Size Matters — Enormous EVs Reduce The Benefit Of Driving An Electric Car

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If you read CleanTechnica on a regular basis, you probably agree with the idea that the world needs to transition to electric car manufacturing in order to lower carbon emissions from transportation. Tesla pretty much built its entire business on that premise and it is now conventional wisdom in most countries as we humans search for ways to reduce global heating.

Electric Car Embedded Emissions

But as a recent article in the New York Times points out, bigger EVs have more embedded carbon emissions than smaller ones, mainly because of the battery manufacturing process. In fact, today’s largest EVs — the Hummer EV, Ford F-150 Lightning, and the other electric pickups coming from traditional American manufacturers — may have more total emissions than the most efficient gasoline-powered vehicles.

Whether they are powered by gasoline engines or run on electricity, bigger vehicles require more energy to make and to move, Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis tells the New York Times. A battery-electric pickup truck may have half the carbon emissions per mile of its internal combustion powered equivalent, but it still may have higher lifetime emissions than some smaller, lighter, and more efficient passenger cars.

Of course, there aren’t that many small to medium size passenger cars available for purchase today, especially in America. Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly shifted away from cars and toward SUVs, pickup trucks, and crossover vehicles. Some industry analysts estimate SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans could make up 78% of new vehicle sales by 2025.

Heavier Vehicles May Pose A Safety Hazard

f150 lightning electric truck
Ford F-150 Lightning, courtesy of Ford.

Research has shown that heavier vehicles, whether gas or electric, can be more dangerous in a crash for those outside of the vehicle, including drivers of smaller cars and pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users. Heavier vehicles strike pedestrians and other road users with more force, said Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. Bigger vehicles that are taller at the front, like many pickup trucks, also limit a driver’s visibility, she added.

In the United States, traffic deaths have increased in recent years, while fatalities in other comparably developed countries have been falling. There are a number of factors to blame, including dangerous road design and high speed limits, but experts and advocates point to the supersizing of America’s vehicles as a significant factor as well. Take a look at the front end of most pickup trucks today. If you’re a pedestrian or bicyclist, they look like the white cliffs of Dover when they are bearing down on you.

The Hummer Is A Bummer

The Hummer EV may be the clearest example of wretched excess when it comes to an electric car. Its battery is so large, it uses about the same amount of lithium per rider as three smaller car batteries or 240 electric bike batteries, according to a recent report. It also uses about half as much lithium as a battery needed to power an electric bus, the New York Times says.

Recently, The Verge contributor Emme Hall took one out for a spin and found its gargantuan proportions too much for the road and too much for off-road driving as well. She summarized her experience by saying, “GM resurrected the Hummer as a luxury electric truck with off-road aspirations. But the end result is too big for the trail — too big for anywhere, really. The fact of the matter is, the Hummer EV is too extra for its own good.”

The Hummer is about the same length as a Rivian R1T but is considerably wider — so wide, in fact, that Hall says it felt like her passenger was in a different time zone. Acceleration is astonishingly quick in this 9,000 lb beast — 0 to 60 in 3 seconds — but stopping is another matter. “Stopping is terrifying,” Hall writes. “The road runs out quickly when your truck is this heavy and can go this fast, so play carefully.” Even though the truck was equipped with GM’s Super Cruise, Hall still handled all braking chores herself, not trusting the software to bring the beast to a halt when necessary.

“The system can change into a clear left lane on its own to get around slower cars, and it can even detect merging traffic or when a lane ends. However, with the mass of this vehicle, I just don’t trust the braking. Every time I need to stop for sudden traffic, I always take over and brake manually. Perhaps you’ll have a bit more confidence than I did,” she says.

What Good Is An Electric Car That Is Not Efficient?

The one true thing about an electric car is it is far more efficient than a car powered by an infernal combustion engine. The Hummer is dismal when it comes to efficiency, however. Hall writes, “What kills the Hummer for me is its efficiency, or lack thereof. GMC has reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to battery size and weight. It’s some 2,000 pounds or so heavier than the Rivian R1T, thanks to that giant battery, but doesn’t even return significantly more range. The Hummer is rated for 329 miles, but the Rivian’s smaller 135kWh battery can last for 314 miles, and I don’t feel like I need a runway to bring it to a stop.

“I managed a paltry 0.9 mi/kWh during my off-road excursion in the Hummer. Meanwhile, I’ve spent ample time off-road in the Rivian and averaged 1.6 mi/kWh, and that included soft dunes. That’s the Hummer’s average on the street. The Rivian? You’re looking at around 2.3 mi/kWh on the pavement.

“Sure, the Hummer EV has that cool rear wheel steering, but that’s really the only worthwhile party trick. In the end, it’s too heavy and big for a lot of trails, the front locker doesn’t engage fast enough, and it doesn’t have a spare tire (GM says there’s not room for one in this 4.5 ton truck, which may because is rides on 35″ tires). Add the lack of confident brakes, and you’re looking at an EV that’s best left in the dealer’s lot.” Ouch! Mary Barra isn’t going to like reading that review.

The Takeaway

Hanging around the CleanTechnica lunch counter, the conversation often turns to a discussion of EVs and size. We write about the electric car revolution daily, but we understand that there are a finite number of resources in the world and they have to be used wisely if we hope to avoid a climate catastrophe of our own making. That means we are in favor not just of converting every car to electricity, but also having fewer cars on the road using precious resources for personal transportation.

We often hear about peak oil, but shouldn’t we also be talking about peak car? Building 78% large cars is simply not sustainable for the Earth. We need to electrify everything, but we also need to mine and refine fewer raw materials and ship them shorter distances. Just going electric so we can all drive a 4-ton battery on wheels everywhere we go is not a solution to global heating. It’s a fool’s mission. We have to do better, and pretty damn soon, too.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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