“This sucker’s quick!” were the first words uttered by U.S. President Joe Biden after going for a rip in Ford’s all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup. It’s the reaction many drivers have to trying an electric vehicle for the first time. Like so many new EVs, the Lightning accelerates like, well, lightning.
For drivers, that’s exciting. The instant torque is part of EVs’ appeal. As a pedestrian or a cyclist, though, a future where our roads are ruled by superfast, superheavy vehicles is a frightening prospect.
Imagine every driver with road rage, every bleary-eyed commuter, every distracted parent, every texting-on-the-go teenager at the wheel of a machine that’s as quick as a Lamborghini and as heavy as two Honda Civics stacked one atop the other. Crashes are going to be more deadly. Getting hit by a large EV will be like getting hit by a rocket-propelled rhinoceros.
“I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said in a speech earlier this year.
The arc of automotive history bends toward speed. It’s like that old quote often attributed to Henry Ford: “Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built.” By the third car, you can bet its builders were giving it more power to beat those first two.
Automobiles have been getting quicker since their invention, but EVs offer a generational leap in acceleration.
The sprint to 100 kilometres an hour is the traditional benchmark for sports-car bragging rights. Consider the multimillion-dollar Bugatti Chiron supercar, a two-seater whose eight-litre, quad-turbo 16-cylinder engine churns out 1,500 horsepower. It would be embarrassed in a sprint by Tesla’s latest four-door family sedan. The Model S Plaid is heavier and has less horsepower than the Chiron, but because it’s electric, the Tesla streaks to that speed in a manufacturer-claimed 2.1 seconds, while the Bugatti takes 2.4. (This fact should make sports car makers declare a truce in the continuing arms-race for ever-quicker, more powerful cars and instead focus on what actually makes cars fun to drive, but that’s another story.)
In case you’ve never driven an EV, the sensation you get when you step on the accelerator is sort of like being flung from a giant slingshot. It’s instant and violent.
The Tesla and Bugatti are, admittedly, extreme examples. Not all EVs are especially rapid or heavy, but most are. Even BMW’s compact i4 electric sedan reaches 100 in as little as 3.9 seconds, nearly half a second quicker than the brand’s M340i, which has 382 horsepower. Or, take Kia’s new EV6 GT, a practical electric hatchback that can accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour in 3.5 seconds. The Kia would give a 2012 Ferrari 458 Italia – one of the Italian brand’s all-time greats – a run for its money.
Rapid sport sedans and hatchbacks are not too unusual. No, where electric power really makes a difference is in hefty SUVs and trucks, which, by the way, also do the most damage in a crash.
For its R1S SUV, Rivian quotes acceleration to 96 kilometres an hour in as little as three seconds, making it even faster than that Ferrari. Car and Driver magazine clocked a Platinum-trim F-150 Lightning at four seconds flat for the same sprint.
Slowing down all that mass isn’t easy. In its testing, the magazine found, “the Lightning stopped from 70 miles per hour in a reasonable 180 feet, but by the third stop, a warning light came on alerting us to overheating brakes, combined with significant fade and smoke.”
No wonder. The Platinum-edition Lightning weighs 3.1 tonnes and makes a 2.5-tonne white rhino look like a featherweight. Even the basic, standard-range Lightning is 2.7 tonnes. My mechanical sympathy goes out to the disc brakes tasked with slowing down such a behemoth, but I’m more concerned for whomever gets in its way. (For reference, a similar gas-fuelled F-150 weighs anywhere from 2.1 to 2.6 tonnes, while the top-trim Honda Civic Touring sedan tips the scales at 1.37 tonnes.)
The Lightning is hardly the heaviest EV. The Rivian R1S “Launch Edition” with its huge, 129-kilowatt-hour battery is more than 3.1 tonnes.
NTSB chair Homendy called out GMC’s Hummer EV – the poster child for EV excess – which weighs more than four tonnes. “Its gross vehicle weight rating is a staggering 10,550 pounds [4.79 tonnes]. The battery pack alone weighs over 2,900 pounds [1.3 tonnes] – about the weight of a Honda Civic,” she said.
All that mass is not a good match for the massive, near-instantaneous hit of torque provided by electric motors working with sticky modern tires spun by precision-controlled, dual- or quad-motor all-wheel-drive systems.
We know that heavy vehicles are more dangerous in the event of a collision with smaller vehicles and vulnerable road users. We also know that speed is major contributing risk factor in fatal collisions. So it stands to reason that the combination of extreme weight and extreme acceleration in many EVs is new and potentially deadly.
The solution, of course, isn’t to abandon EVs because they’re quick. Some might argue for a hard limit on top speed or acceleration. Others will say, far too optimistically, that we need not worry because technology like automatic emergency braking and other driver-assistance features will save us. The best, simplest solution, though, is to double down on policies such as Toronto’s Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate serious injuries and death on roads by better educating road users, enforcing laws and redesigning streets to make them safer for everyone and less conducive to speeding.
In an EV, a careless jab of the accelerator could cause a lot more harm than it used to.