Are Carmakers Building the Wrong EVs?
Are automakers worldwide gearing up to build the wrong electric vehicles?
Things are not as simple as they might appear. Burning fossil fuel (gasoline and diesel) through an internal combustion engine (ICE) in cars and trucks produces carbon dioxide (CO2). Replacing conventional ICE vehicles with electric battery-powered vehicles eliminates tailpipe emissions of CO2. Do this, and climate change caused by a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere caused by transportation will be solved.
Image used courtesy of GMC
Of course, it isn’t that easy. Aside from all of the problems that we are currently facing in building up useful nationwide vehicle charging networks, supply chains for lithium-ion battery materials that run primarily through China, and the high transaction price and public acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs), the transportation system that has evolved over the past ten years in North America is spectacularly unsuited to reducing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
National Fuel Economy Standard Loophole
In 2014, U.S. passenger car sales sat at around 7.7 million, while sales of light trucks (including pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), crossover utility vehicles (CUVs), and vans) were 8.7 million. By 2021, light trucks accounted for 11.7 million vehicles—78 percent of the approximately 15 million light-duty vehicles sold in the U.S.
The automakers say the growth in the light truck market is in response to consumer demand, however, the segment has always been more profitable than building and selling run-of-the-mill sedans. In addition, vehicles designated as light trucks have, since 1975, benefited from a loophole in national fuel economy standards, allowing them to slide by with lower efficiency levels as passenger cars were pushed to reach higher fuel economy numbers.
Supersized Electric Vehicles
It hasn’t just been the size of the light truck market for light trucks that have grown—the vehicles themselves have supersized. From 1990 to 2021, the weight of SUVs increased by 7 percent and trucks by 32 percent. A 2023 Ford F-150 pickup is 7 inches taller and 800 pounds heavier than a 1991 F-150.
Higher vehicles make it more difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and bicyclists, and fatalities in both of these categories are on the rise.
In 2019, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory study showed that the average weight of a pickup truck increased 32 percent between 1990 and 2018. Even with extensive use of lightweight materials like aluminum and high-strength steel and smaller turbo-charged engines along with six, seven, and eight-speed automatic transmissions, the fact is that bigger vehicles require more energy to move them.
Meanwhile, the number of SUVs on the road has more than doubled in the last ten years—and they have become popular worldwide, not just in the U.S. Around 40 percent of annual new car sales worldwide are now SUVs, up from around 20 percent a decade ago.
These SUVs are much bigger and heavier than the traditional sedans that they replaced and, as a result, taken alone, SUVs are the second largest contributor to global CO2 emissions since 2010 (following the electric power sector, but ahead of heavy industry, trucks, and aviation). While the demand for oil from all other types of vehicles (excluding SUVs) declined between 2010 and 2018, SUVs were responsible for an increase in the overall demand for oil during that period.
Light Trucks and SUVs get Heavier
As light trucks and SUVs have grown heavier, it hasn’t only been the increased fuel usage and CO2 emissions that have caused concern. A 2011 research paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.K. said that being hit in a collision by a vehicle that weighs 1,000 pounds more increases the probability of being killed by 47 percent. Studies have shown the likelihood of passenger fatalities increases by 12 percent for every 500-kilogram (1100-pound) difference between the vehicles. In both cases, passengers in the heavier vehicle win, so there is a perceived safety advantage to driving around in an SUV the size of a school bus.
Enter Electric Vehicles
Superimposed upon this trend of giant-sized pickups and SUVs is electrification. Cities and countries have announced plans to eliminate the sales of gasoline and diesel-powered personal vehicles by 2035, and companies like Ford and General Motors have indicated that they will sell only electric vehicles by that time.
In a rational world, given that the average U.S. daily roundtrip commute is around 45 miles, small EVs with a battery range of around 100 miles between charges would seem to make perfect sense. The first generation of EVs that arrived in the 2010-to-2018 time frame was mostly (except the range of EVs from Tesla) small cars with small batteries that offered limited range, but that could be recharged overnight at home using inexpensive charging infrastructure. These offerings were largely ignored by the car-buying public.
Now, as EVs have started to gain popularity, consumers have made it clear that they want their EVs to be capable of at least 300 miles between charges and, having grown up on a diet of large-scale trucks and SUVs, they don’t want anything to do with small commuter-scale cars. Car makers have been happy to oblige them.
The result is EVs that are significantly heavier than the already weighty light trucks and SUIVs that they are destined to replace. First of all, the lithium-ion batteries required to achieve a 300-mile range in a large-size battery electric vehicle weigh thousands of pounds. Even with the removal of the heavy ICE drivetrain, the result is staggering.
Playing With the Big (EV) Boys
Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pickup, with a 230- to 300-mile range, is between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds heavier than the gasoline version of the F-150. Ford’s Mustang Mach E electric SUV and Volvo XC40 EV are around 33 percent heavier than equivalent gasoline-powered models. Topping the charts is the GMC electric Hummer, whose 2,900-pound battery pack pushes the truck's weight to 9,000 pounds. That battery, full of the latest lithium-ion battery technology, weighs about as much as a 2023 Honda Civic sedan.
Image used courtesy of Ford Motor Company
The National Transportation Safety Board head, Jennifer Homendy, has expressed concern that such heavy vehicles pose a significant safety risk, especially if they collide with smaller and lighter vehicles.
With the big SUV and pickup truck genie already out of the bottle, it is unlikely many new EV versions of such vehicles will ever come in rational sizes. This means that the extra-large batteries that can reach a 300-mile range will be carried around as excess weight on the daily 45-mile commute. It means that the required raw materials to build these big batteries—enough to power as many as three smaller EVs—will be tied up and largely unused for the vehicle's life. It means that tires, brakes, and roadways will wear out more quickly as vehicles weighing 7,000-8,000 pounds hit the pavement.
Electrification to Reduce Climate Change
To become a viable answer to how to reduce climate change, electrification has to be part of a much larger overall of our transportation system. Electric buses are an environmentally friendly way to travel in and around a city, but buses are dismissed as a means of transportation for low-income workers, and frequently, the bus routes and transfers can result in a trip that takes many times the time to drive there. Electric trains are popular in many parts of the world, where hyper-fast trains are a viable alternative to short-haul airline travel. Unfortunately, in the U.S., the rail system is primarily used to haul freight, and the rail lines cannot support long-distance passenger travel.
Image used courtesy of Proterra
Autonomous Electric Vehicles
Another option getting a lot of attention, particularly for inner-city and suburban transportation, is the ride-hailing of autonomous electric vehicles. Using a smartphone, a rider can summon an unmanned electric cab that can then be directed to deliver passengers or even cargo to any part of the city.
Testing is already underway in some U.S. cities; however, a large-scale rollout of the idea seems some years away. The need to make driverless cars foolproof is proving difficult.
A Personal, Rational EV Choice
This leaves personal EVs as the answer to reducing carbon emissions from transportation. If our goal is to replace one-for-one the existing fleet of oversize trucks and SUVs with even heavier battery-power versions of the same vehicles, we will reduce CO2 emissions, but at the cost of more highway and pedestrian deaths and the need for almost unthinkable amounts of battery raw materials mined from the earth. Yet that does seem to be the path that we are on. It’s as though we can see the consequences of our choices yet are powerless to alter the course that we have chosen.
Electric vehicle. Image used courtesy of Pixabay
The alternative is to ask Americans to be more rational in their vehicle choices. Buy a small EV that does the job around town, and when the time comes for a long-distance vacation drive, rent a vehicle that specifically meets those needs. It would be a way to save money, clean up the environment and extend the planet’s remaining natural resources.
Unfortunately, automakers are gearing up to make large numbers of exactly the wrong EVs in the name of building what the customer wants.