I love Paris. It’s one of my favorite cities. One of the aspects I adore about Paris is the walkability. This should make me sympathetic to the city’s plan to charge more for SUVs, but the terminology that officials are using seems flawed, and underlines how enthusiasts are losing the battle for hearts and minds.
We’re talking about infrastructure today on The Morning Dump! And when we’re done with that, we’ll talk about Chinese JVs, Germany EVs, and NHTSA’s AV plans.
Paris Takes On ‘Auto-Besity’
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.” – Ernest Hemingway from ‘A Movable Feast’
I’m prefacing this story by saying my Paris is the Paris of memory, divorced from the reality of actually living there permanently. In that memory, the only cars in the city are old Citroëns and Peugeots, which “waft” more than they actually drive down the boulevards. If I scratch at that memory a bit, it reveals lumbering diesel trucks, large-ish crossovers, and sometimes seemingly-poorly cared for hatchbacks.
With that out of the way, I should make it clear that I love cars and I think people should have the right to drive what they want, with some logical restrictions for safety and the environment. At the same time, I think it’s reasonable to charge more for cars to access certain areas. Cities should be built for people, not cars, and if you want to bring a car to the dense innards of the city, you should have to pay for it.
Yet, Paris’s new restrictions have me worried that the word “SUV” has been misconstrued and that we’re giving a pass to all EVs simply for being EVs. Let’s run through what we know, courtesy of The Guardian, which says Paris is going to tax “SUVs” more going forward. It’s a little vague as to what this actually means as the rule hasn’t been published, but:
Details of the charges have not been announced but the size, weight of the vehicle and its motor will be taken into consideration.
Electric vehicles and those with large families requiring a bigger car are expected to escape the increased fees that will come into effect on 1 January 2024.
Okay, so this seems fair. Taking into consideration the weight and size of a vehicle is a reasonable thing to do. Life is already full of similar concepts we all deal with. If you want a bigger seat on a plane you pay more. If you want a bigger space for an RV at a campsite you pay more. In Japan, we got Kei cars because of a program that encourages smaller cars for cities. Weight, especially, is important. A heavier and larger a vehicle is the more wear it puts on roads (especially in places like Paris) and, all else being equal, the more dangerous it can be. Especially to pedestrians.
But the “SUV” thing bugs me a little bit. Everything seems like an SUV today; I don’t remember Paris being overrun with Land Cruisers. Of the 20 most popular cars sold in France last year, the most popular SUV is a Renault Captur. This thing (And it has good pedestrian safety ratings):
And the rest of the “SUVs” are, like, the Peugeot 3008 and Dacia Duster. I bring this up for a specific reason, from the same Guardian piece linked above:
Paris councillors approved the measure in an unanimous vote last month. Frédéric Badina-Serpette, a councillor from the EELV ecology party that proposed the increased charges, said: “We would like the city of Paris to change the pricing of paid parking to make it progressive according to the weight and size of vehicles.”
He said the aim was “to focus on an absurdity: auto-besity … the inexorable growth in the weight and size of vehicles circulating in our cities, and particularly in Paris”.
“Auto-besity” is a great term. I wish I’d coined that. Here’s a place where auto enthusiasts and ecologically-minded French politicians agree: cars are getting too heavy! Flood the street with Lotuses! But, this is also where we come to the part of the story where I feel like Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride” talking to Wallace Shawn’s character: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The catch in these French laws (other cities are considering them) is that they excuse electric vehicles when, frankly, it’s the EVs that are getting bigger and heavier. Let’s compare. A Dacia Duster “SUV” weighs, in its heaviest trim, scarcely above 3,200 pounds. A Tesla Model 3, which is excused from fees, weighs 3,800 pounds in its lightest trim. The more SUV-like BMW iX weighs about 5,700 pounds.
Put another way: Would you rather be hit by a 3,000-pound car or a 6,000-pound SUV?
While there are some SUVs in the classical sense (Landcruisers, G-Wagens) in Paris, the council seems to be conflating all large vehicles with SUVs. Here’s some more from that Guardian piece; it quotes “deputy mayor responsible for public space and mobility policy” David Belliard, who says (I added the bold for emphasis):
“There are no dirt paths , no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture,” Belliard said.
This is where I worry. The French have a good reason to not like gas-powered cars; while it’s not as much of an issue in Germany, France, in my experience, doesn’t do a great job of enforcing particulate emissions controls on its cars and trucks (if you don’t believe me, try waiting at a péage to pay your toll with your windows down). (To its credit, Paris is also trying to ditch diesel vehicles in its city center).
While reducing gas-powered cars has a potential positive environmental and local-health impact, just swapping them with heavier and often bigger EVs doesn’t make streets any safer for pedestrians or more walkable. It could make streets less safe. It would be more logical, in my view, to have a congestion/parking charge similar to what London has but applied to all vehicles based on weight and size. EVs, too, use a ton of resources to manufacture!
Here, I think, the Paris Council is using “SUV” to mean cars they don’t like and not cars that take up a lot of space. I’m curious to see what the regulations are related to engine displacement (which makes sense). As someone who cares about urbanism I’m uncomfortable with the idea of just replacing all cars in the city with bigger cars, even if they are SUVs.
[Editor’s Note: Matt and I got into a heated, multi-hour argument about this piece (OK it wasn’t that heated. I just wasn’t understanding at first). So Paris is taxing cars based on size/weight and engine because they’re tired of dirty cars in their city, many of which are SUVs. What’s the problem? That seems logical, I thought. Well, the (eventual) law isn’t a problem unless you realize the apparent motivations behind the lawmakers, which is to get rid of big SUVs not just for their local emissions (if it were just that, it’d make sense), but also for the congestion they cause, the resources they use during the manufacturing process, and the pedestrian safety risks they pose. Those latter three issues still apply to EVs! So maybe taxing EVs makes sense! Anyway, apologies for The Afternoon Dump! -DT].
And, more importantly, we can ignore politics, but politics will not ignore us. We’re at an inflection point as a community and I think, rather than freak out or rail against any car restrictions, car fans should embrace the political process, reflect on where limits make sense, and insert themselves into the decision-making process.
Do Joint Ventures In China Have A Future?
For years, Western automakers printed big bucks by tying themselves up with local Chinese companies and helping those state-owned and state-supported entities build cars. (This was a requirement for foreign companies to do business in China).
The future of those partnerships is in jeopardy. You want a canary in a coal mine? Mitsubishi, which is partnered with Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC), said it’s going to have to start cutting back costs in the country after people stopped buying Outlanders.
Instead, Chinese consumers are looking towards often more advanced EVs from domestic brands. This Reuters report breaks out the problem quite clearly:
Established automakers have been under deepening pressure in China where the market is shifting quickly to EVs and toward newer Chinese brands not operating in the joint ventures that had dominated sales for decades.
AlixPartners has forecast that Chinese brands would take more than 50% of the world’s largest auto market for the first time this year.
Mitsubishi’s sales in China peaked in 2018, when it recorded sales of over 141,000 vehicles, according to industry data. In 2022, sales had dropped below 33,000 vehicles.
The show does go on forever, but for some the party does end.
BMW Thinks It Can Sell 50,000 EVs In The United States This Year
I’ve driven the BMW i4 M and thought, yeah, this is pretty good. I’ve had a BMW iX for a week (review coming) and, frankly, it’s even better. Sorry to disappoint. If you want a fast and luxurious car that feels ok to drive then an electric vehicle makes sense.
They are, however, expensive, and don’t qualify for the same kind of tax credits as other EVs in the market. Apparently, luxury buyers aren’t as bothered.
BMW anticipates selling 50,000 electric vehicles in the U.S. this year, the brand’s top sales executive told Automotive News.
That’s nearly triple the 17,964 EVs the German automaker sold in the year’s first six months.
That’s a lot of expensive EVs. What about Mercedes? Again, from Automotive News:
Mercedes delivered 77,287 passenger vehicles — down 2.3 percent — in the April-to-June period. It was one of only three major luxury brands, along with Lincoln and Porsche, to report a quarterly sales decline.
“They have underproduced combustion and overproduced EQs,” said a retailer who asked to not be identified. “What is needed is combustion cars, not EVs.”
The source said Mercedes is in for a “rude awakening” with its rush to EVs. “The market has a voice in this, and Mercedes didn’t consider that,” he said.
Yikes. So there are some buyers, but it’s a crowded space and having the right product (and not too much of it) seems like the smart play now.
NHTSA Is On Top Of This AV Thing
Let’s get right to it, the United States Government is going to figure out this AV thing and it’s going to do it with a perfectly tortured United States Governmentish acronym:
AV STEP or ADS-Equipped Vehicle Safety, Transparency and Evaluation Program
Ok. What does that mean? Acting NHTSA Administrator Ann Carlson gave a whole speech about this yesterday, which you can read here. Here are some of the highlights:
Under AV STEP, NHTSA would consider applications for deploying noncompliant ADS vehicles, subject to review processes, terms, and conditions that the agency would require to ensure public safety and transparency. The program would also accept applications for the participation of compliant ADS vehicles whose operators would find benefit from being included in AV STEP.
This seems like a big win for carmakers, who can theoretically deploy a lot of ‘noncompliant vehicles.’ So why are they doing this? Later on in the same speech:
The program would enhance our research into AV safety and AV performance. We also believe the program would provide additional transparency about AV safety and deployment while giving the public assurance that NHTSA is overseeing the deployment of AVs on our public streets.
There’s the key word. ‘Transparency.” It’s pay-to-play, but instead of money it seems like NHTSA wants companies to give all their data to the government in exchange for an easier and clearer permitting process. Data that will be used to make new laws:
Ultimately, we will likely use our rulemaking authority to develop a regulatory structure for automated vehicles. We believe that AV STEP would hasten NHTSA’s progress toward establishing an effective governance structure for ADS performance. That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about it.
This was a long-time coming and feels like a win-win, so I can’t wait for someone to freak out about it.
The Big Question
What are automotive regulations you support?
Photo Credits: Matt Hardigree, Renault, Cruise
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