The rise of electric vehicles is, overall, a very good thing for the planet and its inhabitants. But any technological upheaval like this is bound to have some less-than-savory side effects. The enormous weight of some new EVs has road safety experts looking into whether America’s highway guardrails need a major overhaul to keep up with the times. 

An initial test from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility suggests that guardrails are no match for the new crop of hefty electric pickup trucks. In an October test, a roughly 7,000-pound Rivian R1T traveling at 60 mph ripped straight through a modern steel barrier and barely slowed down before smashing into and over a concrete backstop. 

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Electric trucks have a weight problem

Batteries make electric cars heavier than conventional vehicles, and that's particularly true of electric trucks like the F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T. Heavier vehicles are more dangerous to other road users and can cause more damage.

Guardrails are meant to keep vehicles from tumbling into ditches, veering into oncoming traffic and the like. EVs, which tend to be heavier than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, put a new strain on this crucial infrastructure. 

Cody Stolle, assistant director of the facility, told the Associated Press that the barrier tested wasn’t designed to handle vehicles weighing more than 5,000 pounds. “So far, we don’t see good vehicle-to-guardrail compatibility with electric vehicles,” he said. 

It's important to note that the increasing beefiness of vehicles on U.S. roads isn't a totally new problem. Sales of bulky SUVs and pickup trucks have risen for decades as sedans and hatchbacks have fallen out of favor. That shift pushed the facility to redesign aging guardrails back in the 1990s, according to the AP. Still, today's internal-combustion heavy-duty trucks weigh far more than 5,000 pounds, meaning they've exceeded what those new guard rails are designed to handle. 

Now the electrification of America's already-bloated vehicle fleet is pushing the heft of consumer vehicles to new heights. The culprit is heavy lithium-ion battery packs. Electric pickup trucks need even bigger batteries than regular cars to deliver sufficient range, making them particularly heavy. 

A Ford F-150 Lightning tips the scales at up to 6,893 pounds, putting it in the same ballpark as Tesla’s Cybertruck. That’s roughly a full ton more than an F-150 with a combustion engine. GMC’s Hummer EV pickup weighs a whopping 9,063 pounds. Its battery pack alone weighs nearly 3,000 pounds, as much as a Honda Civic. 

More mass results in a higher-energy impact, whether that’s with a guardrail or something else, leading safety officials and advocates to sound the alarm. Big SUVs and trucks already pose an outsize danger to pedestrians and drivers of smaller cars. Electrifying those vehicle types increases those risks. 

“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 National Transportation Safety Board, said last year.

It’s not just a safety issue. EVs also tend to wear through tires more quickly than gas cars, sending nasty pollutants into the air, water and soil. 

As far as guardrails go, the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility plans to run more tests before determining what sorts of updates need to be made to America’s road infrastructure. 

“There is some urgency to address this issue,” Stolle said in a press release. “As the percentage of EVs on the road increases, the proportion of run-off-road crashes involving EVs will increase, as well.”

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