US customers can now enjoy a seemingly ever-improving selection of new electric vehicles across a wide price range. But while these new EVs differ in cost and specification, they typically have at least one thing in common: They’re mostly trucks and SUVs.
According to the website Electrek, 6 out of the 10 best-selling EVs in the US are considered SUVs by either their maker or a government regulatory agency. And these vehicles weigh a lot. For example, the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning’s base curb weight is around 6,000 pounds—about a ton more than the lightest F-150 with an internal combustion engine. Likewise, the GMC Hummer EV pickup truck, which clocks in at more than 9,000 pounds, is wider, taller, and 50% heavier than the Hummer H2 of 20 years ago.
The problem? With all that size comes more risk. As detailed in an investigation by Consumer Reports last year, pickup trucks and SUVs’ tall hoods, large rear blind spots, and hefty weight (4,000-plus pounds) conspire to create a more dangerous situation for pedestrians. And the problem is only becoming worse: The height of pickups’ hoods has increased 11% over the last two decades, according to Consumer Reports, and vehicle weight is up nearly 25%. Add to that the fact that pedestrian-to-vehicle fatalities have risen 8% in the last 10 years—and that in 2022 vehicle fatalities have already hit highs not seen in some 20 years—and it’s fair to say that increasingly tall and large vehicles pose more risks for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of smaller vehicles.
Size and weight are also forcing road agencies to rethink restrictions on certain highways and bridges. According to Reuters, Congress will have to decide whether these restrictions must take into account not only that some roads have more vehicle traffic, and heavier traffic at that, but that many new EVs weigh about 1,000 pounds or more than their counterparts with internal combustion engines . The trend is even posing a problem for the vehicle haulers that ship the EVs from factories and ports to dealerships.
Now, to be fair to EVs, nearly all vehicles are larger and heavier these days as they tend to be equipped with more creature comforts, sound insulation, and safety equipment than in years past. Many must also comply with safety requirements in other countries, which can add weight or alter the vehicle design.
But the weight of EV battery packs specifically (especially in vehicles capable of traveling 300 or more miles on a full charge) can pose a bigger problem, as all that added mass increases the force in the event of a crash with a pedestrian or cyclist. And while for years agencies and organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have contended that it’s safer to be seated in a heavier car during a crash, trucks and SUVs have almost never fared as well in pedestrian crash tests as cars that are closer to the road.
None of this should be a surprise, though. Thanks to a longtime loophole in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, there are separate targets for passenger cars (sedans, coupes, convertibles, etc.) than for light trucks (every truck-shaped or SUV-shaped vehicle that weighs less than 8,500 pounds). And even though most of today’s SUVs amount to not much more than tall station wagons or hatchbacks, they’re still wildly popular.
That’s not to say there aren’t any small EVs for sale in the US today. Automakers from Mercedes-Benz to Mini already offer them, and others are coming from Hyundai and Volkswagen. But even these companies admit that their smaller cars are playing second fiddle to their bigger brethren.
The current Leaf will hang on for another year or so before it’s replaced by something that’s likely to be slightly taller. And consider the Tesla Model 3 compact sedan: Though it’s still the best-selling non-SUV EV (weighing as little as 3,648 pounds), it’s no longer Tesla’s top vehicle. That distinction goes to its Model Y compact SUV, which clocks in at 4,416 pounds.
Auto manufacturers contend that many EVs weigh more than gas-only vehicles because they have added structural protection to channel forces that would have normally been absorbed by an engine. They and federal regulators also say crashes of all kinds will soon be prevented or mitigated by advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), especially those that include pedestrian and cyclist detection.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—which monitors federal motor vehicle safety standards and traffic safety and fatalities—found in a study this year that many of the current ADAS do a bad job of preventing crashes, let alone fatalities. Yet some of the new EVs coming on to the market don’t have much more sophisticated systems than those of cars that are already several years old.
So far, the solutions presented haven’t included building smaller EVs. For example, Elon Musk announced earlier this year that he’d abandoned building a smaller, less-expensive Tesla in favor of the long-delayed Cybertruck and other pricier models; even Porsche will make a large, three-row electric SUV later this decade. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, no Congressional committees have addressed the trucking industry’s concerns about transporting heavier and heavier EVs.
Despite government and individual safety agencies warning for decades about the dangers trucks and SUVs pose to occupants and others compared to cars, little has been done to address the concern. Cameras, radars, and other sensors have been tasked with preventing collisions, leaving pedestrian and cycling advocates to push for better-designed roads.
Given that most vehicles are replaced about every six or seven years, many electric trucks and SUVs are being driven with outdated crash prevention technology or designs that aren’t compatible with some areas of the US And because the average age of a car on our roads is roughly twice that, the proliferation of heavy and large EVs is inevitable—and the country might not be ready for it.