Cars are still cars – even when they’re electric

When Biden arrived at General Motors, he jumped behind the wheel not of the Bolt, the company’s electric subcompact, but of the new Hummer EV, a vehicle that epitomizes everything wrong with the trajectory of automotive design over the past few decades. After taking it for a spin, he declared, “That Hummer is a great 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 while there have been increases in fuel efficiency and EV ownership in recent years, the rise of SUVs has virtually nullified their benefits. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that between 2010 and 2018, growing global demand for SUVs was the second largest contributor to rising emissions. It would be easy to say that all we need to do is electrify all these SUVs, but it’s not that simple.

Electric cars are often called “zero emission” vehicles because they produce no tailpipe emissions. But that doesn’t mean they’re 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 the use of child labor. If we are to embrace the transition we are being sold – one that relies heavily on the electrification of 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 power small cars or even electric bicycles, which are not the focus of American politicians or industry players. (They would be much less profitable.)

The 1984 Jeep Cherokee was the first to be branded as an SUV, and sales of these vehicles really began to pick up in the 1990s as companies released more models. They took advantage of a loophole that allows “light trucks,” a category that includes “sports utility vehicles,” to meet less stringent fuel economy standards than conventional cars. Automakers had good reason to want the public to buy them: SUVs and trucks were more profitable than sedans. And the more popular they became, the more incentives drivers had to have: with so many larger vehicles surrounding them, they felt less safe unless they passed a level.

While there have been increases in fuel efficiency and electric vehicle ownership in recent years, the rise of SUVs has effectively negated their benefits.

SUV sales finally surpassed those of sedans in 2015, prompting some North American automakers to scale back their vehicle offerings. SUVs and trucks are estimated to make up 78% of new vehicle sales by 2025. But filling the roads with such large vehicles has consequences.

The Hummer may stand out as the ultimate expression of automotive excess, but automakers are constantly expanding the size and height of their vehicles with each new redesign. For example, USA Today found that since 1999, the Chevrolet Tahoe has grown 17.7 inches longer, while the midsize Toyota RAV4—the best-selling SUV in the United States—has grown 14 inches. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports estimated that the average passenger truck has become 24 percent 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 suggests that the increase in large vehicles is part of what is driving this trend.

In 2018, the Detroit Free Press reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration knew that pedestrians were two to three times more likely to “suffer a fatal outcome” when struck by an SUV or pickup truck (as opposed to a sedan ) due to their high blunt front ends. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also found that drivers of 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 found that they were hit by heavier vehicles leads to a much higher probability of death. This is a particular problem with electric vehicles, especially electric SUVs and trucks, because the large batteries they require make them even heavier than conventional vehicles.

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