Huge EVs are far from perfect, but they could still help fight climate change.

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When it comes to watching the Super Bowl, I’ve always been more of a football person than a commercials person. During Sunday’s game, though, I couldn’t help but notice something about the ads.

A handful of electric-vehicle commercials aired during the game on Sunday, and all of them had one thing in common: the vehicles featured were massive.

Will Ferrell faced an army of zombies in an electric pickup and hopped into an EV Hummer in an ad for GM. Ram’s pharmaceutical-style commercial joked about “premature electrification” concerns, offering a Ram truck as a solution. Jeep’s ad for hybrid SUVs was my favorite, with its dancing animals and catchy “electric boogie.”

All these ads got me thinking about something that’s been swirling around in the news a lot lately: in the US, cars are already big, and they’re getting bigger. Now, in the name of addressing climate change, companies are catering to America’s obsession with giant vehicles, advertising the same trucks and SUVs we know and love—but electrified.

Giving people what they want could be key to boosting EV adoption. But big EVs could come with a climate cost. So for the newsletter this week, let’s dig into the issue of big EVs. How much of a problem are they really, and what should we do about it?

Supersize my car

It’s safe to say that Americans are obsessed with big vehicles. The top three best-selling vehicles in the US last year were trucks. Today, only one in four vehicles sold in the US is a sedan or hatchback.

I’ve participated in big-car culture: I learned how to drive in my family’s Ford Expedition, a massive SUV if there ever was one. It was forest green, and we called it “The Hulk.” (It was later replaced by the same model in white, which we called “Yeti.”)

Most people don’t need these gigantic vehicles. Over 60% of pickup drivers rarely or never use them to tow anything. Instead, large vehicles are luxury items, and symbols of possibility. People buy them because they imagine they might someday want to load up their truck bed with furniture or tow a camper van.

Now that the world is trying to cut emissions, car companies are producing electric versions of their bestsellers. This could be a blessing: if there are more EV options that people want to drive, that could mean more EVs on the roads, and fewer gas-powered cars. It’s arguably by producing cars perceived as cool, after all, that Tesla made EVs a mainstream option in the US in the first place. By the way, the best-selling Tesla is the Model Y, an SUV.

But even if we can persuade people to buy massive EVs, some people are starting to wonder if we really should.

Bigger vehicles, bigger problems

Electric or not, there are some major issues that come with jumbo vehicles. They cause more wear and tear on roads. They’re hard to see out of and pose a much bigger danger to cyclists and pedestrians.

Also, big vehicles are simply less efficient. For my Ford Expedition, that meant getting an average of about 17 miles per gallon of gas on the highway, while sedans built the same year could get up to 30. For large EVs, being less efficient means they’ll need bigger batteries.

A Nissan Leaf, a relatively small electric sedan, comes with a 40-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery. An F-150 Lightning battery is more than twice the size, at 98 kWh. And the battery of the gargantuan Hummer EV clocks in at a stunning 210 kWh.

Battery materials scale roughly with capacity, so you could make four or five Nissan Leaf batteries with the material it takes to make a battery for a single Hummer EV.

We’re already going to need a lot of battery materials over the next few decades, if driving trends continue the way they’re going. Assuming vehicle ownership looks about the same in the future, lithium demand could increase 40-fold by 2040. By some estimates, we could need 300 new mines just to meet demand for batteries by 2035. And building a mine can take nearly a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But exactly how much material we’ll need in the future depends on the size of the vehicles we choose to drive.

In a recent study, researchers tallied up how much battery material would be required to meet EV demand in a few scenarios. They found, unsurprisingly, that if people opt for smaller batteries, and fewer people own and drive vehicles, we’ll need less material.

But the scale of the difference between the scenarios is pretty eye-opening. Take the difference between the worst case and what the study considers “status quo,” for example. When it comes to lithium, in a status quo scenario where people drive as much as they do now, we’ll need 306,000

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Huge EVs are far from perfect, but they could still help fight climate change.
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Published Date: Thu, 16 Feb 2023 11:00:00 +0000

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