Just How Good for the Planet Is That Big Electric Pickup Truck?

Slideshow of three different electric pickup trucks: the Ford F-150 Lightning, the Rivian R1T E.V. and the GMC Hummer E.V.

Electric vehicles are starting to look more like the rest of America’s automobiles: Big.

There’s the Ford-150 Lightning, a 6,000-pound, all-electric version of the top-selling Ford pickup truck; Dodge’s hulking Ram 1500 electric pickup, introduced in a cheeky Super Bowl ad this year; and even an electric Hummer, which President Biden took for a spin last month.

The crop of beefy new models may make electric vehicles mainstream in a country where trucks and S.U.V.s have increasingly ruled the road.

But as electric vehicles have bulked up, they have also faced new questions over their environmental and safety impacts. Here’s where they stand.

Emissions Impact

Experts broadly agree that electric vehicles are a more climate-friendly option than those that run on gasoline.

But emissions savings are not equal across all electric vehicles. Size matters: As E.V.s get larger and heftier, their climate impact also tends to increase.

A beeswarm chart that shows life cycle emissions and weights for a few hundred E.V. and gas-powered vehicles. The electric vehicle cluster is lower in emissions than the gas vehicle cluster, and in both groups, bigger circles, representing heavier vehicles, are generally responsible for more emissions.

Heavier vehicles tend to have higher emissions.

Heavier vehicles tend to have higher emissions.

Heavier vehicles tend to have higher emissions.

Heavier vehicles tend to have higher emissions.

Source for all charts: carboncounter.com by the MIT Trancik Lab

Note: Greenhouse gas emissions account for the entire life cycle of the vehicle, including vehicle and battery manufacturing, supply chain of raw materials, gas consumption, and electricity generation.

The climate benefits you get from driving a larger E.V. depend in large part on the kind of vehicle you would have driven instead. For example, swapping a gas pickup truck for a similar electric one can produce significant emissions savings.

Take the Ford F-150 pickup truck compared with the electric F-150 Lighting. The electric versions are responsible for up to 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions per mile.

The same beeswarm chart as in the previous graphic, but Ford F-150 Lightning and Ford F-150 gas-powered models are highlighted. Electric versions of the F-150 are responsible for much less emissions than the gas versions.

Versions of the same model are highlighted

Versions of the same model are highlighted

Versions of the same model are highlighted

Versions of the same model are highlighted

Note: Models with higher trim levels can increase emissions.

But heavier electric pickup trucks often require bigger batteries and more electricity to charge, so they end up being responsible for more emissions than other smaller E.V.s. Taking into consideration the life cycle emissions per mile, they end up just as polluting as some smaller gas-burning cars.

The same beeswarm chart as in the previous two graphics, but now showing that the largest circles in the E.V. cluster, representing the heavier E.V. models, are responsible for similar amounts of life cycle emissions as some of the smallest gas-powered cars.

Ford F-150 Lightning and other large electric vehicles

Ford F-150 Lightning and other large electric vehicles

Ford F-150 Lightning and other large electric vehicles

Ford F-150 Lightning and other large electric vehicles

Whether they’re gas-powered or run on electricity, bigger vehicles require more energy to make and to move, said Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.

Even though all-electric vehicles don’t burn gas or produce tailpipe emissions, they are indirectly responsible for emissions from vehicle and battery production, and the electricity used to charge them, which may come from fossil fuels.

Artealia Gilliard, a spokeswoman for Ford, said that electric vehicles like the F-150 Lightning would provide “even greater carbon dioxide emissions savings” as the electric grid continues to decarbonize.

Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly shifted away from cars and toward S.U.V.s, pickup trucks and crossover vehicles, with some analysts estimating that S.U.V.s, pickup trucks and vans could make up 78 percent of vehicle sales by 2025.

The new set of larger plug-in options could “encourage a faster shift toward electric vehicles” by appealing to a broader range of consumers, said Jessika Trancik, a professor of energy studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Consumers have already joined long waitlists for electric pickup trucks, with Ford having taken more than 200,000 reservations for Lightnings, though it has struggled with production.

Some people may need an S.U.V. or a pickup truck for their job, Dr. Trancik said, or they might be anxious about getting enough range from a smaller battery, especially if they live in a region with less charging infrastructure.

“Consumers should think about buying the highest-efficiency vehicle that still meets their needs,” she added.

Raw Materials and Safety Concerns

Bigger and heavier E.V.s have raised other concerns over their environmental impact and public safety, too.

The batteries that power electric vehicles today, along with many personal electronics and appliances, rely on mined raw materials — like cobalt, lithium and rare earth metals — whose extraction has, in many cases, been harmful to the environment, wildlife, water and local communities. (So has oil extraction.)

The larger batteries in larger electric vehicles require more of these materials. The battery used to power General Motors’ Hummer E.V., for example, uses about the same amount of lithium per rider as three smaller car batteries or 240 electric bike batteries, according to a recent report. And it uses about half as much lithium as a battery that can power an entire electric bus.

The same report found that the strain on key mineral supplies could be eased by reducing car dependence in the United States, downsizing electric vehicle batteries and ramping up battery recycling.

Larger batteries have also added significant weight to many big electric vehicles, anywhere from hundreds to thousands of pounds.

Research has shown that heavier vehicles, gas or electric, can be more dangerous in a crash for those outside of the vehicle, including other drivers of smaller cars and pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users.

Heavier vehicles strike pedestrians and other road users with more force, said Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. Bigger vehicles that are taller at the front, like many pickup trucks, also limit a driver’s visibility.

In the United States, traffic deaths have increased in recent years, while fatalities in other comparably developed countries have been falling. There are a number of factors to blame, including dangerous road design and high speed limits, but experts and advocates point to the supersizing of America’s vehicles, too.

Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the United States National Transportation Safety Board, raised concerns this year about the increased risk of severe injury and death from larger, heavier electric vehicles, citing the electric Hummer and F-150 Lightning as prime examples. Both vehicles have packed on an additional 1,000 to 2,500 pounds compared with their gas-powered counterparts. (For reference, 2,500 pounds is heavier than a Mazda Miata.)

Ms. Gilliard called safety a “top priority” for Ford, noting that all newer F-150 models, including the E.V.s, have a variety of safety features, including automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection.

Support for bigger, bulkier electric vehicles is often split, said Dave Mullaney, a principal on the Carbon-Free Transportation team at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Some see the E.V. revolution as a crucial opportunity to rethink Americans’ overdependence on cars, he said. Others think it’s best to “meet the American consumer where they are.”

And right now, American consumers love their big S.U.V.s and pickup trucks.