Greenwashed: Electric Pickup Trucks Are Dirtier Than You Think
Building an electric truck makes far more emissions than a gas one. So where’s the break-even point when they both hit the road? We decided to find out.
You can't throw a steel ball these days without smashing the windows of a splashy new electric truck. The Ford F-150 Lightning, the Rivian R1T, the GMC Hummer EV, the upcoming Chevy Silverado EV and Ram 1500 EV, and yes, the Tesla Cybertruck—all aimed at making electrification really matter for the American mainstream. Pickups are the country's best-selling vehicles, and as the least fuel-efficient, it only makes sense that the surest route to mass adoption of EVs and lowering emissions lies in pairing batteries with crew cabs. And the early returns are promising—the Lightning, for example, is for most practical purposes (except maybe towing) simply a normal F-150 minus a tailpipe. The sooner we get more electric trucks on the road, the better, the thinking goes.
But just because electric trucks don’t leave an invisible wake of carbon dioxide doesn’t mean they’re as guilt-free as they seem. These are large, heavy vehicles with massive batteries, and there's still an environmental price to pay even if the costs have been pushed upstream and out of sight. Most electricity generation in the U.S. still produces CO2, though renewables are more in the mix depending on where you are. More important is that manufacturing electric trucks produces far more emissions than their internal-combustion counterparts. The crush of new models this year made us wonder: Where's the break-even point between gas and electric pickups? How far would you need to drive both a 6.2L V8 Ram TRX and a silent Hummer EV before their lifetime emissions catch up and the Hummer becomes the truly greener option?
We crunched the numbers, and found out the answer is farther than you'd think. Will today's electric trucks be better for the planet over time than their fossil-fueled equivalents? Absolutely. Do they cut carbon emissions enough in the short or long term to justify driving one over something smaller, even a gas car? Absolutely not.
The Efficiency Problem
Why electric trucks aren't so green starts with a simple matter of physics: a 3,000-pound car needs a fraction of the energy to travel a mile that a 9,000-pound vehicle does. Throw in the preferred form factor of American pickups—big, heavy-duty, and squarer than the jaw of the person driving it—and an electric truck needs a much larger battery than an electric car to cover the same promised 300+ miles of range expected of today's EVs. (That baseline expectation alone is problematic for battery production emissions, but we'll leave that for another time.)
A bigger battery in turn adds weight, whose penalty must be offset with an even bigger battery, and so on until you end up with something like the GMC Hummer EV weighing 9,000 pounds. Its 2,900-pound, 212.7-kWh lithium-ion battery can propel it 329 miles. It's about a third as efficient as a shapely Lucid Air, which can travel over 500 miles using a battery half that size.
The problem is better illustrated by MPGe, or miles-per-gallon equivalent, the metric intended to calculate the distance an electric (or electrified) vehicle can travel by expending the same amount of energy in a gallon of gas. It's fairly useless in the real world, but it is good for comparing the overall efficiency of EVs. The GMC Hummer EV has an MPGe rating of 47. That's exceptionally poor for an electric—but even trucks like the 70-MPGe Rivian R1T are well behind things like the 97-MPGe Ford Mustang Mach-E or the 125 MPGe Tesla Model Y.
Lower efficiency means charging more often. Charging more often means more energy consumption. You can see where this is going.
Carbon Cost of Entry
Transitioning from gas-guzzler to watt-waster doesn't exactly feel like progress, but at least it's a step in the right direction, right? Yes—except there's one not-so-small snag. In large part because of the batteries, manufacturing electric vehicles releases significantly more emissions than building ICE cars, big electric trucks even more so. Not only do electric trucks pay off their carbon debts slower than pretty much any other car, they have more CO2 to answer for in the first place.
How much more isn't something most automakers could—never mind would—tell you. Most car companies have not publicized life-cycle carbon assessments for their products that would clarify the environmental impact of their EVs' manufacture, disposal, and to a smaller degree, use. I contacted current and future electric truck producers Ford, General Motors, Ram, and Rivian for such assessments, and only received responses from GM and Rivian, neither of which had conducted such a study.
So far, the one exception to the rule is Polestar, the Sino-Swedish offshoot of Volvo focused on EVs. It has released a life-cycle carbon assessment of its first EV, the Polestar 2, which offers intriguing insights into the true impact of car manufacturing. For a variety of reasons, Polestar's study can't paint an accurate picture of the auto industry as a whole, but its numbers are the only ones available. What's more, they still let us make an educated guess as to the CO2 generated by producing trucks like the Hummer EV—and as a result, how long it takes one to break even with an equivalent ICE truck.
First, the numbers themselves. Creating a Polestar 2 with the long-range battery and twin-motor, all-wheel-drive powertrain is associated with 17 metric tons of CO2 from refining raw materials, seven from the batteries, 2.1 from the chassis' manufacture, and half a ton for disposal, totaling 26.6 metric tons. That's almost 10 tons more than the 16.7 released by producing a hybrid Volvo XC40, which Polestar identified as an equivalent ICE model. Put both on the road, and it'd take about 68,000 miles for the XC40's total life cycle emissions to finally surpass the Polestar's based on the global average energy mix, which generates 475 grams of CO2 per kWh per the International Energy Agency. That's over four years of driving for the average American.
Back to the GMC Hummer EV, which I don't mean to pick on but seriously, that 9,000-pound curb weight is such a convenient target. It won't be spot-on because of differences in manufacturing processes, but we can use Polestar's numbers to safely ballpark how much CO2 is released in the process of making each Hummer EV. For the Polestar 2 LR AWD, everything that's not the battery results in one metric ton of CO2 for every 198 pounds of chassis, and 92 kilograms of CO2 per kWh of battery. (That's not bad as lithium-ion batteries go, they range from 39 to 196 kg/kWh according to a study by Transport & Environment.)
Take out the battery and the Hummer EV weighs 6,140 pounds. Using the chassis guidance above, we can estimate its associated raw materials, motors, and body result in 31 metric tons of CO2. Its 212.7-kWh battery is good for another 19.6 metric tons. Not counting end-of-life recycling (a relatively small piece of the puzzle anyway), it's likely producing one Hummer EV releases 50.6 metric tons of CO2. That's nearly twice that of the Polestar, and more than triple the 15.2 metric tons of CO2 emissions Americans averaged in 2018 according to the World Bank.
Applying the Data, or: You Can't Fight Physics
Of course, a Hummer EV is supposed to mark an improvement over a similar fossil-fueled truck, such as the Ram TRX, with which it shares its overkill attitude and emphasis on acceleration and off-road performance. The Ram's horrible gas mileage (about 12 mpg combined) is a good match for the Hummer's resource-intensity and inefficiency, too. Using that Polestar-Volvo data, we can estimate a TRX's production to be associated with 26.5 metric tons of CO2, while FuelEconomy.gov rates it at 889 grams of CO2 (and upstream greenhouse gas emissions) per mile driven. Based on the U.S. energy production average 386 g CO2/kWh, the Hummer EV's 1.6 miles per kWh means it's responsible for 241 grams of CO2/mi, or just over a quarter of what the TRX emits.
It takes just under 37,200 miles to achieve parity with a TRX, at 59.6 metric tons of CO2 emitted over the total life cycle, and finally, it's all gravy for GM from there.
The graphs above and below compare life-cycle CO2 and GHG emissions in kilograms on the y axis and miles driven on the x axis. Both trucks start well above zero, because manufacturing is energy-intensive and thus generates a significant environmental impact. Though the Hummer EV has a big head start on emissions, the Ram's steeper ascent as it burns gas means it catches up to the Hummer at 37,191 miles. Improving on a TRX's environmental impact isn't exactly something to brag about, though, and it's hard to call an accomplishment when the Rivian R1T breaks even with the TRX sooner, just before the 17,000-mile mark with 41.6 metric tons of CO2 on the board. Unwind this same math elsewhere and it shows the Ford F-150 Lightning doesn't turn the table on the hybrid F-150 Powerboost until around the 61,000-mile mark, at 46.5 metric tons of CO2. On one hand, it demonstrates electric trucks inevitably do become the greener option compared to ICE trucks over time. On the other, what happens to the calculation if the Lightning needs a new resource-intensive battery at 150,000 miles and the gas version keeps running just fine?
An electric truck is still a truck, and its shape makes it permanently less efficient than an electric car. But the graph below takes it one step further and throws in the lifecycle emissions for some gas-powered economy cars for good measure. And lo: those too pollute less than electric trucks.
There are two main takeaways from all this. One, simply being an EV is not enough to be sustainable. Electric trucks do represent a long-term improvement over pure combustion and even hybrid trucks if they can stay on the road, but their resource-intensive manufacturing and sheer size make them less green than smaller gas-powered cars. And two, while we've been able to use what little data we have to better understand the effects of electrification, the lack of information from most OEMs we contacted demonstrates the auto industry has a transparency problem we'd do well to start taking seriously. Carmakers won't share the true environmental impacts of their EVs unless it hurts them not to. If we're going to get serious about sustainability, that has to be our starting point. That, and not pretending an electric Hummer can ever be a stand-in for a Civic.
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