Joe Biden had some words of praise for the Ford F-150 Lightning, the brand new electric pickup truck that the president test-drove in Michigan this week: “This sucker’s quick.”
The F-150 has been the country’s bestselling vehicle for 44 years, so Biden has reason to be excited about the truck’s electric model. Clean-power advances have rendered transportation the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Once the battery-powered F-150 hits dealerships next year, its success could put the country on a faster curve for the adoption of electric vehicles. At the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer writes that the car is “almost miraculously simpatico with President Joe Biden’s climate strategy.”
This sucker’s heavy, too. The Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds—more than 35 percent more than the gas-powered model. That’s in large part because of an immovable weight at its core: an 1,800-pound battery. Part of that is just the nature of electric vehicles: The Tesla Model 3 weighs 1,000 pounds more than a Honda Civic. The more luxurious Tesla Model S weighs 1,200 pounds more than a Lexus ES 350.
But when the car is as big as an F-150, apparently, the weight gain gets bigger. When rival GMC’s electric Hummer hits lots, that behemoth will weigh more than 9,000 pounds.
Americans buy 900,000 Ford F-150s a year; if electrification can chip into those sales, that’s great. “A viable electric pickup … is the most important thing to happen in the race to decarbonize transportation in recent memory,” said Costa Samaras, an engineer and analyst at Carnegie Mellon who studies cars and climate change.
That the trucks will be so heavy, however, is an unfortunate side effect. It will wear down roads, eat into air-pollution improvements, and harm whoever is unfortunate enough to get in the way.
That final point is the most urgent, because it is the most certain. “Electric vehicles are safer for their occupants than comparable models, and that’s because of their weight,” says Russ Rader at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The opposite is true of drivers in lighter vehicles. “If a vehicle that weighs 6,000 pounds collides with something considerably lighter, the people in the lighter vehicle are at greater risk. That’s just basic physics. We’ve periodically done crash tests where we crash heavier vehicles into lighter vehicles and look at the outcomes. The crash test dummy in the lighter vehicle experiences much higher forces. … Even a good-rated lighter vehicle can end up with a poor outcome if it crashes into something heavy.”
This is almost certainly true for people who aren’t in cars too. The recent epidemic in pedestrian fatalities has been correlated with the rise of pickups and SUVs (in bumper height and in sales), so it’s hard to separate the impact of higher grills, lower visibility, and heavier vehicles. But again, another 1,500 pounds of momentum is bad news for whoever’s in the crosswalk—that too is just basic physics.
On the environmental front, batteries are obviously a massive improvement over the internal combustion engine. Despite carbon-intensive manufacturing processes and variations in electric power sources, in terms of emissions, the average electric vehicle pulls ahead of a comparable gas vehicle after about 20,000 miles; by 100,000 miles, a Toyota RAV4 has produced 77 percent more greenhouse gases than a Tesla.
But electric vehicles still do pollute the air they drive through, in large part because they weigh so much. Local air pollution from traffic—the kind you breathe in, not the kind that heats the planet—is mostly caused by nonexhaust pollution such as brake wear, tire wear, road wear, and what the literature refers to as “road dust resuspension.” And those impacts are projected to rise with the adoption of heavyweight electric vehicles, in spite of improvements like regenerative braking.
Finally, there is the question of infrastructure. The impact of even a superheavy passenger vehicle like a Hummer pales in comparison with an 18-wheeler; it’s not like our bridges are going to collapse when all the F-150s turn electric. The problem is less that heavier vehicles will wear down the roads at a slightly faster pace, but more—since their owners are freed from gas taxes—they won’t be paying for it.
None of these issues ought to dampen enthusiasm for the electrification of the country’s most popular pickup truck. (Also, batteries will get lighter!) But each of them—roadway safety, air pollution, and infrastructure—is an externality we can see coming a mile away and deal with accordingly. That means meeting the arrival of a big fat electric fleet with countermeasures: a road-use fee every driver pays. A transportation policy that recognizes the enormous and ongoing local damage from pollution caused by highways and busy roads, whether the cars burn gasoline or not. And a design strategy that does everything we can to minimize collisions before we need to assess how much worse it feels to be hit with a car that weighs 6,000 pounds.