Cars are still cars—even when they’re electric
EVs are being touted as the solution to our climate crisis—but are they?
In the fall of 2021, President Joe Biden made a stop in Detroit to promote the Democrats’ infrastructure bill and the electric-vehicle rollout being touted by the administration as a key measure to address the climate crisis. But his visit showed exactly why we can’t just push electrification without addressing the deeper problem of dependence on giant vehicles.
When Biden arrived at General Motors, he jumped behind the wheel not of a Bolt, the company’s electric subcompact car, but the new Hummer EV, a vehicle that’s the embodiment of everything wrong with the trajectory of vehicle design in the past couple of decades. After taking it for a spin, he declared, “That Hummer’s one hell of a vehicle.” Days later, GM announced that Biden’s publicity stunt had boosted reservations for the massive vehicles, so we’re likely to see more of them on the road.
This is not the future we need. Transportation accounts for 27% of US emissions, more than any other sector, and even though there have been increases in fuel efficiency and EV ownership in recent years, the rise of the SUV has virtually negated their benefits. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that between 2010 and 2018, growing global demand for SUVs was the second-largest contributor to increasing emissions. It would be easy to say that all we need to do is electrify all those SUVs, but it’s not that simple.
EVs are often termed “zero-emission” vehicles because they produce no tailpipe emissions. But that doesn’t mean they are clean. Their large batteries require a lot of resource extraction from mines around the world, with significant environmental and human consequences that include poisoning water supplies, increasing rates of cancer and lung disease, and even making use of child labor. If we’re to embrace the transition being sold to us—one that relies heavily on electrifying personal vehicles—demand for key minerals will soar by 2040, according to the IEA, with an estimated 4,200% increase for lithium alone. The batteries in increasingly massive electric trucks and SUVs must be much larger than those needed to propel small cars or even e-bikes, which are not the focus of American policymakers or industry players. (They’d be far less profitable.)
The 1984 Jeep Cherokee was the first to be branded as an SUV, and sales of these vehicles really started to take off in the 1990s as companies released more models. They benefited from a loophole that allows “light trucks,” a category that includes “sport utility” vehicles, to meet less stringent fuel economy standards than conventional cars. Automakers had good reason for wanting the public to buy them: SUVs and trucks were more profitable than sedans. And the more popular they became, the more incentive drivers had to get their own: with so many larger vehicles surrounding them, they felt less safe unless they leveled up too.
Even though there have been increases in fuel efficiency and electric-vehicle ownership in recent years, the rise of the SUV has virtually negated their benefits.
SUV sales finally overtook those of sedans in 2015, leading some North American automakers to pare back their car offerings. It’s estimated that SUVs and trucks will account for 78% of new vehicle sales by 2025. But filling the roads with such large vehicles has had consequences.
The Hummer may stand out as the ultimate expression of automotive excess, but automakers have been continually expanding the size and height of their vehicles with every new redesign. For example, USA Today found that since 1999, the Chevrolet Tahoe has gotten 17.7 inches longer, while the midsize Toyota RAV4—the best-selling SUV in the United States—has gained 14 inches. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports calculated that the average passenger truck has gotten 24% heavier and its hood 11 inches taller since 2000. Last year, 42,915 people died on US roads—a number not seen since 2005—and 7,342 of them were pedestrians. Evidence shows that the increase in large vehicles is part of what’s driving that trend.
In 2018, the Detroit Free Press reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knew pedestrians were two to three times more likely to “suffer a fatality” when hit by an SUV or pickup truck (as opposed to a sedan) because of their high, blunt front ends. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has also determined that drivers in SUVs and pickup trucks are more likely to hit pedestrians because their visibility of the road is more limited, and academics at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that being hit by heavier vehicles brings a much higher likelihood of death. That’s a particular problem with EVs, especially electric SUVs and trucks, because the large batteries they require tend to make them even heavier than a conventional vehicle.
The message so often presented by the government, by car companies, even by many environmentalists, is that a new technology—in this case, batteries to replace internal-combustion engines—will address the transport system’s climate impact. There’s no question that electric vehicles tend to produce fewer emissions across their life cycle than the internal-combustion vehicles most people drive today, but when we face such a unique opportunity to rethink the foundations of our transport system, should we stop there?
The trend toward larger vehicles has had bad consequences for both road safety and the environment. Continuing it through the transition to electric vehicles means that EVs will require bigger batteries, and thus more minerals will have to be mined to power them. But there are other options that can address some of those problems.
As the shift to EVs accelerates and commodity prices increase, there’s good reason to promote smaller cars that cost less, require smaller batteries, are better suited for the trips most people take, and pose less of a threat to pedestrians. Further, governments can step in not just to incentivize EV adoption, but to expand alternatives like public transit and cycling infrastructure in cities across the country so it will be easier for more people to choose not to drive in the years to come.
That’s a conversation that won’t be kicked off by industry players or by a president who promises to electrify “the great American road trip.” But it’s one we desperately need.
Paris Marx is author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.