A Placemaking Journal
CARZILLA: Are huge SUVs & trucks hurting pedestrians and walkable communities?
I’ve become obsessed with the size of personal vehicles, and I’m pretty sure it’s driving my wife crazy. Every time we take a walk, run an errand, or find ourselves in a parking facility, I can’t help myself from commenting constantly about the enormous size of many newer cars, trucks, and especially SUVs compared to any older ones nearby. I worry that my obsession is getting annoying, so bear with me while I dive into the subject in some detail in an attempt to purge it from my system.
It all started a few years ago, when I began looking for a new car to replace my ten-year-old Volvo S60, a five-passenger sedan I have loved but that doesn’t have the latest creature comforts and technology, including safety technology. My first instinct was simply to replace it with a new S60, the updated version of the same model. I quickly learned, however, that the new one is bigger than the one I have had for the last decade. I want to fit easily into city-sized parking spaces and to maneuver narrow, city-sized residential streets, and I don’t want a larger vehicle. I’m beginning to think that this may be un-American of me, but I remain committed.
So, I began to look at comparable models from other manufacturers. Same deal: their models have grown, too. There are a few smaller ones available but, alas, they don’t have the features I want. (They have also been in frustratingly short supply: supply chains, chips shortage, yada yada.)
I won’t go further into the details of my search, but my obsession with vehicle size intensified when my neighbors bought a new Subaru Ascent SUV. It seems huge to me, about a foot and a half longer than my old Volvo, over a foot taller, and a bit wider. (It’s also quite a bit bigger than their older SUV, a Subaru Forester almost as old as my Volvo.) But the striking part is that their new Ascent is not really “big” at all by today’s standards, particularly for vehicles serving families: it fits right in with the other newer vehicles on our street, generally comparably sized. (At least my neighbors didn’t get the truly enormous but increasingly popular Chevy Suburban, depicted below.) Literally every time a neighbor buys a new vehicle, it’s noticeably bigger than the one it replaces. It sure seems like a trend to me.
I did some research to see whether my impressions about growing vehicle size are reflected in fact, and I soon learned that they are, dramatically so. And I also learned that there are some troubling consequences to this trend, not just for those of us who prefer to drive smaller vehicles but, especially, for those of us who cannot drive at all or just prefer to walk.
Getting bigger and bigger
There are two ways in which today’s vehicles have become markedly larger than yesterday’s. First, the car manufacturers simply are no longer producing many traditionally-sized cars for the US market, and fewer Americans are buying the ones that they do produce. Most significantly, there has been a dramatic shift over the last few decades away from sedans and what we used to think of as “cars” and toward SUVs and, to a degree, pickup trucks. Once-popular smaller models such as the Ford Focus and Honda Fit have been withdrawn from the market, much to my personal chagrin. Chevy’s pioneering, smaller electric vehicle (EV), the Bolt, will soon be among them, according to reports
The 2022 Automotive Trends Report from EPA documents the trend, noting that, in 1975, sedans and wagons were the dominant vehicle type, comprising more than 80 per cent of vehicles produced for the American market. Since then, their production share has been falling dramatically, reaching a new low of only 26 per cent of all production in model year 2021, or less than a third of the market share they held in model year 1975.
This is shown in the graph below from that report. The light blue represents the shrinking production share of sedans and wagons over the last few decades. The yellow and orange portions of the graph are SUVs, so called “truck SUVs” (yellow) now the dominant share of vehicles produced for sale in the US. (The distinction between “car SUVs” and “truck SUVs” is somewhat technical and arcane, but the truck models are generally larger. And, as discussed below, the distinction is important for regulatory purposes.) The rest are vans (green) and pickups (dark blue). Notice in particular the dramatic growth in the market share claimed by SUVs over just the last decade, accompanied by a dramatic decline in the share held by sedans and wagons.
Indeed, in 2022 nine of the top ten best-selling vehicles in the United States were either SUVs or pickups, according to the leading automotive website, Edmunds.com. Number one was the Chevy Silverado pickup, which for the first time edged out the longtime previous frontrunner, Ford’s F-series of pickups. The lone sedan on the top-ten list? The venerable Toyota Camry. (Interestingly, the Tesla Model Y, number nine on the list, was just recently reclassified as an SUV by the Internal Revenue Service so that it qualifies for an electric vehicle tax credit despite its high price. More on that in a bit.)
There is no question that the industry wants us to buy these large vehicles. If you watch a lot of sports on TV, as I do, you’ll see a constant onslaught of dramatic commercials for big SUVs and pickups, generally shown being driven in scary ways over treacherous terrain (with a tiny, tiny disclaimer on the screen to the effect of “These are professionals. Do not attempt”). There’s also one showing a happy family in an SUV speeding along a freeway while clapping along, driver included, to Queen’s classic “We Will Rock You.” What could possibly go wrong? What you will never, ever see in one of these ads nowadays is a sedan or hatchback.
But very few of these vehicles are actually driven by their owners in the way that they are advertised. Writing in Streetsblog, Kea Wilson reports:
“Despite what mountain-climbing stunts in car commercials might suggest, a staggering 70 percent [of SUV and light truck drivers] say they pretty much never take their vehicles off of a paved road. Moreover, 35 percent of pickup drivers admit they use the bed of their truck once a year or less; and experts think most of that group never hauls anything at all.”
I should hasten to point out here that, in my opinion, none of us should have a problem with pickups used by workers in the trades that need them. But I suspect many are now also bought by families. The new models typically sport four-door, luxurious cabins with the same luxurious accoutrements found in upscale family SUVs. And, in some cases, the cargo beds designed for hauling stuff are actually smaller than they used to be. In any case – despite the popularity of certain models – it is SUVs, not traditional trucks, that are driving the increasing market share of big vehicles in the US (as the EPA graph shows).
The dominance of SUVs and pickups appears to be primarily an American phenomenon. Writing in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Sustainability, researchers from Virginia Tech and Rutgers observe that these vehicle types accounted for a cumulative 72 percent of total new personal vehicle sales in the United States in 2018, compared with only 27 percent in Denmark, 28 percent in the Netherlands, 36 percent in Germany, and 39 percent in Britain. They also note that these vehicle types in America are larger and more powerful than those in Europe.
The second major reason that personal vehicles are larger now than they used to be is that, even within the same model categories, manufacturers have been gradually increasing their sizes. As noted, I quickly discovered this with my Volvo S60, now eight inches longer than it was twenty years ago, and taller, wider, and considerably heavier, too. In a terrific article earlier this year in The Atlantic, transportation policy analyst and Harvard Fellow David Zipper reports that the new Ford F-150 pickup is seven inches taller and 800 pounds heavier than its 1991 counterpart.
I did my own research on eight longstanding, popular models, both sedans and SUVs, comparing today’s sizes to those of ten and twenty years ago. Every single one has gotten bigger. The Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester, for example, both once thought to be smaller SUVs, have gotten fifteen and eight inches longer, respectively, than they used to be; the Honda Civic, nine inches longer; the Jeep Grand Cherokee, eleven inches longer; and so on. Even the Cooper Mini, traditionally the very symbol of a tiny car, has joined the party: its biggest selling model in the US is now the Countryman SUV, eighteen inches longer than its classic two-door model.
But, does bigger mean better?
There’s no question that these big vehicles are popular with a large segment of the driving public. Americans seem to like big things in general: big houses, big highways, big TVs, big hamburgers, and big meal portions in general, just to name a few examples. (And, perhaps not coincidentally, bigger waistlines. Susan Matthews, writing in Everyday Health, cites an exhaustive analysis showing that the United States is home to the highest number of overweight and obese people in the world.}
People who enjoy these larger vehicles tell me that they like sitting in a high position where they can see better; that they like lots of room for the family, the kids’ gear, the family dog; and, not without reason, that they feel safer in large vehicles than they do in smaller ones. If you’re inside an Ascent, a Grand Cherokee, or a Suburban – or a Silverado – it’s a bit like a fortress on wheels; you’re a lot less likely to be hurt or killed in a collision with a smaller vehicle. That’s presumably why they all have five-star safety ratings from the federal government. When I told a member of my extended family that I was looking for a smaller car, she said, “Please don’t,” genuinely concerned for my safety.
She has a point: The average gasoline-powered sedan weighs 1,000 pounds less than the average “light truck” (everything below the dotted line on the EPA graph above, including a huge majority of current SUVs). But a problem, of course, with buying a bigger vehicle for self-defense is that it only works if yours is bigger than the vehicle you collide with. The result, as Andrew Van Dam wrote in a terrific article in The Washington Post, is a sort of “mobile arms race” in which, to the delight of the manufacturers, drivers keep getting bigger vehicles to keep up: “It’s a feedback loop: As cars get larger, everyone feels pressed to buy a larger car.”
And here’s the real rub: while the occupants of a big SUV or truck might feel relatively safe, it’s a radically different story for people outside the vehicle. That’s concerning for people who drive traditionally-sized cars, and it’s a big, big problem for pedestrians.
I have gone on record before saying, with a great deal of research to back me up, that neighborhoods where we can conveniently and safely walk are critical for public health. Exhaustive studies have found that residents of walkable neighborhoods weigh less and have significantly better cardiovascular health than residents who live elsewhere, even when you tease out socioeconomic factors from the analysis. Walkable places are also great for helping us reduce greenhouse gas emissions since, in at least some cases, walking can replace trips that would otherwise be made in motor vehicles. We need more of them.
Alarmingly, though, it is getting less and less safe to walk in the United States. Pedestrian deaths from vehicle crashes annually are at a 40-year high in the US and rising steadily, even as motorist deaths are falling. Indeed, walking fatalities are as much as 75 percent higher now than they were only a couple of decades ago. And this is becoming an equity as well as a safety issue: rates are especially high in low-income neighborhoods and among elders and people of color, according to Smart Growth America in its well-researched report, Dangerous by Design.
Fatalities, of course, represent only a small portion of pedestrian injuries. Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, the researchers I cited earlier from Virginia Tech and Rutgers Universities, respectively, report that there were 104,000 pedestrian injuries that required emergency room visits in 2000. They also note that, once again, the fatality trend appears to be an American phenomenon: “Pedestrian fatality rates per 100,000 million km walked are five times higher in the USA than in the UK and seven to ten times higher in the USA than in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.” Rates have actually been falling in Canada, Japan, and eight European countries, even though residents of those countries walk more often, sometimes far more often, for their daily trips than do residents of the US.
While surely there are myriad reasons for these sad circumstances, there is a growing body of data and expert opinion indicating that increasing vehicle size in America is one of them. Speaking to Van Dam, Rebecca Sanders, founder of Safe Streets Research & Consulting, put it this way:
“We’ve made cars safer and safer for people in them but, as we have done that, we’ve made it increasingly less safe for people outside of them. If you were to be hit by a sedan, you’d likely be hit in the leg, maybe pelvis for a school-aged child. But today’s gargantuan trucks will hit an adult in the chest or even the head. And even the crossover [a somewhat smaller category of SUVs] will be more likely to hit your pelvis or belly, where your vital organs are located.”
Jessie Singer, in her widely acclaimed 2022 book There Are No Accidents, agrees. She cites research from the federal Department of Transportation finding that adults were two to three times more likely to be killed when struck by an SUV than by a sedan, and children four times as likely. She goes on to drily note that, rather than restricting the vehicles, DOT’s response has been to urge pedestrians to “walk with care.”
The principal design factors affecting the degree to which someone is injured in a vehicle crash, according to Singer, are the vehicle’s weight, how high it is off the ground, and how much higher its front end is compared to a pedestrian. Singer reports that one researcher estimated that, between 2000 and 2018, if every SUV, pickup, and minivan on the road were instead a sedan, there would be 8,131 people walking around alive today.
No portion of our population is more vulnerable to these risks than children. In 2022 the NBC television affiliate in Washington, DC, ran the tragic story of four-year-old Hudson Foschi, who was killed in his own suburban Virginia driveway when his mom Jackie accidentally ran him over because she couldn’t see him from her SUV. From reporter Susan Hogan’s account:
“[Jackie Foschi] said her family bought the large SUV thinking it would be safer but found she did have trouble sometimes seeing around it.
“’I can’t tell you how many times I hit his bike,’ she said. ‘They’re so tall and so big and you just can’t see it, you’re so high up in the air.’”
The station then sat nine children in a line in front of an SUV; the driver could see none of them, because nothing within 16 feet of the front of that vehicle was visible to her.
Jessie Singer elaborates:
“The 2021 model of the Cadillac Escalade SUV, which weighs over 5,000 pounds, is almost six and a half feet tall. If children are sitting in front of that vehicle, they’re invisible unless they are more than ten feet away. The number of children killed in accidents caused by this lack of visibility—when a driver moving forward in a parking lot or driveway runs someone over, what is now being called a “frontover” accident—has risen 89 percent in the last decade.
“Backing up is not much better: The rear blind zone in a large SUV is nineteen feet long for a driver of average height. If you’re short, the blind zone is thirty-one feet.”
In addition, both children and adults are especially imperiled when crossing the street if large vehicles are turning at an intersection, even if the pedestrians have the right of way. Indeed, SUVs and pickup truck drivers are three to four times more likely to hit a pedestrian when they make a turn than are drivers of smaller cars, according to research reported by Kea Wilson in Streetsblog. This is at least partly because the larger “A-pillars” (the frame of the car between the windshield and the driver and passenger windows) on trucks and SUVs contribute to lower visibility, explains America Walks, an organization that promotes walkability and that contributed guest commentary to SGA’s Dangerous by Design.
Too big to fit
Another problem, especially for walkable neighborhoods, is that today’s bigger vehicles simply take up a lot of room. In particular, pedestrian comfort is utterly dependent on vehicle traffic that moves at a sensible, safe pace; speed kills and, even when it doesn’t, the risk of being killed scares would-be walkers away. Making sure that traffic flows at appropriate speeds requires right-sized roadway lanes that encourage careful driving, not overly wide ones that encourage speeding, regardless of the posted speed limit. But this becomes a problem when large vehicles take up too much room in the travel lane or adjacent parking lane.
In its Urban Street Design Guide, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recommends 10-foot lanes in urban areas (for comparison, freeway lanes are typically 12 feet wide), noting that they “have a positive effect on a street’s safety without impacting traffic operations.” Architect and walkability authority Jeff Speck goes further, noting in his important book Walkable City Rules that even narrower widths in “slow-flow” and “yield-flow” streets can be better for relatively quiet neighborhood streets where, among other things, we want children to feel comfortable. Many older city neighborhoods, such as my own, are full of these relatively skinny (by today’s standards) streets, with somewhat wider lanes reserved for thoroughfares.
Bigger vehicles can muck up the balance between safe vehicle travel and safe walking, because they crowd the lanes, sometimes causing traffic to back up and turn a quiet street into a busy and dangerous one. Aaron Gordon, senior writer at Motherboard, the tech section of Vice, has observed that Ford’s best-selling vehicle in 2022, the F-150 pickup, is an impressive 13 inches wider than the best-selling car in the US in 1987, the Ford Escort. If you count the side mirrors on an F-150, the vehicle is nearly eight feet wide, leaving only six inches of clearance on each side of a nine-foot “slow-flow” driving lane.
Gordon also explains the effect that bigger vehicles are having on those of us trying to maneuver parking garages:
“Consider someone who switched from a Honda Civic to a Honda CR-V. This added about three inches in width. A CR-V to a Pilot, a large SUV, would add five more inches in width. This may not sound like much, but repeat for half the cars in a parking lot and it adds up. For example, in a 700-space garage, if each car is four inches wider than its predecessor, that is 233 additional feet in car width—from the goal line to the opponent’s 23-yard line on a football field—that needs to be accommodated. . .
“And getting into that spot just right is harder than before, given that the cars are not only wider but longer, increasing the distance between the front and back wheels, which makes the turning radius bigger and maneuverability worse.
“As a result, there is a phenomenon in American parking garages almost anyone who uses them will recognize. A car will be pulled into a spot just slightly off center. The car next to it will have to park further over in order to get out, and so will the next one. This will continue until one car will have to encroach on the space next to it, rendering that space useless except for perhaps a compact car, which almost nobody has.”
Nathan Bomey, writing in USA Today, also observes that bigger contemporary vehicles don’t fit into many home garages, either.
Moreover, some New York City parking garages have begun charging more to accommodate SUVs and pickups (bravo), and some people are even concerned that older garages could collapse under the weight of today’s heavy vehicles.
Manufacturer profits and regulatory nonsense
As noted, a lot of consumers like big vehicles. But it’s also true that the manufacturers promote them like crazy, and are dropping many smaller models, one by one, from their lineups. As I have learned from my personal search, there is a heck of a lot more availability in dealer inventories if you want to buy a big SUV than if you’re looking for a sedan about the size of my Volvo or smaller.
And, if you look a little behind the scenes, manufacturers and dealers have a lot of incentives to sell you big vehicles. For starters, profit margins are higher – a lot higher – on big vehicles than they are on sedans. In 2020, automotive writer Ed Reeves reported findings from Morgan Stanley Research (in the amusingly titled trade publication Motorbiscuit) showing that General Motors and Ford generate most of their revenues and nearly all of their profits from vehicles that are classified as trucks.
In particular, GM’s top revenue generators in 2019, the year studied by Morgan Stanley, were the Chevrolet Silverado, Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Sierra, and Buick GL8: “That’s two trucks, two SUVs, and a minivan that’s sold in China.” Ford’s top sellers in 2019 were four trucks and the Focus, a compact sedan that has since been dropped from the company’s lineup. His conclusion? That vehicles other than trucks and SUVs are a “waste of money“ for manufacturers.
One of the reasons that manufacturers make more money on “light trucks” is that federal regulations are set up to help them. The biggest culprit may be the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, which require that sedans and traditional cars meet tighter efficiency standards than most SUVs, even though both kinds of vehicles are now used as everyday transportation by individuals and families.
The distinction between cars and “light trucks,” dubbed by some commentators as the “SUV loophole,” is a relic from the 1970s, when the CAFE system was first created in the wake of that decade’s fuel embargoes. At the time, it made more sense to have a separate category for trucks, which were a much smaller part of the personal vehicle market and driven primarily by farmers and other workers who used them to haul cargo, and by people who spent most of their driving time navigating rough terrain, not by my urbane next-door neighbors.
Although the CAFE regs are being tightened, they are not being tightened nearly so much for light trucks as for regular cars. EPA reports that, on average, gasoline-powered SUVs emit 20 percent more greenhouse gases than do sedans. A report earlier this year from the International Energy Agency found that, if the world’s 330 million SUVs were a country, they would rank sixth in the world for carbon emissions, just behind Japan.
As a result of the looser standards, manufacturers go to great lengths to tweak their SUVs and crossover vehicles with things like ground clearance, wheelbase, and AWD (all-wheel drive) to get them classified as regulatory trucks. All of Subaru’s SUV lineup, and 90 percent of its total production for the US market, now falls into the truck category. Are you old enough to remember when Volkswagen was famous for its small cars? Two-thirds of its total current production for the US market qualifies as trucks, according to EPA’s latest Automotive Trends Report.
As a result of America’s shift to trucks, the CAFE standards are not doing much for the environment these days. James Sallee of UC-Berkeley’s Energy Institute explains:
“Shifting drivers towards trucks and away from cars has environmental and safety consequences. The shift means that CAFE and other policies have less impact than expected—during the 1990s and early 2000s, both car and truck fuel economy rose, but fleetwide fuel consumption flatlined because the compositional shift towards less efficient trucks canceled out those gains.”
And, wait, there’s more: The “gas guzzler tax” on cars that fail to meet a certain fuel-efficiency standard does not apply to SUVs or trucks. The “chicken tax,” a relic from way back in the Lyndon Johnson administration when the US was involved with a chicken-related trade war with Europe, does apply to trucks, including pickups, but only if they are manufactured outside the United States.
Even Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which gives consumers credits for purchasing electric vehicles, gets into the game by treating cars differently than SUVs or trucks. A credit is not available for purchases of EVs costing more than a certain amount (currently $55,000, according to Zipper) – unless the vehicle is an SUV or truck, in which case it’s available to more expensive ones (currently costing up to $88,000). (That sound you may hear is Tesla’s management rejoicing because the IRS earlier this year reclassified its sedan-looking Model Y as an SUV, after which Tesla promptly raised the price.)
And about those five-star safety ratings, despite the dangers that massive vehicles present to pedestrians and drivers of regular cars? So far, the government doesn’t seem to care, basing “safety” evaluations only on safety to vehicles’ occupants, not to the public at large. University of Iowa law professor Gregory Shill goes so far as to say that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration regards the safety of pedestrians as “almost completely alien to its mission.” Here’s Shill, summing up the situation last year in the New York University Law Review:
“Auto companies earn higher profit margins on large vehicles, and consumers prefer their greater creature comforts. But the size, height, and weight necessary for those comforts has been shown to make these vehicles far deadlier for those who have the misfortune of being struck by them. Carmakers do not disclose these risks to the car-buying public—but even if they did, individual consumers lack appropriate incentives to internalize the social costs of the vehicles they buy. Like pollution, this negative externality presents a classic case for regulation. Yet America’s vehicle safety regulator (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA), conceived in the wake of the Ralph Nader consumer revolution of the 1960s, considers the safety of pedestrians—who are third parties rather than consumers—almost completely alien to its mission.”
Jessie Singer likely would agree. In There Are No Accidents, she reports that, since 1997 in Europe and 2003 in Japan, vehicles have also been tested and rated for how safe they are for pedestrians, too, should the driver hit someone. She also notes that, in 2020, British lawmakers began debating banning the import of US SUVs because the risk to those outside the vehicles was too great.
In some ways it’s going to get worse
I’m going to write about electric vehicles in this section, and I want to be clear from the outset: I support them, for all sizes of vehicles. We desperately need the reduction in carbon emissions that they will provide. But EVs cannot be our only solution to addressing vehicle pollution. We also need to reduce our dependence on motor vehicles in order to further reduce their impact and, in the case of SUVs and trucks, we need to right-size our vehicles so they don’t need such heavy batteries.
Consider that, earlier this year, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board noted that an electric GMC Hummer – President Biden was photographed inside one while he touted the benefits of EVs – weighs about 9,000 pounds, with a battery pack that alone weighs 2,900 pounds, roughly the entire weight of a typical Honda Civic. The vehicle altogether weighs as much as three Honda Civics. The NTSB official, Jennifer Homendy, also noted that Ford’s F-150 Lightning EV pickup is 2,000 to 3,000 pounds heavier than the same model’s gasoline-powered version. The Mustang Mach E electric SUV and the Volvo XC40 EV, she said, are roughly 33 percent heavier than their gasoline counterparts.
This extra weight matters. A story published by National Public Radio cites a National Bureau of Economic Research paper finding that being hit by a vehicle with an added 1,000 pounds increases the probability of being killed in a crash by 47 percent.
Biden has said that he wants 50 percent of new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, and 50 percent of all vehicles on the road to be electric by 2050. (California recently passed a statewide plan to phase out sales of gasoline-powered cars altogether by 2035, reports Alissa Walker in Curbed.) And, while the first generation of EVs have tended to be smaller cars, such as the Chevy Bolt, David Zipper’s article reports a recent study from the Department of Energy showing that carmakers are rapidly shifting their EV lineups away from sedans and toward SUVs and trucks, just as they did earlier with gasoline-powered cars.
The extra weight matters even more because EVs accelerate faster and frequently reach higher top speeds than do conventional vehicles, posing additional dangers to those outside the vehicles. Zipper explains:
“The Tesla Plaid Model S, for example, can reach 60 mph in 1.99 seconds, a new record for production cars and far faster than even luxury gas-powered sports cars such as the Porsche 911 (2.8 seconds).
“At the risk of stating the obvious, such blistering acceleration serves no practical purpose on a public road, where it can jeopardize everyone’s safety. In Europe, an auto insurer recently linked EVs’ quick pickup speeds to an uptick in crashes. Once again, the most vulnerable street users bear particular risk: A 2018 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that hybrid vehicles, which, like EVs, can accelerate more quickly than gas-powered cars, were 10 percent more likely to injure a pedestrian than their gas-powered equivalents.”
The aggressive way that vehicle manufacturers advertise their SUVs and pickups with, as noted earlier, all sorts of driving stunts, does nothing to allay these safety concerns. Moreover, even the pollution-reduction benefits of EVs are limited when the vehicles are supersized. The Hummer EV emits more carbon on a per-mile basis than does a gasoline-powered Chevy Malibu, according to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Another recent study reported by Zipper found that electrifying big SUVs could actually increase emissions by restricting the batteries available for smaller, more efficient and safer electric cars.
It also must be said that extracting and refining the minerals required to produce EV batteries – and, the more supersized EVs, the larger the amounts of these materials needed – has its own environmental and human costs, frequently imposed on poor nations in Africa. On April 27 of this year, the Sunday print edition of The Washington Post ran two major stories (authored by seven reporters and photographers) on these impacts, one appearing on page A1 (“On frontier of new ‘gold rush,’ quest for coveted EV metals yields misery”), the other a full-page spread (“The underbelly of electric vehicles”). The bottom line:
“While electric vehicles are essential to reducing carbon emissions, their production can exact a significant human and environmental cost. To run, EVs require six times the mineral input, by weight, of conventional vehicles. These minerals, including cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese, are finite resources. And mining and processing them can be harmful for workers, their communities and the local environment.”
These problems are not limited to Africa. Alissa Walker notes that federal officials are pushing lithium mining in America, including on what could become a massive, 5,695-acre, open-pit site in Nevada on land considered sacred by the Shoshone Tribe. A broad coalition of tribal governments and environmental groups have sued the federal Bureau of Land Management, saying they weren’t consulted or included in the plan. Earlier this year, President Biden’s vehicle-electrification agenda was specifically cited by BLM’s lawyers as a reason to push forward despite the concerns raised by the lawsuit about groundwater contamination and habitat destruction.
What to do
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas:
1. Close SUV Loopholes and regulate all everyday vehicles the same under CAFE and other government programs. As UC-Berkeley’s James Sallee has said, “We would likely be better off not making a distinction between cars and trucks—it erodes environmental regulations, gives automakers a reason to tweak cars for compliance benefits, and has the unintended consequence of making automobiles less safe.”
2. Clarify that the mission of the Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board includes protecting pedestrians and others outside of vehicles from dangerous vehicle design. And require that federally sponsored crash testing and safety ratings account for the safety of pedestrians and others outside vehicles as well as occupants. As Jessie Singer has observed, European and Japanese authorities regulate vehicles for the safety of people inside and out, and make consumers and the public aware of differences among vehicles. The US should do the same.
3. Tax vehicles on size and weight, not just price. The Los Angeles Times editorial board is among many observers endorsing this measure, citing with approval weight-based taxes (generally assessed when the vehicles are registered each year) in Washington, DC, New York, Florida, and Virginia. Norway does the same. California is currently considering a weight-based fee. (The DC law allows EV owners to subtract 1,000 pounds from the total weight, so as not to discourage residents from buying them. That seems reasonable.)
4. Create incentives to improve the design of large vehicles to allow greater front- and rear-end visibility. This is an area where EVs can be an asset, because their engines can be smaller, allowing for lower or downward-sloping front ends, for example. (New Postal Service delivery trucks will have lower front ends to improve visibility.) Good designers should be able to make these sporty and attractive.
5. Reduce the demand for heavy EV batteries. As noted, we need EVs and the pollution-reducing benefits that they provide. But given the downsides, we should be creating incentives to design, manufacture, sell and purchase ones that don’t require such additional weight and natural resource consumption. And we should be cultivating more car-optional neighborhoods – with walkability, convenient and reliable public transit, and other plentiful mobility alternatives – that can obviate vehicle trips, allowing some households to be car-free and others to downsize from two vehicles to one, or from three vehicles to two.
It would be a start.
And what about my quest to replace that old Volvo, some of you may wonder? I finally found just the thing, and I love it. (Although I drive very little, it’s handy for trips like shopping errands and inconveniently located medical appointments, of which there are many at my age.) It’s not an EV – I park on the street and can’t plug in – but it’s a little smaller than the Volvo.
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