SUVs: Theater vs. Functionality

Auto Accident

According to Robert Lutz, the vice chairman of General Motors, automobile design during the heyday of the SUV was, “art, entertainment, and mobile sculpture, which coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation.” Basically, something that is everything else before it’s what it was supposed to be. It’s a little reminiscent of the neighborhood in Poltergeist: Great new homes, but they didn’t move the bodies when they built over the cemetery. At the end of that movie as we watch angry spirits destroy the central family’s home. Now, an article by Charles L. Mauro, Certified Human Factors Engineering Professional, and founder of MauroNewMedia, says the destruction of Detroit can be put squarely onto the shoulders of the SUV. All those drivers of all those millions of SUVs got caught up in driving something slick with all sorts of extras (“Television for the kids in the back seat? Sign me up.”) on a low-tech truck model with bad gas mileage, a model that hasn’t changed in over a decade, and was based on an even older model when the first Ford Expedition rolled out of the factory in Wayne, Michigan in 1996.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of what Mauro alludes to in “How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit” is the way SUV drivers felt when driving them – to many people’s eventual tragic dismay. Mauro says SUV customers based their decision to buy on the following:

  • Belief that driving an SUV made them safer than driving a car or minivan
  • Belief that they had more control in driving an SUV than other vehicles
  • Belief that “rough road conditions” were not going to be a problem when driving an SUV

All of these beliefs, says Mauro, are wrong. And if you read or watch the news, every week someone overestimates their SUV’s ability, as well as their own driving experience, when they drive on roads that are icy, have gravel patches, road debris, or something else. This overcompensation and belief that their SUV can handle anything may go flying out the window as that SUV flips – and if the passengers are not wearing seatbelts, as is sometimes the case, they also go flying out the window.

How many times have we seen SUVs go flying down the highway with little regard for those around them? Mauro says this is part of the “user experience,” and what might explain why rational and educated people get sucked into the myth of the SUV being the safest, best handling vehicle on the road. After all, we’ve trusted Detroit all these years to make great American cars, so why not now? Well, one part of the proverbial poll group realizes we got played as dupes. Detroit sells cars, we like entertainment, so why not combine the two? Another part of the group seems to be flabbergasted that SUVs can flip so easily since they’re supposed to be able to handle anything and everything. Finally, there is that group that will never doubt all they’ve read and experienced in their SUVs, and will argue about the superiority of the SUV over all other vehicles no matter what.

Regardless, SUVs have been subject to several structural problems resulting in lawsuits, such as a narrow wheel base that can cause the SUV to rollover, and tops that, when the vehicle flips, crush their occupants. Is the driver to blame because they believed that their SUV was the most powerful passenger vehicle on the road, or is it the responsibility of the makers of these SUVs?