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The Electric Truck Conundrum

electric cars and trucks are green, like this one

The pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is felt throughout the world, and certain industries feel this pressure more than others. Consider the automotive industry, and how it’s targeted due to the impact of gas-driven vehicles. Within this sector, larger “gas-guzzling” vehicles tend to receive the greatest criticism. It’s no surprise that many automotive manufacturers have shifted to the production of electric trucks and SUVs. Being electric, it’s assumed these would offer notable environmental advantages when compared to their gasoline counterparts. But what’s not clear is just how beneficial these larger electric vehicles are when all is said and done.

Larger electric vehicles on the road
You know what’s definitely not “green”? Larger electric vehicles.

Nearly all U.S. automakers have their own fleets of larger electric vehicles. Ford has its F150 Lightning, while Dodge promotes its Ram 1500 electric pickup. Even Hummer has joined in with its own EV version. Based on this, it’s evident that the market for electric trucks and SUVs is quite healthy, especially in America. The availability of these EVs is helping transition the country to a nation that’s less dependent on gasoline-powered transportation. But as with everything, the good comes with a bit of bad. And electric trucks and SUVs are no exception.

“[New larger electric vehicles] encourage a faster shift toward electric vehicles by appealing to a broader range of consumers. [However], consumers should think about buying the highest-efficiency vehicle that still meets their needs.” – Jessika Trancik, Professor of Energy Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

U.S. Electric Vehicle Trends

In other countries like those in Europe and Asia, electric car purchases have been climbing for years. In this regard, the same is true for Americans. As Tesla has shown, the appetite for performance-related EVs in the U.S. is quite healthy. But this is not the trend that’s most concerning when it comes to this particular sector. By far, the segment that has grown most rapidly in the EV market has been those involving larger electric vehicles. Electric trucks and SUVs as well as crossover hybrids are among the most popular. As it would appear, Americans not only enjoy luxury but also size and power.

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According to recent projections, experts predict new EV sales with be dominated by larger electric vehicles in coming years. They anticipate about 78% of all new EV sales will involve electric trucks and SUVs by 2025. This is a substantial figure, especially when compared to countries like China, the UK, Germany and Italy. By comparison, such sales represent a minority of the new EV sales market. Not only are such vehicles poorly supported by regional infrastructures. But from a cultural perspective, these larger vehicles are simply less preferred. It would seem the U.S. is a bot of an outlier in this regard.

“Whether they’re gas-powered or run on electricity, bigger vehicles require more energy to make and to move.” – Alissa Kendall, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Davis

Larger EVs and GHG Emissions

The basic premise when it comes to all electric vehicles is that they outperform gasoline vehicles in GHG emissions. In the vast majority of cases, this assumption holds true. But when speaking about larger electric vehicles, the benefits gained are often less than one might think. And in some instances, they may even perform less well in emissions production than some gas-powered cars. For example, electric trucks and SUVs produce about half the GHG emissions as their gas-fueled counterparts. But if one compares a larger EV with a smaller gas automobile, there may actually be little emissions benefit.

A big truck sucking up electricity
The bigger the vehicle, the bigger its energy-usage footprint. That’s just a fact.

(Bold Business makes the case for buying an electric car here.)

The reason this is true is because of the additional manufacturing activities related to the production of larger electric vehicles. Not only does the larger size of these electric trucks and SUVs require additional materials and manufacturing. But their batteries, which are sizable as well, do also. The extra emissions produced as a result of this increased manufacturing can significantly undermine the emissions reductions enjoyed. That’s why many energy and environmental experts highlight the importance of vehicle size even among EVs. From a climate perspective, it may be as environmentally friendly to purchase a small gas-powered car instead of a larger EV.

“Support for bigger, bulkier electric vehicles is often split. Some see the EV revolution as a crucial opportunity to rethink Americans’ overdependence on cars. Others think it’s best to meet the American consumer where they are.” – Dave Mullaney, Principal on the Carbon-Free Transportation Team, Rocky Mountain Institute

Other Environmental Impacts

Some electric cars and trucks being charged
Electric cars and trucks aren’t the big “green solution” they’re cracked up to be.

In terms of larger electric vehicles, GHG emissions are not the only environmental concern. Sizable electric trucks and SUVs also consume larger amounts of natural resources and raw materials. Specifically, batteries, electronics, and various vehicle appliances require increasing amounts of lithium, cobalt and rare earth metals. In addition to these being limited in supply, their extraction is also damaging to the climate, habitats, and wildlife. Thus, as the demand and production for these larger EVs increase, so does their environmental footprint. This too undermines the potential advantages of these electric vehicles.

To put things in perspective, one can look at what it takes to power the latest electric version of a Hummer. The lithium alone used for these batteries would be enough to produce batteries for 3 smaller EV cars. Furthermore, the lithium required could power 240 e-bikes and even provide half the power needed for an electric bus. This highlights the lack of efficiency in resource use that these larger electric vehicles exhibit. Combined with the negative emissions impact of electric trucks and SUVs, it’s not clear this is the way to go.

Changing a Culture

In assessing the pros and cons of EVs, smaller electric cars and vehicles are better choices than gas-powered ones. When it comes to larger electric vehicles, the advantages are less clear. Certainly, having electric trucks and SUVs available on the market encourages a consumer shift away from gas-fueled options. But if emissions and resource impacts are just as harmful as small gasoline cars, is progress being made? The bigger shift that needs to occur to realize the advantages of EV technology is a cultural one. Other countries do not necessarily perceive bigger as better but instead focus on efficiency and functionality. Whether or not this change eventually occurs in the U.S. remains to be seen. For now, it seems larger electric vehicles are the EVs of choice when talking about the American EV market.


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