MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
This Labor Day may find you on the road. And if so, there's an almost 30 percent chance that you are driving something big - a minivan or SUV. In the U.S., even our small cars are bigger than those of other countries. We drive farther and burn more fuel, creating more greenhouse gases than any other country, including 45 percent of the world's automotive carbon dioxide emissions.
As part of our yearlong series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Laura Sydell reports on how it might be possible to get Americans to break their long-held car habits.
LAURA SYDELL: Glamorized images of powerful and big cars abound in American popular culture from the Beach Boys' homage to an eight-cylinder gas-guzzlers.
(Soundbite of song "Fun Fun Fun")
BEACH BOYS (Group): (Singing) You have fun, fun, fun now 'til daddy took the t-bird away. Fun, fun, fun...
SYDELL: To the classic family tripping sitcoms like "The Brady Bunch" back in the days when gas was under 40 cents a gallon.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Brady Bunch")
Mr. ROBERT REED (Actor): (As Mike Brady) Are you positive that you haven't forgotten anything?
Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
(Soundbite of Brady Bunch children shouting in response)
Mr. REED: (As Mike Brady) Okay. Grand Canyon, here we come.
SYDELL: Getting on the open road with the family is in the American DNA. In the film classic, "How the West Was Won," covered wagons crossed the plains looking for the American dream.
(Soundbite of movie "How the West Was Won")
Mr. CHARLES VOGELHEIM (Vice President, Automotive Development, J.D. Power and Associates): When you think about the covered wagon and you think about the SUV today, if you look at both of them from the side, you really have the same profile.
SYDELL: Charles Vogelheim is vice president of Automotive Development at J.D. Power and Associates, which does surveys of American car owners.
Mr. VOGELHEIM: A lot of people like to have two or three rows of seats that allows room for children. It allows room for their friends or teammates when they're involved in sports, and then it makes room for the in-laws, for grandma and grandpa when they come to visit.
SYDELL: Vogelheim says Americans feel safer in big cars. And the roads here accommodate them. Europeans might like to pack up the family and all their gear, but large autos just won't fit.
Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director of the National Resources Defense Council, says most European cities were designed for horses, buggies and feet.
Mr. ROLAND HWANG (Vehicles Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council): If you go to London, if you go to Paris, you're driving a Hummer, you practically couldn't drive a Hummer through those streets, you certainly couldn't park them in many places.
SYDELL: Hwang says Americans have 30 percent of the world's cars and only 5 percent of its population. Environmentalists are trying to figure out how to change America's driving habits.
Marketing can help, says David Friedman, research director for the vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Mr. DAVID FRIEDMAN (Research Director for Vehicles Program, Union of Concerned Scientists): Maybe auto companies and industries investing in changing the image of the car, making it patriotic to buy a higher-fuel-economy car because you're sending less money overseas and you're reducing our impact on the world through global warming pollution.
SYDELL: As recently as 2004, one American car executive called hybrids an interesting curiosity. Friedman and many other environmentalists say Toyota's successful marketing of the Prius helped change the minds of car executives and consumers.
(Soundbite of a Toyota Prius ad)
Unidentified Man #3: It's one small step on the accelerator, one giant leap for mankind.
SYDELL: Toyota ran TV ads, but the lion share of its efforts were less traditional.
Toyota took the Prius out on the road to 15 cities across the country to explain the technology and give test drives to selected members of the public.
Unidentified Woman #1: Ready to drive, we're good to go. Okay. Now, this is a self (unintelligible). This is like a joystick.
SYDELL: Toyota targeted people who could influence the opinion of others -local government officials and other prominent members of the community.
Irv Miller, a vice president of marketing at Toyota, says that attention paid off.
Mr. IRV MILLER (Vice President of Marketing, Toyota Motor Sales): Those people were not accustomed to going to these kinds of functions so they became more vocal proponents of the technology. So basically we just broadened our reach and word of mouth is basically what public relations is all about.
SYDELL: Miller says the car also got a boost when certain celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, were seen driving the Prius around Hollywood and promoting it on entertainment television.
Mr. LEONARDO DiCAPRIO (Actor): I just came up in mine. Yeah.
SYDELL: Uh-huh. How do you like it?
Mr. DiCAPRIO: It's great.
Ms. CAMERON DIAZ (Actress): I just drive the Prius everywhere.
SYDELL: And that exposure and steadily rising gas prices helped Prius sales. There are nearly 450,000 Toyota Priuses on the road. Still that's a small percentage of the 250 million cars in the United States.
Sales of SUVs are declining. But Brent Dewar, vice president of sales at GM says, their surveys show fuel economy is not the first thing consumers think about when buying a car.
Mr. BRENT DEWAR (Vice President of Sales, General Motors): If their desire is to have a pickup truck, they're not going to buy a small car to get better fuel economy, because their needs are to have this utilitarian value of what a pickup would provide. But once they've decided they want a pickup and one of the dimensions of a pickup they're going to ask about is, how's the fuel economy?
SYDELL: In fact, a recent poll by CNW Marketing Research found that car buyers who were extremely interested in fuel economy rose from 22 percent in 2002 to 60 percent in 2006. American car companies have started to offer their own hybrids and make crossover vehicles that combine lighter frames and engines with some of the sturdiness of the SUV.
Congress is proposing new fuel economy standards for American carmakers, but automobile manufacturers say such standards would deny consumers the ability to choose cars that suit their lifestyle.
Roland Hwang of the National Resources Defense Council says if Detroit had the will, it could make big cars that get good mileage.
Mr. HWANG: Every vehicle ranging from a Honda Civic to a Ford Explorer to a Chevy Suburban, all can be made more efficient with existing technologies that are - in some cases - literally off the shelf.
SYDELL: Hwang says there are technologies being developed that could turn off car cylinders when not in use and shut down the engine when idling at a stoplight. He believes that Americans still may be able to find environmentally friendly vehicles that suit our culture and our lifestyle.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.