The Frontal Cortex

How Dumb are Car Buyers?

So dumb that we’re still buying SUV’s. Despite the fact that gas is now almost $3 a gallon, the average fuel economy of new 2006 models was virtually flat with a year ago at 21 miles per gallon, according to a new EPA report. In fact, this is lower than the average fuel economy of new cars in 1987 (22.1 mpg).

Why the lack of progress? Because people are more interested in horsepower than fuel economy. While new cars in 1987 had an average of 117 horspower, new cars in 2006 averaged 219 horsepower. This is depressing news: even when the marketplace should encourage people to buy more fuel efficient cars (since gas is so expensive), people continue to crave their big V-8’s.


  1. #1 cleek
    July 18, 2006

    the marketplace should encourage environmentally friendly products

    i think you misunderstand what marketplaces do. car companies aren’t in business to protect the earth; they’re in business to enrich their owners.

  2. #2 Jonah
    July 18, 2006

    Thanks for pointing out my ambiguous sentence. I was actually trying to make the same point you are making. Hopefully, the blog is a bit more clear now…

  3. #3 Mark Frank
    July 18, 2006

    I don’t see that this behavior is particularly dumb – maybe environmentally insensitive and depressing but not dumb. The car buyer is presumably spending their money on what they want.

  4. #4 SkookumPlanet
    July 18, 2006

    Welcome to ScienceBlogs. I’ve been finishing up something today that plugs right into your topic, a bit of a disagreement with your post, or looking deeper perhaps. It’s also a topic I’ve been periodically discussing in comments here. Perhaps it will stimulate some conversations.

    Clueless in the Land of The Implied Talifin
    If you ask people why they drive 4WD SUVs you get a number of answers, usually associated with safety, or power and control. While many early SUV models were available in 2WD versions, people overwhelmingly prefered 4WD. Yet repeated usage surveys in the 90s showed only about 10% of SUV drivers ever used 4WD. What gives? Why are people buying the extra design, precision engineering, and transmission weight and buying the extra gas to haul all this steel around everywhere they drive, if they never use it?

    In the 50s and 60s American automobiles sprouted strakes and tailfins that mimicked the jets and rockets of the new Space Age, except they were useless on cars. Today we see them as quaint stylistic touches of an era, nostalgia like hula hoops, doo wop, sock hops, and fizzies.

    4WD is just like those 50s tailfins, except it’s not external and visible, it’s inside and implied. Well, actually there is usually something outside. That little 4WD logo stuck on the rear and side panels. In other words, 4WD, like the entire SUV phenomen, is simply a fad. It’s not about safety and performance — SUV buyers don’t seriously and rationally make these part of their buying decision. While it’s a fad, pure and simple, most SUV owners would resist admitting they forked over many hundreds of dollars for a fad. But we don’t put “6 Cup Holders” or “9 Onboard Computers” or “Leather Seats” or “12-Speaker Entertainment Center” or “Wi-Fi Enabled” logos on the outside of our vehicles.

    Economically and socially this is a very expensive fad. The rise of the SUV is like the rise of the tailfin, except tailfins were only a couple extra pounds of sheet metal. Not so these implied tailfins. One out of every nine barrels of oil pumped out of the Earth is consumned in the U.S. as gasoline. One out of nine.

    How does this happen, that Americans buy into an expensive, ostentatious, and obvious fad they can’t admit to? There’s a psychological inability to admit that’s the dynamic underlying the SUV craze. That they are spending maybe over a thousand dollars on a fad is key. Clearly, 50-75 years from now this phenomenon will be viewed in much the same way we now see tailfins.

    People, overwhelmingly, don’t buy, think,or vote based on reason, but on emotion.

    Hence the implied tailfin. Humans are primarily emotional, not rational, beings. Everyone wants to believe differently, indeed we all do believe differently. But science — psychology, physiology, cognitive science and the persuasion industry — knows the truth. Rationalization comes after the fact. This puts us all at a tremendous disadvantage against those who have the wherewithal to manipulate us emotionally. It’s a science. And it’s how the radical right cadre is stealing the country out from under us.

    Values politics, values sales, values marketing work because people define themselves through identity. Identity is an underlying, virtually unexamined, emotional framework through which we make the decisions that compose our life. It tells us, “Yes, do that because that’s who I am.”

    Let’s go back to vehicles. The numerous models available in numerous categories is not some optimized result of a free market responding to the rationalized needs of potential vehicle owners. How many 4WD vehicle choices does a rational suburbanite need? What rational need was Porsche responding to with it’s SUV? The plethora of vehicle choices exists because vehicles, especially non-commercial vehicles, are sold and purchased based on identity, not end use. Manufacturers continually try to psychologically parse and segment a market sector in order to appeal to buyers’ indentities better than competitors do. There’s no other reason for this diversity of choice, yet virtually no one who buys new vehicles has any insight into this behavior and its manipulation. And they don’t care that they don’t know. And, it’s futile to attempt to get them to care.

    Identity! Identity! Identity! Identity! Identity!

    Every scientist and citizen who is politically concerned/freaked out needs to write this on a blackboard one thousand times.

    Each morning before leaving the house. Because you’re leaving for the Land of the Implied Tailfin.

  5. #5 a little night musing
    July 18, 2006

    SnookumPlanet’s already written, in more detail than I could have done, part of what I wanted to write. Nice post!

    I do think it is imporant to understand why the SUV buyers prefer SUVs. Malcom Gladwell wrote something on this subject a couple of years ago which is still interesting. He attributes the phenomenon to the drivers’ perception that they are safer in an SUV, and argues that in fact they may be less safe, among other reasons because the sense of invulnerability may lead to less defensive driving.

    The status issue is no doubt also a large part of it. So given that we’re unlikely to be able to convince the mass of Americans to give up status-seeking, how could they be convinced to switch?

  6. #6 Andrew Dodds
    July 19, 2006

    To give you some idea of the incentives needed, here in the UK the average fuel economy is around 30mpg, and distances driven are around 50% less than in the US. This means approxamately half the per-capita usage.

    Petrol costs $8 per gallon (US).

    In other words, to move the market to the point where the US fleet economy would doubly would take a tax of $5/gallon on top of current prices, or oil to rise to $200-300 per barrel. I suspect the latter..

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