It’s basically a law of physics: Gas prices go down, American truck sales go up. And, as Bloomberg notes today, with fuel averaging less than $3 a gallon in most of the country, consumers are warming back up to pickups and sport utility vehicles—which of course makes Detroit happy, because bigger rides mean bigger profits. Overall, light-duty truck purchases are up 9.6 percent this year, compared with 1.3 percent for little old cars. “It’s almost like the manifest destiny for American families, when there’s no significant opposing force, to move into a larger, more comfortable vehicle,” one particularly colorful analyst tells the wire service. “SUVs and crossovers are the Conestoga wagons of today.”
Thankfully, today’s trucks aren’t quite the environmental catastrophes that their ancestors from a decade ago were. The biggest sales growth has been among crossovers like the Honda CR-V, which can get 34 miles on the highway (crossovers look like SUVs but get better mileage because they’re built on car platforms). Even a traditional SUV like the Ford Explorer can manage 28 MPG on the highway, up from 21 in 2004. As Slate contributor Dan Gross put it on Twitter, “these gas guzzlers are much more efficient.” And, thanks to the Obama administration’s very ambitious mileage standards (one of its more underrated achievements), they’ll keep getting more efficient, even if customers are a bit less worried about what they’re paying at the pump.
Still, our car-buying habits are one of the more powerful demonstrations of how consumers are biased toward the present. When people show up to the dealer lot, they’re thinking about their gasoline budget for the week, not what it might look like in three to four years, when they’re stuck with the same old vehicle.