This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.
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 tons in 2050. If batteries get bigger, that number could inflate to 483,000 tons—50% more.
We’re not going to run out of the materials we need to manufacture batteries, but every mine we need to build comes with consequences for both people and the environment. Mining often produces pollution, especially of waterways, and the industry has been tied to human rights abuses around the world. So bigger batteries mean bigger consequences to deal with.
Bigger cars will have a bigger climate impact, too. In the most dramatic example, compare an EV Hummer with a gas-powered sedan.
EVs aren’t totally zero-emissions, even though they don’t burn fossil fuels onboard. Building them, especially their batteries, requires energy. And the electricity that powers most EVs today comes from the grid, which is powered at least partly by fossil fuels almost everywhere.
If you consider the lifetime emissions from building a battery and charging an EV, an electric model of the same car will be better than the gas-powered version in almost every scenario. But comparing different models can be a different story. A gas-powered Toyota Corolla is actually responsible for less greenhouse gas per mile than an EV Hummer, according to estimates from Quartz research. So right now, that Hummer is worse for the climate.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should all go buy old gas-powered Corollas. EVs, even gigantic ones, keep getting cleaner. An EV Hummer charged on the 2040 grid, which should have more renewables in the power mix, will have lower emissions than one hitting the roads today. And hopefully by that time we’ll have cut down on climate impacts from mining and heavy industry too.
So what now?
It would be great if we could drive less in general. I live in a walkable city right now, so I don’t have a car at all, and I love it. If I never had to drive again, it would be too soon. Policy measures could help more cities look more like mine, or at least support public transit and walking and cycling infrastructure to cut down on car trips.
It would also be great if more people chose to drive smaller vehicles. Government action could be a huge help here too: large vehicles could be taxed more or charged more for registration, at least to help make up for the wear and tear they add to public roads. We could also probably use some updated safety standards.
But the state of things in the US right now gives big vehicles free rein. And there are people I know and love who aren’t giving up their F-150s anytime soon.
We need to address climate change, and EVs, even big ones, are a major solution. But we can do even better if people choose vehicles that fit rather than exceed their needs, or find ways to use them less.
So if you’re considering a new vehicle, think long and hard about what you really need from it. If you choose to drive a massive one, at least let it be electric.
I loved this piece from Alissa Walker about the Super Bowl ads and macho EVs. “These cars represent the worst possible future for electrification.” (Curbed)
This December article from Wired distills the issue of giant EVs poignantly. I especially liked this bit from UC Davis professor Gil Tal: “The big issue is that we buy cars for the dream.” (Wired)
I’m a bit of a realist when it comes to making progress on climate change in transportation. Read my story from last year on the potential role of hybrids. (MIT Technology Review)
Two more things
If you want to pay less for heat and cut your climate impact, look no further. New York’s hottest club is heat pumps. This technology has everything: electrification, efficiency, and engineering. (Imagine this all in Bill Hader’s voice from his SNL character Stefon.)
I’ve been hearing a lot about heat pumps, but I couldn’t really get my head around how they actually work—so I dove deep to bring you everything you ever could want to know. Do they work in the cold? How do they actually help the climate? Find all those answers and more in my latest story.
Also, my colleague James Temple has been digging into an interesting idea that some groups are kicking around to combat methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
One potential approach to deal with methane is to remove it from the atmosphere using iron-rich particles. These particles, with the help of sunlight, could react with the methane to convert it to carbon dioxide (still a greenhouse gas, of course, but not as bad as methane).
A Palo Alto–based group wants to start releasing these particles from the exhaust of a ship in the next couple of years, but experts warn that we don’t understand the possible effects well enough for groups to start tinkering, especially if they’re motivated by profit. Read James’s story for the full scoop.
Keeping up with climate
Battery recycler Redwood Materials won a $2 billion loan from the US government to build its recycling facilities. (Bloomberg)
→ For an inside look at the company and how recycling could help batteries get cheaper and more sustainable, check out my story from last month. (MIT Technology Review)
→ Redwood founder and former Tesla exec JB Straubel thinks battery recycling needs to move even faster. (MIT Technology Review)
Electrochemistry could help address climate change across heavy industry. Here’s what you need to know about what it is. (Wall Street Journal)
“Right to Repair” laws could help cut environmental impacts from tech. But lobbyists from Big Tech are getting involved in the legislation, which could cut its benefits. (Grist)
Exxon is giving up on its algae biofuels program, which the company has long touted as an example of its climate work. (Bloomberg)
Using electricity to power ports could cut air pollution, by a lot. (Canary Media)
New funding in the US could put power in individuals’ hands when it comes to solving climate change: a full 30% of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate impacts come from choices that people make about their vehicles and homes. (Washington Post)
→ Predicting the bill’s effects is harder than you might think, though. (MIT Technology Review)
Hydrogen-truck startup Nikola has started working on a fuel system. The company plans to fuel 7,500 heavy-duty trucks by 2026. (Wall Street Journal)
Climate change could be screwing up maple syrup production. Sugar maples produce sap only in a specific set of conditions, and winters are changing across the northeast US and Canada, where the trees grow. (Bloomberg)
A pilot program in New York City shows how much switching your gas stove for an induction model could help indoor air quality. (Inside Climate News)
Climate change and energy
The race to get next-generation solar technology on the market
Companies say perovskite tandem solar cells are only a few years from bringing record efficiencies to a solar project near you.
Super-efficient solar cells: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024
Solar cells that combine traditional silicon with cutting-edge perovskites could push the efficiency of solar panels to new heights.
How one mine could unlock billions in EV subsidies
The Inflation Reduction Act is starting to transform the US economy. To understand how, we tallied up the potential tax credits available as the nickel from a single mine flows through the supply chain.
Heat pumps: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024
Heat pumps are a well-established technology. Now they’re starting to make real progress on decarbonizing homes, buildings, and even manufacturing.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.