American roads are not ready for massive electric vehicles

By Aaron Westling

Electric vehicles are slowly gaining popularity, and many see them as the key to drastically cutting transportation emissions. Yet the growing weight and size of vehicles are presenting new challenges and serious safety concerns. One major issue is the enormous weight of popular EVs and the impact that these increasingly large vehicles will have on the country’s roads, bridges, and—as one new study points out—its guardrails.  

Electric vehicles are not the only ones that are getting bigger. Between 2012 and 2021, the market for midsize or large SUVs and pickup trucks grew by more than 20%. EVs exacerbate this problem due to the massive batteries they require. For example, an electric Ford F-150 Lightning weighs at least 1,000 pounds more than the standard F-150, one of the most popular vehicles in the country.  

When it comes to a 7,000-pound electric Rivian truck traveling at 60 MPH, a typical highway guardrail is no match, according to researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Videos from their crash tests (below) show guardrails tearing like paper and concrete Jersey barriers barely holding up. The researchers estimate newer EVs produce 20% to 50% more impact energy than comparable gas-powered vehicles, and they have a lower center of gravity. 

This added weight and impact energy will also take a toll the country’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. A longstanding rule of thumb, called the fourth power law suggests even a modest increase in weight results in at least twice as much road damage. A 50% increase yields five times more damage. These larger electric vehicles, along with other new SUVs, also take up more space on our roads and in our parking lots. Some newer SUVs, for example, are more than 6.5 feet wide (almost 8 inches wider than average).  

Passenger vehicles are growing one centimeter (0.4 inches) wider each year. Source: Transport & Environment.

Some cities are already working to address these issues and may impose additional fees for heavier vehicles. These include Washington, DC, and Paris, where voters recently approved a measure to charge three times more for larger vehicles to park. Until similar measures are taken more broadly, the added costs of building and maintaining infrastructure to accommodate larger vehicles will be paid by transportation agencies and, ultimately, the tax-paying public. 

Photo Credit: Wes Hicks via Unsplash, unmodified. License