Australia’s obsession with giant trucks “can’t go on” if the country is serious about cutting emissions, according to one expert who has slammed the government’s “absurd” policy that incentivises large vehicles while taxing public transport.
Richard Denniss, executive director of the Australia Institute think tank, has called for a crackdown on the “expensive, inefficient and dangerous” twin-cab utes and large SUVs — which last year made up all of the country’s top 10 selling cars.
American-style pick-up trucks such as the Ford F-150 and the RAM 1500 have exploded in popularity in Australia in recent years, sparking backlash from some motorists who say the oversized vehicles are clogging roads and parking spaces not designed for them.
“Economics 101 says we should tax things we want fewer of and subsidise things we want more of, but in Australia we subsidise the purchase of twin-cab utes and charge goods and services tax on bikes and public transport,” Dr Denniss said in an opinion piece for The Guardian last week.
“It’s as though economics plays absolutely no role in the design of our tax or transport systems.”
He noted that, according to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), “if a vehicle can carry more than one tonne of cargo it must be a ‘commercial vehicle’, even if the vehicle never carries anything heavier than a laptop”, and “if you or your employer buys you a ‘commercial vehicle’ for work purposes, you don’t have to worry about that pesky fringe benefits tax or even keep track of the percentage of your car use for work or personal matters”.
“How can this be?” he said.
“It’s because, as the ATO sees it, what are the odds people would choose to drive a huge twin-cab ute around the city if they weren’t carrying lots of cargo?”
But “just as most utes aren’t really shifting cargo around our cities, ‘sports utility vehicles’ are not engaged in sport — and they clearly aren’t utilities”.
“If Australia were serious about the climate crisis — admittedly that’s a big if in a country that is still subsidising new gas and coalmines — one of the easiest ways to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while saving people a lot of money, would be to encourage a rapid shift from big cars to small cars and public transport,” Dr Denniss said.
“But while Australian governments love population growth, they hate planning for car-free cities — almost as much as they love catering for the biggest cars on our roads.”
Paul Maric, founder of CarExpert.com.au, pushed back on Dr Denniss’ tax argument.
“The RAM 1500, Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado — the big utes that make up the bulk of sales in the upper large ute segment — don’t have payloads of over 1000 kilograms,” Maric said.
“Ironically, their payloads are typically significantly less than smaller dual-cab utes like the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux. Even then, some of the most popular variants of the Ranger and HiLux also don’t have payloads that exceed 1000 kilograms to meet the tax rules he’s quoting.”
Earlier this month, the Albanese government unveiled proposed new fuel efficiency standards, slated to take effect next year, that the industry warns could spell the end of some of the country’s favourite SUVs and utes — such as the Raptor and XL models of the Ford Ranger, the most popular vehicle sold in Australia in 2023.
While the standards won’t ban any particular model, car brands will be penalised if the average emissions of all the vehicles they import is higher than a cap that will be slashed by more than 60 per cent from 2025 until the end of the decade, under the government’s preferred option for the standard.
As a result, car makers will be forced to sell more zero and low emissions models, or cut back on the sale of popular ute and SUV models, to avoid being hit with fines for breaching the mandatory pollution caps.
Australian Automotive Dealers Association boss James Voortman said consumers ultimately risked facing higher prices, or restricted choice, for the most popular models.
“Many utes and SUVs don’t meet the target for next year, let alone the requirements for 2029 — which is more than 60 per cent lower,” Mr Voortman said.
“To suggest that there will be as many options for consumers in the space of five years is overly optimistic. We don’t think this is achievable.”
But announcing the policy, Energy Minister Chris Bowen and Transport Minister Catherine King were adamant that affordability and supply of models would not be reduced.
“In countries with vehicle efficiency standards, utes and SUVs are often the top-selling car,” Mr Bowen said. Ms King added that the “international evidence is that it does not have an impact on price”.
Dr Denniss argued that while the government’s preferred model was “a big step in the right direction, it looks quite likely that the scheme will succeed in simultaneously encouraging the sale of electric vehicles while failing to rein in the number of large SUVs and twin-cab utes on our roads”.
“Indeed, the government’s own modelling suggests that the number of such vehicles, and the total amount of fuel used, will continue to grow,” he said.
“While the easiest way to increase the fuel efficiency of the Australian vehicle fleet would be to reduce the number of big vehicles on the road, the easiest solution is rarely the most politically palatable. And so it is that the Albanese government has designed a complicated proposal that will encourage a lot more people to buy electric vehicles while doing little, if anything, to rein in demand for the utes taking up so much space in our cities.”
Dr Denniss said if Australia were serious about reducing transport emissions, “we would be removing the GST from bikes and public transport and providing dedicated car parking spaces for small cars in our cities”.
Last year, Standards Australia proposed increasing the length of off-street parking spaces by 20 centimetres, from 5.4 metres to 5.6 metres, to fit Australia’s increasingly bigger cars.
The standard size of car spaces on streets and in parking lots has been 5.4 metres long and 2.4 metres to 2.6 metres wide, enough to fit passenger vehicles and light commercial vehicles, including utes.
A 2023 model Toyota HiLux can squeeze into a current standard carpark with 7.5 centimetres to spare, lengthwise, but the RAM 1500 overhangs by 43 centimetres. In a 2.4-metre wide carpark, a RAM’s width overhangs, too.
The proposed extra 20 centimetres will only halve the RAM’s overhang.
Critics of imported American-style trucks slammed the proposal, arguing against any changes to Australian streets to accommodate bigger cars.
“Part of our big issue with the Standards Australia proposal is that it codifies a worrying trend of [making] larger and larger vehicles,” said Jonathan O’Brien, lead organiser at YIMBY Melbourne said.
“Realistically, it would just be a 3 to 4 per cent reduction in parks. So not a huge difference materially, but it’s codifying a trend of accommodating trucks that take up more infrastructure.”
Mr O’Brien said he was “firmly of the belief that these cars should be taxed out of existence”.
— with Georgina Noack