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> Why I Hate SUVs
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Why I Hate SUVs

Although I'm going to try to explain why I hate SUVs, I ought to admit up front that there's a large irrational component that I can't explain. I don't know what it is, but when I see any of the largest SUVs it just makes me sick.

As a practical matter, I dislike SUVs because they obstruct my vision when I'm driving. When I'm behind one, it obstructs my forward vision, making it difficult for me to respond to sudden traffic compression; and when I'm being tailgated by one, it completely blocks my backward vision.

I suppose I ought to feel righteous indignation about the low gas mileage of SUVs, but I don't … guess I'm not much of a conservationist at heart.

It definitely irritates me to hear that in a collision between a SUV and a regular car, the SUV's large frame makes the SUV driver safer at the expense of the other driver. I say “hear” advisedly, because I don't know the statistics, but the idea is certainly common and plausible. (One ought to be wary of plausible ideas, because they're likely to be spreading by virtue of plausibility rather than, say, truth, but I'll pass this one on anyway; see Reaction Against Button-Pushing for related thoughts.)

The above ideas are all well known, so I might not have bothered to write this essay if I didn't have one more idea to present. Here it is.

Deciding whether to buy a SUV is an excellent example of a prisoner's dilemma.

Suppose, for example, we consider collision safety to be the currency of the game. When both players cooperate by buying regular cars, there's some initial amount of safety. When one player defects, ve increases vis own safety at the expense of the other; and when, consequently, both players defect, the initial amount of safety is decreased for both, as a result of the more massive and rollover-prone vehicles.

What about other currencies? The obstruction of vision fits pretty much the same pattern. I'm not sure vision is uniformly worse in a world full of SUVs, but it's certainly not any better, and so doesn't alter the nature of the game. The low gas mileage is technically a tragedy of the commons rather than a prisoner's dilemma, but, again, it doesn't alter the nature of the game.

Since buying a car isn't something one does very often, the game is more or less a one-round prisoner's dilemma, and defecting really is the correct strategy, even though I don't want it to be. That's the prisoner's dilemma for you. (Hofstadter didn't want defecting to be the correct strategy, either—see Dilemmas for Superrational Thinkers, Leading Up to a Luring Lottery.)

Is there any way, then, to avoid a world full of SUVs? I think so; in fact, I can see two ways.

First, since buying a SUV requires that the vehicle exist, one could remove the dilemma by legislating SUVs out of existence. For example, one could define a maximum vehicle size, and have it apply to new cars immediately and to existing cars after a suitable number of years. That's oversimplified, of course—there are probably a few people who for some reason really do need a SUV rather than a regular car.

Along those lines, here's another point for thought. How many of us really need a regular car rather than a compact car? And don't the same collision safety and gas mileage arguments apply? Shouldn't we then legislate regular cars out of existence in favor of compact cars?

So, that's one way of avoiding a world full of SUVs. Second, since defecting is only the correct strategy in an isolated game, one could work to make the game less isolated. In other words, the defection of buying a SUV could be met with a corresponding defection in some other arena. It's not very clear, though, what the corresponding defection should be. If a friend tells you ve just bought a SUV, should you whack ver upside the head, or what?

Part of what confuses me, here, is that the action of buying a SUV remains effective for years at a time. It's true, I think, that an established system of corresponding defections would discourage future SUV purchases, but it would be rather harsh on present-day owners, who were (arguably) making the right decision at the time, and who wouldn't have an easy way of reversing it.

Hofstadter, in one of the experiments he ran, wanted to make it quite clear that the game was to be considered as isolated. I found the choice of words interesting.

In particular, feelings of morality, guilt, vague malaise, and so on, are to be disregarded.

Maybe that's the form the corresponding defections should take: we should bug SUV owners about it at every opportunity.


  See Also

  Daytime Running Lights
  Great Idea, A
  Looking Ahead
  Via Tailgating

@ November (2000)