Is the SUV world over? If you ask Vincent Kobe, CEO of French automaker Citroen, then the answer is a resounding yes. He made that case in a series of interviews in Europe with statements that are at odds with what’s happening in North America, where light trucks, SUVs and pickups dominate the market.
Cobée told British motoring site Auto Express: “With a battery electric car, if you have the aerodynamics wrong, the penalty in terms of range is huge. You can lose 50 kilometers between good and bad aerodynamics, and between an SUV and a sedan, you’re talking 60/70/80 kilometers very easily.”
The North American approach is to ignore aerodynamics and fit larger batteries. But Cobée said that won’t work in the long term: “People are going to start limiting the weight and size of batteries, either through taxes, through incentives, through regulation, through naming and shaming.”
He also noted that, at least in Europe, a cultural shift is happening: “If you lived in a big city, five years ago, if you left your kids with a big SUV, you were a man. Now, if you do that, you are a “terrorist”…”
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Cobée said “big batteries are wrong”. He called for more aerodynamics and better efficiency. He is not alone: we wrote that the efficiency of electric vehicles still matters, as do the carbon emissions of their production.
We quoted Peter Huether of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE):
“The environmental impact of EVs is not just about the electricity generated to power each mile. The manufacturing process also causes greenhouse gases to be released at several stages, known as the vehicle’s embodied emissions. Electric cars in particular—with heavy batteries—use minerals that must be mined, processed, and turned into batteries. The pursuit of greater driving range and larger vehicles requires an increase in battery size as well as an increase in embodied emissions.
The amount of minerals that will need to be mined is mind-boggling. A new study led by Thea Riofrancos, associate professor of political science at Providence College, argues that the U.S. transition to electric vehicles “could require three times more lithium than is currently produced for the entire global market, causing unnecessary water shortages , the grabbing of indigenous lands and the destruction of ecosystems within and beyond its borders.”
Riofrancos calls for smaller batteries and reduced vehicle ownership.
“Compared to a decarbonization scenario that maintains U.S. vehicle ownership levels, scenarios that reduce car dependence and therefore use and ownership, and limit EV battery size, could reduce lithium demand by between 18-66 percent . Even if the U.S. Transportation System’s focus on the automobile continues, limiting the size of EV batteries alone could reduce lithium demand by as much as 42 percent.”
Cobée uses an interesting analogy for the excessive size of the battery, comparing it to a giant backpack for multi-day camping: “Do you go to the office with this backpack? The answer is no. Then why would you go to the office in a car with a ton of battery?”
But even in North America, people may be getting over their fixation on car size. The Ford Maverick, a compact pickup truck with a hybrid drive, flew out of the showroom. Treehugger contributor Jim Motavali called it “a welcome return to sanity.” Now, General Motors is considering introducing a low-cost all-electric pickup truck that’s even smaller than the Maverick.
Others believe that cars and trucks will continue to get bigger as they go electric. Automotive consultant and expert Steven Lang noted, “The rise in EV sales may be the final death knell for subcompact cars. A high-efficiency electric vehicle does much more to increase a company’s average fuel economy than a subcompact car, and automakers can make these EVs in the shapes and sizes that consumers prefer over subcompact cars.”
Automakers certainly prefer larger vehicles: “Automakers are unlikely to embrace building small cars with extremely low profit margins.”
But the price and availability of lithium and copper may tell a different story. It all comes back to a recurring Treehugger theme: sufficiency. How many cars or trucks do you need? How far do you have to go? How much can you afford these days, with the rough economy? Smaller cars and trucks will likely make a comeback, and that will be good for everyone.