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A Critical Need for Lighter, Smaller Vehicles
March 2024

Does a 4.1-ton, 2.38-m wide (with mirrors) Hummer EV SUV with its 210-kWh, 1.3-ton battery pack make sense just to drive people around? How about a 3.1-ton, 5.88-meter long Tesla Cybertruck, or a 5.88-meter long, 2.43-meter wide (incl. mirrors) Ford F-150 super cab pickup truck for private use? Note that the Hummer EV and Smart Fortwo shown above are represented at scale and feature an almost 4-to-1 weight ratio! Shown below in San Francisco, the Nissan Versa Note is 30% shorter than the Cybertruck.


Wider, taller, longer and heavier has been the trend for many years among OEMs’ vehicle offerings. Today’s vehicles, with their larger footprint and taller front ends, occupy more of our shared space, use more of our natural resources, generate more CO2, cause more fatalities and are often no longer affordable. What can be done to reverse this trend?

Vehicles Are Getting Larger and Heavier

In Europe, the average light vehicle has grown in width by close to 10 cm between 2000 and 2020 to reach 180 cm according to International Council on Clean Transportation (see below). This directly impacts the risk of accidents for other road users, in particular two-wheelers given the limited space left between vehicles in traffic (source: The Guardian). 


Incidentally, increased width also makes parking a lot harder for everyone as spaces are designed for narrower vehicles. This was the argument used by the municipality of Paris in a recent vote. The cost of street parking in the City of Lights will soon triple for vehicles heavier than 1.6 or 2.0 tons for ICE and EVs respectively, targeting SUVs.


The width of European vehicles is dwarfed by that of new passenger vehicles in the USA. Here, the average width stands at 1.95 meters after increasing by a similar 10 cm over 20 years. Likewise, the average vehicle length in the USA reportedly increased from 4.99 to 5.23 m over the past 20 years. This growth has naturally driven weight up, everything else being equal.

Larger, Heavier Vehicles Are More Dangerous for Others​

US-based NHTSA estimates that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021 in the country, the highest number since 2005. This represents 1.33 fatalities per 100 million VMT. Pedestrian fatalities grew 25% faster than the total vs. 2020. For comparison, traffic accidents killed  20,640 in the EU in 2022. Once corrected for the differences in population (Europe/USA = 1.35) and km driven per resident (USA/Europe ≈ 2), the road-related casualty rate is about 65% higher in the USA than in Europe. 


Many parameters can be attributed to this gap, whether related to vehicles, the infrastructure or driving behaviors. Recent studies show that a vehicle’s form has a significant impact on casualties. One of the key drivers is the hood height. A tall fascia reduces forward visibility and results in more significant internal injuries in an impact with a vulnerable road user (VRU, i.e., pedestrians, cyclists etc). 


A recent study by Belgium’s VIAS found that a 10 cm higher front-end results in a 27% increase in VRU fatality rate. A 300 kg higher vehicle weight leads to a 48% decrease in fatality in the ego vehicle but a 77% increase in the other vehicle. Moreover, pickup trucks result in three times the fatality rate of other body types.


A similar study just published in Economics of Transportation found that a 10 cm increase in front-end height causes a 22% rise in pedestrian fatality risk. This contributed to a 72% increase in the number of pedestrians killed annually from 2010 to 2021 on US roads.



Excessive Use of Natural Resources and Generation of CO2

Manufacturing a 3-ton vehicle consumes twice the amount of raw materials required to build a 1.5-ton vehicle. For the same basic transportation service, we are depleting our natural resources at twice the speed — save for the recycled portion.


The impact is yet larger when considering a vehicle’s full life cycle. The transportation of raw materials and finished goods, and more importantly the energy used to propel a vehicle over hundreds of thousands of kilometers are massively impacted by a vehicle size, thus its weight. In the end, this results in the unnecessary generation of CO2.


These life-cycle excesses in natural resources and CO2 apply not only to ICE vehicles but also to EVs. A Rivian R1S dual-motor AWD fitted with the 142 kWh (usable) option weights 3.2 ton for an estimate 400-mile EPA range. This leads to an energy efficiency of 2.8 mi/kWh (22 kWh/100km). The Hummer EV is much worse yet at 1.5 mi/kWh (40 kWh/100km). By comparison, a Tesla Model 3 RWD achieves 4.5 mi/kWh (14 kWh/100km). Since 60% of the electricity produced in the USA generates CO2, heavier means worse for our planet.



Market Appeal and Fatter Margins

SUVs are chosen over sedans for the perceived safety they provide among other reasons. Occupants seat higher which results in better perceived visibility — though short-range perception is worse. Owners feel protected from other road users because their vehicles are larger and heavier, which helps them resist better in case of an impact — at the expense of other road users as seen above. 


Whereas these statements make sense if you are among the few who drive these taller, larger, heavier vehicles, they no longer apply when most people do. In order to maintain a personal safety advantage, one must get yet a bigger and heavier vehicle, which pushes the market into a vicious cycle. When does it stop? How can this trend be reversed? 


Well, OEMs are reluctant to go against the flow. Many tend to simply continue to offer ever larger, heavier vehicles. Whereas making a vehicle wider, taller or longer results in a marginal cost increase (essentially larger sheet metal), the resulting product can be positioned at a significantly higher price, generating fatter margins. This was the recipe used very successfully in the late 1990s by Renault with the Megane-based Scenic, the first compact minivan and a very profitable product then.


The appeal for ever higher profitability led GM and Ford to simply give up on sedans and focus quasi exclusively on pickup trucks and SUVs. The resulting reduced availability of sedans (offered mostly by Japanese and Korean OEMs now) only exacerbates the shift to SUVs. Moreover, this creates another issue: affordability. In the USA, the average transaction price now stands at close to $50,000, which is out of reach for many people.


What Could Trigger a Trend Reversal?

One single driver can force a change in Western OEMs’ practice: China — especially in the case of Europe in the near term. Some OEMs (e.g., GM, Ford) have forgotten how to build reasonably priced, attractive, smaller vehicles. They will need to re-learn fast or they will die. Chinese OEMs are currently increasing the pressure on Europe — where they already control about 10% of the BEV market — and will find a way to enter the USA. Offering just large, expensive SUVs and pickup trucks won’t cut it when this happens.


In Europe, Stellantis and Renault have taken the lead, offering low priced EVs with room for 4-5 people and a range of over 300 km (WLTP). The Citroën e-C3 and Renault R5 (below) are positioned in the 20-25k€ range, weighting less than 1.5 ton with their entry battery pack of 40-44 kWh. These EVs are attractive yet affordable means of transportation suitable for most trips.

Other vehicles already on the market are even further away from large SUVs in terms of footprint, weight, battery size, etc.: European “L6-L7” quadricycles (see my Feb 2023 article on frugal cars). These vehicles, such as the Microlino (above), provide an interesting alternative for pure urban use, at a much lower price point — where profitability is likely much harder to achieve — probably best suited for car sharing.


Besides addressing the Chinese existential threat, OEMs must decide whether they want to do good for society or simply focus on higher returns for investors? In the long run, they must find a way to combine all three.

Marc Amblard

Managing Director, Orsay Consulting

Feel free to comment or like this article on LinkedIn. Thanks!

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