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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Vehicle Specialization, or Lack Thereof

We'll see how Cruffler might shake things up in subsequent posts, but I can't disagree with his first outing. I switched to human power for my fair-weather commuting last fall and have tried not to look back, or more precisely not to look forward to my car's air conditioned seats once the hot and buggy stretch of the upper-midwestern year arrives. I freely admit that I have my limits, and so I have my buns warmed when the most intrepid Madison bike commuters are braving subfreezing temperatures and the accompanying precipitation.

The meta-truth I'd like to address is what would constitute an economics conundrum that Cruffler identifies: there are a lot of huge vehicles used for trips hauling no more than a single person and a small piece of everyday luggage. Any remotely middle class housing in greater suburbia has at least a two car garage. So why are all those stalls occupied by a minivan, an SUV, and a bigger SUV? Economic factors such as relatively high incomes, or in the alternative cheap automotive credit, and until-recently-low fuel prices only predict that we'd have lots of vehicles and drive a lot.

Marketing gurus such as Clotaire Rapaille would have us believe that we are hard-wired to (tend to) want something that's a tank on the outside and a comfy lounge on the inside. Even accepting the dubious proposition that there are substantial evolutionary explanations for consumer preferences over technological goods, the question is begged as to why we wouldn't want something that's more like, say, a stealth fighter on the outside and a snug cave on the inside.

The bleeding obvious is that preference manipulation, augmented by a 'tragedy of the commons' as other drivers develop a need to be able to see around the damned beasts, is the only explanation for how crossing station wagons and trucks results in what is viewed in some quarters (though not all) as less dorky progeny.

Needless to say, the implosion of demand for urban assault vehicles in the face of sustained $3-ish gas also argues against an innate preference. Which is fine with me, as if an inattentive driver has to hit me, other things equal I'd rather it be with a Civic than an Escalade.

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