After the jump.
The US automotive market is one that’s heavily dominated by light-duty pickup trucks, with the F-150, Silverado, and Ram outselling all other vehicles (with the Sierra not being far behind). And, crossovers that are legally considered light trucks are incredibly popular - by the end of the year, the RAV4 will probably be the #4 best selling vehicle in the US market. On top of that, plenty of people daily drive medium-duty trucks - the 3/4 ton and 1 ton luxury pickup is a common sight on American roads.
Vehicles that are classified as trucks get exemptions from a lot of regulations, for legitimate reasons - a vehicle designed as a working vehicle, as pickups are, is simply going to have higher emissions and fuel consumption than a normal passenger car, it’s a fact of life. And, the same goes for off-road vehicles - higher drivetrain drag, and worse aerodynamics are facts of life for that vehicle class. Some design decisions may also impact safety, although as far as I’m aware, the NHTSA requires light trucks to meet passenger car standards since 1999. However, the pedestrian safety regulations that most cars comply with aren’t present in the US, so US-specific designs (which includes much of the light truck market) don’t bother complying.
In any case, I’d argue that the death of the station wagon in the 1980s, as well as the death of the car (in favor of the CUV) today, were set up by these loopholes. Instead of making cars better, big cars got replaced with things that could be pitched as light trucks. Some of them, especially in the 1970s into the 1990s, actually were light trucks with some luxuries, but eventually the crossover was arrived at - a “light truck” by virtue of having “off-road features”, but it’s really just a tall car. (Note that the Chrysler minivans were like this as well, and the PT Cruiser was famously classified as a light truck instead of a car to improve the truck average efficiency, rather than reduce the car average.)
Here’s where the take gets spicy. I’d argue that if a vehicle is getting exemptions from regulations, or relaxed regulations, due to its utility as a work vehicle, a CDL should be required to drive it. I don’t want to ban these vehicles, because there’s a legitimate need for true work vehicles, but if they’re going to continue to get exemptions from the standards, there needs to be some check to ensure that they’re being used for actual work.
You’d also need to change some laws to allow automakers to classify things as cars when they want to be seen as a car - situations like the Subaru Outback being forced into the light truck classification, allegedly against Subaru’s will, shouldn’t happen. A couple other things that may be necessary would be grandfathering of existing vehicles, at least for a limited time, due to the huge number of trucks in the fleet and the hardship of replacing them with non-trucks, as well as possibly subsidizing CDL training for a limited time.
But, if this happened, you’d see a few things happen. Those that really need trucks would still be able to get them, by getting a CDL. Those that do drive trucks would be held to higher driving standards, making things safer. Consumer trucks - which would still exist I’d guess, as there’s organic market demand - would have to be reclassified as cars to be accessible to the market, meaning that they’d need to gain quite a bit of efficiency to not drag down car CAFE too much, likely making them smaller, lighter, and safer for other road users. Ultra-high efficiency cars may also be launched to compensate. Crossovers would also be pushed into car CAFE, forcing them to be more efficient and likely providing a disincentive for automakers to sell them at all.
The only thing I’m not sure about is how to handle rental trucks - I think it’s something that should be encouraged to discourage using a truck as a commuter car except that one time a year you need to drag a boat or move a sofa. Maybe a short-term rental exemption to the CDL requirement could exist...
All in all, I think things would be better this way, really, and it’d effectively close the truck loophole to our emissions and efficiency standards.