Our Obsession With Big Cars (Trucks) Is a Problem

Christopher Johnson
5 min readFeb 18, 2023

The trend towards larger vehicles is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, SUVs became increasingly popular, with sales surpassing traditional sedans for the first time in 2003. This trend has continued into the 21st century, with SUVs and trucks making up the majority of new vehicle sales in the United States. In fact, in 2020, light-duty trucks and SUVs accounted for nearly 80% of new vehicle sales. The trend in vehicle MPG (miles per gallon) with the rise of SUV popularity has been a decrease in overall fuel efficiency, SUVs tend to be larger and heavier than smaller cars, which means they require more energy to move and are therefore less fuel efficient. Also worth noting is that SUVs are regulating into the category of trucks, which allows less stringent standards, making it allowable to have worse efficiency, something the Biden administration has allowed to continue.

Graphic of SUV models in 2020. Image by Spare Wheel (https://www.spare-wheel.com/suv-cars/toyota-sells-17-suv-models)

But EVs will save us, right?!

The switch to electric vehicles is on. It is happening rapidly around the globe. A few years ago there was just a couple of models to choose from, and now every car maker is rolling out electric options. And they should be! It is more fun to drive an electric car, they’re way easier to maintain, and the shift away from burning fossil fuels to get us around is required action to address the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, in the US we have a long-standing obsession with large vehicles. While the shift towards electric vehicles presents an opportunity to rethink our relationship with transportation, the industry seems to be comfortably coasting along with business as usual, just slapping batteries in big SUVs to cater to the mass market. Despite the many benefits of electric cars, including lower operating costs and reduced emissions, simply replacing gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks with electric versions misses out on potential improvements for personal finances, community infrastructure and planetary health.

Big vehicles are bad for roads

One of the biggest issues with large electric vehicles is their weight. In addition to being resource-intensive to produce, the larger battery required to power these vehicles increases their overall weight, making them less efficient and more expensive to operate. This can be seen in the miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) ratings of electric vehicles, which are lower for larger vehicles. For example, the MPGe rating for my Chevy Bolt, which weights about 3,500 lb, is about 118 while the rating for the much larger (5,400+ lb) Tesla Model X is only 93.

The added weight of larger electric vehicles also takes a toll on the roads, increasing wear and tear and requiring costly maintenance and repairs. This presents an opportunity for a potential use tax, where the more an individual uses a shared resource that requires maintenance, the more they should pay. Such a tax could incentivize the use of smaller, lighter electric vehicles, which would reduce the wear and tear on our roads and save money for everyone.

Big vehicles are more costly to own

Owning a large vehicle is more expensive than owning a smaller one. The purchase price of larger vehicles is generally higher, and they require more expensive replacement parts when they need to be repaired. The fluctuations in gas prices over the last year have made the acute pain associated with operating large gas-powered vehicles felt around the country. But large electric vehicles can also get expensive to operate — it’s simply inefficient to move a big heavy object, no matter what your fuel is.

Back when gas surged past $4/gallon in California almost a year ago, I wrote an article looking at the costs of driving EV vs ICE vehicles. While smaller electric vehicles had clear savings over their gas-powered counterparts, larger vehicles had much smaller to no savings, when charging on public charging infrastructure. The larger vehicles get less range per unit of energy used due to the added weight that has to be moved. As we are in a period of increasing energy costs, savings could be reduced or eliminated for large vehicles.

Big vehicles are more dangerous

Even before the trend of adding big batteries in vehicles, vehicle weights have been going up. According to an article in Nature:

The likelihood of passengers being killed in a collision with another vehicle increases by 12% for every 500-kg difference between vehicles.…If US residents who switched to SUVs over the past 20 years had stuck with smaller cars, more than 1,000 pedestrian deaths might have been averted, according to one study.

Another article in The Atlantic captured a grim reality on the safety profile of large vehicles:

A recent study linked the growing popularity of SUVs in the United States to the surging number of pedestrian deaths, which reached a 40-year high in 2021. A particular problem is that the height of these vehicles expands their blind spots. In a segment this summer, a Washington, D.C., television news channel sat nine children in a line in front of an SUV; the driver could see none of them, because nothing within 16 feet of the front of the vehicle was visible to her.

Downright scary!

Can we get over the big vehicle obsession?

However, this trend can be reversed with the help of policies that incentivize the use of smaller, lighter electric vehicles. For example, California recently announced a plan to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, which will encourage carmakers to focus on developing smaller, more efficient electric vehicles. The federal government could also provide tax incentives and other support for the production and purchase of smaller electric vehicles (instead of giving into lobbying pressure by car makers to extend EV rebates to the larger, heavier, and more expensive models…like they just did!).

We need to get over our obsession with large vehicles if we want to address the climate crisis. While the shift towards electric vehicles is a step in the right direction, simply replacing gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks with electric versions misses out on potential improvements. By continuing to cater to the taste for larger vehicles, we are creating cars that are heavier and require larger batteries, with higher resource and electricity intensity to produce and operate. If instead we incentivize the use of smaller, lighter electric vehicles, we can reduce the resource intensity and electricity intensity required to produce and operate vehicles, reduce wear and tear on our roads, and save money in the long run. It’s time to think differently about transportation!



Christopher Johnson

Christopher is a force multiplier called to accelerate the deployment and adoption of climate tech solutions at massive scale, and this blog shares the journey.