Just Being Electric Doesn't Make a Giant Pickup or SUV a Good Thing

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Rivian in City

In which I try and respond to my critics of a recent post on the Rivian electric truck.

In a recent post about a new electric pickup and SUV I asked, "Is this the future we want?" and expressed some reservations. Many disagreed with my position and pointed out that there was demand for this kind of vehicle, so I should "meet people where they are" and "would you rather they be gasmobiles?" Many of these critics are actually in the business and follow the #electrifyeverything hashtag; others spouted more personal abuse than I have had about a post in years.

tweet 1

via Twitter/Screen captureI do not know how many of these people attacking me actually read the post, but being a glutton for punishment, I am going to double down here and try and go through the issues. Before I do, I will acknowledge that there are people in various industries that need big four-wheel drive pickup trucks and it would be better for them than driving gasmobiles. Whether they are the market for this truck, with its "interior inspired by contemporary furniture, creating a transformational space," is open to question, or whether the tiny truck bed on this thing is actually useful for work is another story altogether. But here we go:

1. Fuel economy matters, even in an electric vehicle.

Rivian doesn't state how many kWh it takes to drive this truck 100 miles, but it is heavier than a Tesla Model X, which, according to the EPA, takes 40 kWh/100mi. A Model 3 takes 26. In the USA, the average emissions of CO2 from power generation are 1.22 pounds per kWh. Of course, the Rivian is still probably generating half the carbon of a gas powered truck and our grid is continuing to decarbonize. But the Rivian is still putting out 65 percent more CO2 than a smaller electric car like a Tesla Model 3 or a Leaf. If this truck, like most trucks, is moving a single driver around suburbia, it is consuming a lot more power than a smaller car. And it is a fantasy to say, as many do, that they will fill it up with renewable power. This has 180 kWh of battery capacity. That would run the average American home for a week.

2. Embodied energy matters.

Aluminum production

Aluminum Production/CC BY 2.0

This truck weighs three tons. That mostly comes from the batteries and aluminum. As I have written before, making aluminum is very carbon-intensive, putting out between 11 and 16 tons of CO2 per ton of aluminum. Saying it's recycled or recyclable doesn't change the fact that demand for aluminum far exceeds supply of recycled aluminum, so every pound used increases primary demand. What we really need is to cap primary demand and stop using so much of the stuff, or we are just fuelling environmental exploitation and the release of CO2. As I wrote earlier:

This is why I go on about sufficiency, about the most appropriate solution. Because even Teslas cannot be considered sustainable if they are increasing demand for aluminum. Try a bike or a car share or anything instead, as long as it uses fewer resources.
Until we reduce demand for aluminum to meet the supply of recycled aluminum, we are just contributing to more destruction and pollution, from Malaysia to Louisiana.

3. Size matters. These trucks are fundamentally dangerous.

Rivian face on

© Rivian

There are few requirements for pedestrian safety in North America, unlike Europe where cars and trucks have to meet the tough Euro NCAP standards.

statistics on deaths

© New Scientist

So manufacturers are allowed to build and sell these moving walls of steel and aluminum that kill pedestrians at over three times the rate of conventional vehicles.


Euro NCAP/Screen capture

Being electric with four motors instead of one big one in front, there is no reason that the Rivian couldn't have had a sloping nose with great visibility like, say, a Ford Transit or most passenger cars, designed to meet European safety standards. But it doesn't; instead it has the usual wall of metal, because Ford Transits or other European designs don't look manly and powerful.


via twitter/Screen capture

In fact, it would have been easy to get people to stop driving pickups and SUVs; just charge an appropriate carbon tax and continue increasing fuel efficiency standards instead of rolling them back as the current administration is doing. Or apply Euro NCAP design standards. They would be gone in a year.

Insert Loved One Here Toronto

Insert Loved One Here in Toronto/via

I am not alone in being an equal-opportunity pickup truck hater, no matter what it is powered by, and do not believe they belong in urban areas except as work vehicles. Their drivers need special training and licensing, and they should not exist unless they meet standards of visibility and safety. Whether it is electric or gas powered doesn't change anything; they are just killing too many people.

For pedestrians and cyclists, these things are just intimidating and scary. Read Jason Torchinsky in Jalopnik, who says that that is exactly what they are designed to be:

While the visual goal of big trucks has for years been to intimidate, I feel like now we’re veering into territory where the desired reaction from seeing a modern truck is short, involuntary emissions of urine right into your underpants.

The Rivian, to its credit, is almost modest compared to others, not nearly as tall.

4. Weight matters.

bridge sign

Jason Varone of Streetsblog/via

The heavier a vehicle is, the more damage it inflicts on existing infrastructure. Also, the more particulates are released from brakes and tires. It's obviously not as much as what comes from diesel exhaust, but it still matters.


twitter/Screen capture

It amuses me that so many of the people who are criticizing me are deep into the #electrifyeverything world, because they have to know that just electrifying everything isn't enough; we also have to fundamentally reduce demand for the stuff.

That means smaller, more efficient vehicles that take less energy and carbon to produce and run. Just because it's electric doesn't give it a free pass.