Will Heavy EVs Destroy America's Roads?
Even if streets aren't buckling under the weight of battery-electric pickup trucks, these extra-heavy vehicles do have an effect on a road's lifespan.
The latest full-size battery-electric pickups and SUVs boast substantial driving ranges—in the neighborhood of 300 miles—but there's a price to pay for harnessing so many electrons. These larger-than-life trucks feature equally enormous batteries that drive their curb weights up to levels not often seen outside commercial-spec vehicles.
Some 2022 models of the Ford Lightning and Rivian R1T battery-electric trucks tip the scales at between 6,500 and 6,700 pounds. The GMC Hummer EV truck checks in at an astonishing 9,063 pounds. These monster machines weigh between two and three times the mass of a standard compact car (the GMC's 2,923-pound battery weighs more than a 2022 Toyota GR86). With the Hummer surpassing even the heftiest of 3/4-ton heavy-duty pickups on the scale, what does that mean for American roads designed to support a much lighter fleet of passenger vehicles?
It turns out that while the Lightning and the Hummer electric trucks are likely to have an outsize impact on infrastructure, the results aren't quite as catastrophic as they could be.
Road Design 101
"Roads and bridges are designed for a specific lifespan, typically 20 years for roads and 30 to 50 years for bridges. They usually last double that," says Maria Lehman, incoming 2023 president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Lehman says to think about a road as three sponges set on top of each other. First, a stone sub-base for drainage. Then, concrete or asphalt with large stones in it, which can be up to 12 inches thick on certain roads. Finally, a binder (like asphalt) is made of fine stones for a smooth ride. Bridges usually use a steel or concrete base with a deck on top, covered by a wearing surface.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) sets standards of how each road layer is constructed based on the use it will see most often. This regularly considers that commercial trucks will travel roadways carrying tens of thousands of pounds of cargo. Still, it also means that a rural two-lane is not necessarily designed with the same load capacity as a heavily-trafficked urban boulevard.
It's All About Making our Roads Last as Long as Possible
If roads are designed to handle the weight of 18-wheel tractor-trailers weighing about 35,000 pounds empty and no more than 80,000 pounds loaded, how much of an impact could a 9,000-pound Hummer EV truly have? The answer lies in that one key word: lifespan.
"As you put more, and heavier, passenger vehicles on a standard road surface, you're taking life out of it," says Lehman. "Maybe it's not going to last for 20 years—maybe it's only going to make it to 18."
Lehman states that AASHTO is currently examining all existing standards to take the strain from battery-electric vehicles into account. She points out that drivers will still benefit from upgraded road capacity even if battery weights are optimized in the coming years. "It's never a waste of money, because if BEVs get lighter, then you'll get longer term use out of roads that had been designed for heftier vehicles."
Can You Park an Electric Truck in Your Driveway or Garage?
As for your driveway or garage? You might want to be careful where you park your electric Hummer.
"Driveway standards usually depend on the local municipality, but there's no real oversight," Lehman says. "If your truck is sitting on a thin layer of asphalt or concrete, and it's not reinforced, it's going to crack."