Finding a Balance

The Overlooked Costs of Large Vehicle Electrification

Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG

My family spent a large portion of this year’s Super Bowl party talking about commercials. This is a fairly normal occurrence as the commercials during the game are some of the most highly viewed throughout the entire year. At our party, we spent the night talking about the funniest moments, the most clever lines and generally arguing over which ones were best. 

When we first saw an advertisement that a car manufacturer, known for large, offroading vehicles, was coming out with a fleet of electric vehicles, some of my family members viewed it as a positive step toward a clean transportation future. Although I shared some of their excitement over an advancement in sustainable transportation, I knew there was more to the story. 

I want to make it clear: I am a huge supporter of electric vehicles. Transitioning our vehicles to  electricity will have a huge positive impact on our public health and our climate. But when I saw this commercial, I wasn’t thinking about  emission reductions compared to fossil fuel-powered counterparts. I was stuck on how this vehicle’s entire premise is incompatible with the environmental movement as a whole. 

A core tenant of environmentalism is efficiency. Environmentalism means we each only use resources as needed and we conserve the rest. Before fully electric vehicles became popular, many environmentalists advocated for using hybrids or vehicles with high fuel efficiencies to burn and consume less gas. While large electric vehicles advertised today don’t  directly burn fossil fuels in the motor,  oversized vehicles still use more resources than they need to. Outside of specific use cases where trucks are required, their size serves no substantial benefit and can actually cause a variety of other environmental and public health issues. 

These vehicles’ size also makes them a much larger threat to pedestrian safety. Over the last decade, crashes killing pedestrians have increased by 46%, making it the fastest growing category of roadway fatality. A 2010 research review found that pedestrians stand a 50% greater risk of getting killed when hit by SUVs, trucks or minivans than in collisions with conventional cars. Shorter pedestrians, such as children, also have a higher risk of head injury and death when struck by these larger vehicles because they’re more likely to have head-to-hood contact (due to the vehicles’ larger front end and higher bumpers) or be pushed down and run over. This is due in large part to thesignificant front blind zones that obscure the road ahead and their decreased levels of emergency handling and braking.

Taking these considerations into account, it seems clear that electrifying oversized vehicles doesn’t present the best way forward toward a safer, more sustainable transportation future. 

Instead of celebrating every new electric vehicle, we should approach our transportation system more holistically. Electric vehicles will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not our only option for building a more sustainable transportation system.

The expansion of public transportation, active mobility options and intelligent city planning will play key roles in increasing public health and safety while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation sector. By promoting investments in infrastructure that support these forms of transportation, we can free people from a mindset based on car dependency.,

Cars are often considered essential for transportation in the United States. Millions of people choose single occupancy vehicles that choke up our roads, poison our air and trap us behind the wheel for hours everyday . Before the Covid-19 pandemic started, Americans were on average spending 76 hours a year stuck in traffic jams. That’s just over three days each year lost due to traffic! 

Moreover, Americans now owe a combined $1.2 trillion on car loans. Since 2009, debt on car loans has increased by 75%.

For these reasons, when I saw the Super Bowl Sunday advertisement for an absurdly large vehicle, even though it was electric, it struck me the wrong way. Although electrifying large vehicles may represent a step forward towards creating a more sustainable transportation system, we need to go beyond a car-dependency mindset to make real progress. In this case, that means embracing public transportation and active mobility rather than oversized electric vehicles for our clean transportation future.

Image: Michael Marais, unsplash.com

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Ryan Giunta

Former Transform Transportation, Associate, PIRG

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