What Exactly Is the SUV Loophole, and Will It Be Closed?. The so-called “SUV loophole” is coming under additional examination as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers updating emissions and mileage requirements for cars built between 2027 and 2032.
The SUV loophole has allowed manufacturers to continue producing huge vehicles with low gas mileage while avoiding EPA penalties. Some environmental groups have long advocated for its abolition.
This is an explanation of the loophole, how it came to be, and what closing it may entail for automobile buyers.
THE SUV LOOPHOLE DATES TO WHEN TRUCKS WERE MOSTLY USED FOR WORK.
To understand the SUV loophole, one has go back to the 1960s in the United States. Smog basins had formed around cities such as Los Angeles as a result of automobile and industrial pollution, acid rain was recognized as a concern, and a newly empowered youth culture put the green movement on the political map.
In response to this pressure, the United States government established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and began developing laws to combat automobile pollution. These early drafts laid the groundwork for what is now known as the SUV loophole: passenger cars were subject to one set of emissions and mileage requirements, while light trucks were subject to a different set.
At the time, this made sense. Light trucks were classified as vehicles with large carrying capacity that are not designed for passengers or that have significant off-road driving skills. SUVs did not exist as a category at the time. The majority of light vehicles were utilized by contractors, craftsmen, or farmers, and they accounted for a modest portion of the market.
The newly constituted EPA did not want to penalize tiny independent enterprises that used large, work-related automobiles. It may have appeared implausible at the time that regular drivers would wish to put up with the inconvenience and expense of driving and fueling larger cars such as light trucks.
REGULATIONS LEAVE ENOUGH SPACE FOR AN SUV TO DRIVE THROUGH
The EPA’s definition of a light vehicle, or “light-duty truck” in EPA jargon, is broad. It’s just a vehicle that may be:
Curb weight of 6,000 pounds or less (or gross vehicle weight rating of 8,500 pounds) with a basic vehicle frontal area of 45 square feet or less — slightly larger than the size of a king size mattress; and Designed primarily to transport property, or based on a design that meets this criteria; or Designed primarily to transport people with a capacity of 12 or more passengers; or
This nearly entirely pertained to pickup trucks, commercial vans, and sturdy but uncomfortable all-terrain vehicles like Land Rovers, Jeeps, and Land Cruisers at the time the restrictions were created. The distinctions began to blur as technologies such as all-wheel drive became more popular. Manufacturers in the United States recognized they could face less pollution rules if they produced passenger vehicles that were officially designated as light trucks. All they had to do was mount a passenger body on top of an existing truck frame. SUVs and pickup trucks that resulted were extremely popular. The 1984 Jeep Cherokee is widely regarded as the first contemporary SUV, and its success was not overlooked. Manufacturers took use of the SUV loophole to construct huge automobiles with less stringent emissions rules and profit from the increased revenues generated.
COVERAGE FOR LARGER TRUCKS AND SUVS IS PROVIDED BY CROSSOVERS.
As emissions rules became more stringent, a new class emerged to suit consumer demand while also lowering light truck fleet emissions and mileage averages: the crossover, or CUV. These were often smaller than traditional SUVs and were based on the same unibody chassis as passenger cars. They also used smaller engines, which resulted in better fuel economy and lower pollutants.
However, because of their higher ground clearance and available all-wheel-drive systems, they could still be categorized as light trucks and outperformed full-size SUVs. This meant that automakers could continue to sell full-size pickup trucks and large three-row SUVs as long as they also sold smaller, more efficient compact crossovers. This is where we are right now.
TIGHTENING FUEL-ECONOMY STANDARDS, UNLIKELY UPDATED VEHICLE DEFINITIONS
The new EPA draft rules are an attempt to close the fuel-mileage gap between passenger vehicles and light trucks. The proposed guidelines also address certain specific governance issues with tailpipe emissions. Tailpipe-emission limitations are now dependent in part on vehicle footprint (the whole area under the automobile). The classification of such footprint sizes would be changed under the proposed guidelines.
However, the definition of light trucks remains unchanged under the draft guidelines, and even small crossovers are unlikely to be reclassified as passenger vehicles.
MORE SMALL CARS MAY BE ON THE WAY — OR NOT.
Many critics blame the size of SUVs, as well as the overall growth in car size, for issues ranging from increased pedestrian risk to significantly higher pollution. Activists and green-policy proponents hoped that changing the classification of SUVs would stop the trend of larger cars on the road. While the loophole will not be totally closed, the stricter requirements may lead some automakers to reconsider trends and add more compact cars to their lines.
However, the likelihood is that the opposite will occur. SUVs and trucks are popular among Americans, and even low prices did not persuade many buyers to convert to a smaller vehicle. Instead, automakers have created even larger electric vehicles, such as the Hummer EV, Ford Lightning, and Ford Mustang Mach-E.
These vehicles are not only larger, but also heavier than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Despite this, they have significantly higher energy economy (measured in MPGe, or miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent), which can reduce fleet mileage and emissions. While this may result in cleaner air, it may also make roadways more dangerous for pedestrians and smaller cars.