DETROIT – There is a growing concern about the size and weight of trucks and SUVs, especially among electric vehicles. Now, both the federal government and the gold standard of safety rating groups are taking notice.
The big concern is, electric vehicles are just so much heavier than gas-powered cars -- sometimes thousands of pounds heavier. So much heavier, that the way we’ve tested cars to make sure they’re safe might have to change. Not because you won’t be safe in the car, but because there are questions about whether their weight could make them too dangerous for others on the road.
This year, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) made a staggering announcement, they weren’t sure if they could make sure electric vehicles were safe to drive the way they tested other cars.
The non-governmental agency was forced to test whether their famous “crash machine” could even handle the increase in the weight of EVs, which are thousands of pounds heavier than the cars they normally test.
“We have a machine that has to essentially tow these vehicles down the track at a certain speed and we’ve never crashed anything that heavy,” said Russ Rader, Senior VP of Communications for the IIHS.
To test their machine’s limit, the IIHS had to load a 10-year-old F-150 with a block of concrete to mimic the weight of an EV, close to 10,000 pounds. Then they had to see if the crash machine could even tow it to 40 miles per hour in just 600 feet, something EVs would be more than capable of doing on the road.
The crash, posted by the IIHS in a video online, showed the truck crumple like a paper cup against the steel wall. The concrete block the size of a refrigerator careened through the cab. While not exactly how a crash with an EV would work, the display of Newtonian physics was an eye-opening spectacle.
On its end, the crash machine held up. But the test is leading to more questions about what if the crash isn’t with a steel wall, but with another car, a cyclist or someone crossing the street.
“It’s just like your high school physics class, when something big and heavy collides with something small and light, the small and light object loses,” Rader said.
The test also coincided with worries at the federal oversight level. The Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Jennifer Homendy -- appointed by President Joe Biden, who has been an ardent supporter of electric vehicles -- said she’s deeply concerned about just how big and heavy EVs are in a keynote speech in January.
“I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power, and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles,” Homendy said in the address. “We have to be careful that we aren’t also creating unintended consequences -- more death on our roads.”
So just how heavy are these cars? The Audi e-tron comes in at 5,800 pounds, nearly double a regular Honda Civic. The Ford F-150 Lightning? 6,000 pounds. The Rivian R1T? 7,000 pounds. Then there’s the GM Hummer EV which has a gross vehicle weight of more than 10,000 pounds. The Hummer’s battery pack alone weighs as much as a Toyota Corolla.
Neither officials at the NTSB nor the IIHS said they believe EVs are the wrong direction for American automakers or transportation. In fact, both have gone out of their way to say they still remain the future and they’re inspired by the advances. There are just questions they want answered before EVs take over the roads.
“EVs have a lot have advantages, and they actually have some significant safety advantages over traditional vehicles,” Rader said. “The weight of the batteries, for example, confers safety in crashes for the people riding in the EV. And obviously we have potential for environmental benefits from EVs. The question is when you start putting these extreme heavyweight EVs out on the road, is there a downside to that?”
In response to concerns, automakers said they are constantly working to improve safety and their vehicles already have a litany of new safety features.
In a statement to Local 4, General Motors Spokesperson Stu Fowle said:
“Customer and road user safety is a priority for [General Motors] regardless of the type of propulsion or mass of a vehicle. Every product we sell complies with applicable federal safety standards in addition to GM’s strict safety requirements. With any new product, mass is an engineering criteria from day one and tire, chassis, braking, and other systems are designed to perform well in both normal and emergency conditions. Most of our new trucks and SUVs now come standard with a set of active safety features that are shown to reduce rear-end striking, pedestrian, lane departure, lane change and backing crashes based on research conducted in partnership with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. We continue to innovate new and even more inclusive safety features and are beginning the rollout of a new bicyclist detection system on some vehicles.”General Motors Spokesperson Stu Fowle
GM is currently the leader in EV rollout with plans to be fully electric by 2030. Company CEO Mary Barra has met on numerous occasions with President Biden who has likewise touted the company’s pledge. The auto giant is also set to receive $3.8 billion in tax credits and breaks from the State of Michigan to manufacture EVs and their batteries in state.
When asked for a comment, Stellantis directed Local 4 to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI). AAI is a group of 36 automakers, including Stellantis, Ford and BMW.
“Safety is a top priority of the auto industry. Vehicles continue to get even more safe as automakers across the board test, develop and integrate new safety technologies that can help save lives and prevent injuries,” an AAI spokesperson said.
Ford did not answer a direct request for comment, although they are represented by AAI. The automaker was recently approved to receive $1 billion in tax incentives to produce EVs and batteries in state.