffic. They seem to know deep down that at highway speeds it will take me over 150 feet to reach a stop, and cutting me off will hurt them more than it does me. It feels vastly safer subliminally than any car I have ever driven, despite knowing consciously that the weight and high center of gravity make it substantially more dangerous. It feels safer in the same way that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction is safer. I am keeping up with the arms race, and my driving experience is significantly better for it, even if I would never consider taking a pleasure cruise in my truck. Yes, there might be collateral damage, but as with the rest of our imperialistic tendencies making their way home, that never stopped anyone before.
Is mutually assured destruction really a good reason to flood the streets with trucks? I don’t think it is, and until two weeks ago, I was still considering selling it and continuing to drive around my tiny coupes, in the idealistic but flawed notion that individual action can still change systems as large as the American automotive industry. But behold in the past week the United States, and specifically the state of Texas, was hit with an unprecedented cold front. Deregulated utilities that refused to winterize power plants in pursuit of profit were crippled by the weather, and nearly 70 percent of my home city of Houston was without power, for up to days on end. As of the writing of this story, 70 deaths were attributed to the storm. That number is rising as people are still being discovered frozen to death in their homes.
I personally had no power at home for over three straight days, with nighttime temperatures indoors hitting below freezing, and no clean water to drink or cook with, and no firewood left to boil more. Gas pumps ran dry as the prepared few with generators emptied stations to run space heaters and camp stoves. A day into the outage, my partner and I decided to flee for a friend’s home where their kitchen and fireplace were powered by natural gas. Complicating things was that a friend from California who had visited the week prior had been stranded at our house due to impassable roads and cancelled flights, so we had three people, emergency supplies, and three cats to take with us. The roads were slick with black ice, traffic signals and streetlights were entirely dark, and as we prepared to leave I chose the only vehicle in the driveway that could not only fit all of us comfortably but also could absorb an impact with a curb or sign should I make a mistake while navigating the iced roads. The Suburban, with its ridiculous tires and elevated ride height and aggressive road profile and copious room and 400 miles of range, was the perfect choice. We all arrived safely and with enough supplies to make it through the week.
Surely, however, this edge case does not solely make a truck an appropriate vehicle for me. How frequently can your truck save your life? My dawning realization is that the edge case is becoming just another case. This is the second time in seven months I’ve fled my home for a climate catastrophe, cats and survival supplies in tow. Our government has forsaken us in the most basic of preparations for normal weather, much less an Earth where we have destroyed the jet stream. We show no signs of slowing our destruction of the planet. We are currently entering the dawn of the second year of a pandemic where institutional failure is so commonplace that only one in five citizens actually trusts the government. I’m right there with them. If we could effectively pressure the government to help us in a catastrophe, there would be some way out of our truck predicament, but even after the largest political movement in 50 years, the government’s response has been a federal shoulder shrug. Rugged individualism and the status quo is practically policy. When all you can do is watch out for yourself and those you love, having a vastly excessive vehicle feels like a damn good disaster plan.
One of the only bright spots of the past year has been seeing the incredible work of mutual aid groups in catastrophes that have happened across the United States. Even as I have largely abandoned the idea of our leadership or our institutions coming to help, my faith in our communities has only strengthened. So if I can’t convince myself to sell my truck because I am sitting here braced for the next catastrophe, I will at least do as much as I can to help out while I have it. This massive, wasteful vehicle is genuinely useful for helping get others to safety and navigating treacherous conditions to get supplies as I did this week, so I will use it for as much good as I possibly can until the day comes when I can get rid of it. Lately it feels like no one is coming to help us, but I still have faith we can help each other, and my truck is just another tool for that.
Toni Scott is a freelance writer and a disciple of The Church of Slammed Hondas. Find more of her writing and photography at trustinthemachine.com.