Electric vehicles have a weight problem

Ford’s new F-150 Lightning, the all-electric version of its most popular truck, is more powerful and faster than the previous gas versions of the vehicle, and designed to tempt truck drivers to decarbonize. But the truck is also much heavier, weighing in at 6,500 pounds, or 35% more than the gas-powered F-150. That’s mostly because of the enormous battery inside.

A new op-ed in Nature looks at the weight of electric vehicles—and why it’s important to make them lighter. “What caught my eye in the announcement of the F-150 Lightning was just how heavy it was . . . and then, when looking more closely, just broadly how much heavier EVs are than their gas counterparts,” says coauthor Blake Shaffer, an assistant professor in the department of economics and school of public policy at the University of Calgary.

Batteries aren’t as energy dense as fuel, and as vehicles get heavier, they get more dangerous. (Even without batteries, vehicles have been getting much heavier in general: Pickups are now 32% heavier than they used to be.) In a crash between a lighter-weight vehicle and a heavier vehicle, someone in the lighter car is more likely to die. Pedestrians are also more at risk. Heavier vehicles also cause more pollution from tiny particles that wear off tires, and they require more materials and energy to produce, adding to the total environmental footprint.

In the op-ed, the authors do a rough calculation to look at the societal costs of heavy EVs. “I realized that this was actually a really big number,” Shaffer says. “It’s comparable to the climate benefits we’re seeking.” In countries where the grid isn’t as clean, the cost of the extra lives lost because of heavy vehicles can rival the benefits of avoided emissions. That’s not to say that electric vehicles are bad, and the case gets stronger as the grid gets cleaner. But the researchers wanted to point out that governments should be thinking about how to address vehicle weight even as they push for more EVs.

They suggest that heavier vehicles should pay a higher registration fee to help incentivize consumers to buy lighter cars. (Registration fees can also help offset losses from gas taxes as fewer cars use gas.) The government can also help pay for R&D to improve technology, so it can be deployed faster. Some automakers are working on ways to incorporate batteries into the frame of a vehicle to reduce weight, for example. New materials in other parts of the car can help make it lighter and stronger, making up for the heavy battery. And cameras, sensors, and other tech already common in some cars can be used to help avoid crashes.

Batteries also keep improving and getting cheaper; so far, automakers have used those improvements to boost the range and power of their vehicles. But at some point, especially as it becomes easier to find a charger anywhere, it won’t be critical to add more range—most car trips are short, anyway—and batteries could shrink.

The authors also argue that electric vehicles aren’t the only answer to shrink the carbon footprint of transportation. “Going from a gas car to an electric car kind of preserves the current order,” says Shaffer. Road networks stay in place, and people continue their habit of driving. “The really big shift is to change how we get around,” he says. “That’s the concept of driving less—that’s about transit-oriented development, about more inner-city density, where walking and biking can be more convenient and more feasible, and more importantly, safer. . . . The best way to reduce the damages from driving is to drive less.”

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