In Defence of Pick-up Trucks

by Stan Hirst

In a recent post on the DSF website David Suzuki commented on the persistent rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission rates in the North American transportation sector and the role of pickup trucks and SUVs in that phenomenon.

The background to his post is the fact that transportation currently accounts for about 14 per cent of current global emissions but makes up a much larger 24 per cent of total emissions in Canada. Government of Canada sources show that, while emissions from cars declined over the period from 1990 to 2015, those from light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) doubled over the same period. Statistics Canada data indicate that the increase in the number of “light trucks” over the past 15 years has been three times greater than the increase in the number of passenger on-road vehicles. The term “light trucks” includes pick-ups and larger SUVs.

David’s concern relates to a number of trends related to pickup trucks and larger SUVs. One is that while better public access to transportation options such as car-sharing and upgrading of transit and cycling infrastructure are contributing to reduced pollution and lower GHG’s, these benefits are being negated by a growing worldwide market for light trucks and SUVs. In the U.S. relatively low gas prices (definitely not a concern in Canada!) have spurred a boom in SUVs which in 2017 accounted for 63 per cent of vehicle sales. The average fuel economy of new cars worldwide improved by about 1.8 per cent a year from 2005 to 2008 but slowed to 1.1 per cent by 2015.

David makes the point that trucks and large SUVs are often unnecessary as personal vehicles. Many of them transport only the driver, and few ever venture off-road. Contrary to public opinion (read ‘owners’) SUVs don’t contribute to overall increased road safety because they’re more prone to roll over and are more likely to cause death or serious injury in a collision with smaller cars.

The implications of these data for owners and users of pickups and SUVs are pretty clear. However, as an old pickup truck guy from way back (I have owned and driven seven pickups during my fourscore-year sojourn on this planet) I must resist a rush to environmental judgment on these fine modes of transportation. I plead here for a little discrimination (as in “recognize a distinction”, “differentiate”, “separate the sheep from the goats”, etc.).

Pleading for the defence, I note that there are about 220,000 farms in Canada, most of them occupied and in the business of producing the food, fibre and other agricultural products used by the rest of us or exported for hard currency. You can’t run a farm without a pickup or two. The other side of this coin is that only 20% of Canadians live in rural areas, the rest are in cities and the ‘burbs (where the majority of the pickups and SUVs also reside).

I remind all you good folks that we live in a huge country characterized by millions of square kilometers of glorious outdoors just waiting for a visit. I’ve seen some haul camping trailers and canoes through the Chilcotin behind and on top of their Chryslers, but I always felt a lot more secure in my 4Runner.

An American with whom I had an online chatroom discussion made a convincing case (at least to me). He conceded that he, his good wife and his two teenaged sons each tipped the scales at about 200 lbs. When he went on vacation the total load including baggage came to about 1100 lbs. He noted that the best-selling car in the U.S., the Toyota Camry, had a load capacity of 900 lbs, while his Ford F-150 truck with just a 2.7 litre engine carried 1600 lbs with ease. Another chatroom visitor observed that more than a third of adults in the USA are overweight or obese, and naturally prefer the space, comfort and supposed safety of a truck or SUV.

The same online chatroom gave up some other information on why Americans are so in love with pickups and big SUVs. A Michigan resident wrote about winter in his state, complete with inclement weather, rain, slush and icy roads. Another focused on his disability and the advantage of accessibility and space in an SUV. A soccer mom mentioned her need to frequently and safely transport her kids plus a few others from the neighbours.

Its no real secret that the auto industry and advertising industries have found a gold mine in the gullibility of auto buyers. Truck and SUV commercials are all about image and status. Drivers are sold the idea of a pickup as freedom, individuality and rugged manliness. Ford markets its Lone Star Edition trucks strictly in Texas, complete with advertising jingle that “there ain’t room in a car for me and my Stetson”.

The pickup truck situation is set to change radically over the next decade. The same auto industry that has so successfully exploited auto market openings and owner gullibility for so long has discovered a huge new opening market in green vehicles. At least four electric pickups are being actively developed for the market – the Tesla Pickup, the Bollinger B1, the Workhorse W-15 and the Canadian-built Havelaar Bison E-Pickup. They will be making significant market inroads within the next five years, which is surely good news for national and global GHG emission levels.

Now for the bad news. First-off, electric-powered pickups and SUVs will carry price tags of at least $80,000 each. Secondly, the extent to which they make real differences to the situation described above is unlikely to be jaw-dropping. Gasoline- and diesel-powered pickups and SUVs will be around for some time yet, along with their emissions, safety and other issues described above.

So that brings us to the real nub of the pickup debate. I suggest we have the wrong take on the pickup and SUV issue, and instead we need to take a green perspective. Consider these examples.

Case 1: Pickups and light trucks are found driving around everywhere – hauling hay on farms, toting equipment through towns and countryside, towing recreational trailers, driving to town for supplies. No worries. The problem arises when the same pickups are used by uncaring people to go four-wheeling through wildlife habitats, racing up and down erodible slopes, and driving through shallow salmon and trout streams. It happens a lot and is the reason why such behaviour is generally censured by conservationists and land-use agencies and specifically forbidden under provincial and federal government land-use regulations.

Case 2: Farmer John drives to the nearest town along a country road, loads up on fertilizer at the Co-op and collects the weekly groceries at Matt’s Supermarket. Again, no worries. Back in Windy City Betty Bobtail realizes she is out of milk and Kleenwipes, so she hops into her Cadillac Escalade with its 6.2 litre 420 hp V8 engine, 10-speed automatic transmission, onboard wi-fi, automatic back-up TV screen and seating for 7 people and drives 2 km down to Whole Foods and back.

The point to this? Its not the vehicle that is the main concern, nor is it the load the vehicle totes from point A to point B. The issue revolves around the motivation of the vehicle user and their environmental and social awareness and sense of responsibility.

How do we regulate environmental attitudes and people’s usage of their motor vehicles?

[This is going to take another posting. I need some help. If you have any bright ideas and sound advice please send them on to or use the comment box below.




  1. A well written article that reminds us that not all SUVs are owned for their status value but for their capacity, endurance and general ability to handle all types of weather and terrains in a rural or suburban setting. I think attitudes will change towards car use in cities, esp. with expensive parking costs, as governments at all levels grapple with GHG emissions and carbon tax costs.

  2. Spot on with this one Stan – again. In a city neighbourhood near me most every newcomer homeowner is driving a large SUV. They flock the streets. Usually driven by a woman – getting to the store, or picking up some kids from school. I say ‘newcomer’ because a typical Vancouverite drives a smaller vehicle. It is most noticeable that the newcomers are all choosing almost the same model and colour of SUV… AND, you are right that we need to respect the reality of vehicle needs in rural/farm communities.

  3. Good start – People who drive SUVs often mention “safety of their kids” – “room for stuff and family” as well, of course, as “status” – we can afford a BIG car and the gas to run it. Google may have many interesting “correlations” with search for SUV reviews such as music tastes, craigslist ads, health issues. With that information how might “greenies” micro-target SUV owners with suggests for “responsible sustainability?” Perhaps – “Your Ford Escape will protect your children, BUT will it protect your grandchildren from climate changes? – Hybrid SUVs cost a bit more but will save a lot in gas AND indicate to your neighbours that you GET the need for a more sustainable future and the engine in some models can be replaced with extended batteries when the GRID allows for more extended range.”

  4. I think we will get to the point that, to have an SUV or pick-up (or car even), you must prove need. This will be after the temperature rises by 3 or 4 degrees C. As for cheap gas, if you include externalities, we should be paying at least $5/litre. Now that would cut down on the use of unnecessarily massive vehicles. I have little patience with the arguments of people who drive vehicles larger than they need. If you’re too fat for a car, for your own good health, lose weight! And they’re dangerous to bicycles!

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