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The Electric F-150 and the Lifestyle-Truck Virus

This article first appeared in Exponents magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Would subsidizing the purchase of new pickup trucks enhance or diminish the welfare of our communities? If you think putting more trucks on the road is a bad idea, your position is at odds with parts of federal government policy. Starting next year, Ford will be selling an electric variant of America’s most-popular vehicle, the F-150 pickup. And thanks to the federal electric vehicle tax credit, the U.S. Treasury will be knocking up to $7,500 off of each buyer’s tax liability come April 15.

The ostensible purpose of the EV tax credit is to incentivize consumers to opt away from internal combustion engine vehicles. Its proponents would argue that the credit serves to neutralize the cost advantage conferred to ICE vehicles in the absence of emissions pricing. But the application of this logic to Ford’s new electric pickup puts into stark relief the EV tax credit’s flaws.

Hailed by the “car guy”-in-chief as a transformative moment, Ford’s rollout of the electric F-150 is little more than a masterclass in greenwashing. Though this vehicle will be battery powered, and thus will not emit carbon at the tailpipe, it will bring with it all of the remaining pickup truck externalities that plague the transportation landscape today.

Lipstick on a pickup

The justification for the EV tax credit is that externalities from unpriced emissions augment sales of conventional vehicles. But the multitude of otherexternalities personal automobiles present are rarely addressed in public discourse. These externalities include risk to other people in collisions, wear and tear on infrastructure, traffic congestion, and non-tailpipe pollution.

Pickup trucks externalize these costs more flagrantly than any other vehicles. The fundamental pickup characteristic that imposes costs onto the community as a whole is their size.

Pickups today are longer, wider, taller, and heavier than in decades past. According to Edmunds, the auto consumer information outlet, the most popular version of the 2021 F-150 is 21 inches longer, 1 inch wider, and 7 inches taller than the most popular version of the 1991 F-150. Each of these dimension measurements imposes its own set of costs.

Added length exacerbates traffic congestion by demanding more road space. Added width crowds other road users and puts vehicles closer to bicyclists. Added height, particularly if it comes in the form of more ground clearance, raises the point of impact toward a struck person’s vital areas. Longer, wider, taller vehicles also often reduce visibility from the driver’s seat, posing a clear danger to people in other vehicles and on foot. Weight, however, may be the most pressing concern.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2020 Automotive Trends Report, the average weight of a new pickup truck is 27 percent greater today than it was in the 1975 model year. For comparison, large SUVs are just 5 percent heavier and sedans are 13 percent lighter today.

As noted in the 1979 U.S. Government Accountability Office report “Excessive Truck Weight: An Expensive Burden We Can No Longer Support,” concentrating heavy masses over a single axle multiplies the effect of the mass exponentially. Because of this, deterioration of our roads caused by new, heavier trucks is even greater than the recent weight increases suggest.

Moreover, that extra weight means there is more force at the point of impact in the event of a collision. The growing size of trucks yields more bodily damage to people on foot and to smaller vehicles when struck. A 2010 meta-analysis of 12 studies on risks imposed by trucks concluded that a person on foot is 50 percent more likely to be killed when struck by a pickup or SUV than when struck by a smaller-class vehicle. As a result, pickups and SUVs are culpable for close to 40 percent of pedestrian fatalities, despite making up around a third of the full vehicle fleet nationally.

The electric F-150 will be worse than its ICE counterpart in this regard. Because of the 1,800-pound battery that will power it, the electric F-150 will weigh a half ton more than the same vehicle with a 3.5-liter engine, tipping the scales at a nearly unfathomable 6,500 pounds. This electric F-150 will impose as much or more risk than any existing Class 2a pickup truck, but its buyers will soon be rewarded with a tax break.

Is this a work truck?

Despite these concerns, the case will be made that incentivizing a switch to electric pickups is worthwhile since trucks play an important role in industries like construction and agriculture. Indeed, pickups are indispensable to the movements of goods and supplies in an economy. If the electric F-150 is a work truck, then one can claim it’s displacing other trucks that would have similar drawbacks, plus emit carbon from the tailpipe.

But from the worksite vantage point, this truck doesn’t look especially appealing. The electric F-150 has a maximum payload of just 2,000 pounds. The aforementioned 3.5-liter ICE version can carry 3,250 pounds, despite weighing 15% less than the electric version. Towing capacity is similarly diminished. The 3.5-liter ICE version can pull 14,000 pounds. The electric version can pull 10,000, despite weighing 1,000 pounds more than its predecessor.

With the top-end trim options pushing its price point as high $90,000, there’s good reason to think the electric F-150 is the next evolution of the lifestyle truck rather than a replacement for work vehicles.

Though the percentage of American workers in agriculture and the building trades has declined over time, pickups have never been more popular. In 2020, the three most-purchased vehicle models in the U.S. and five of the top 10 most purchased vehicles were pickup trucks, despite corporate fleet purchases dropping substantially due to the COVID economic slowdown.

Two further indicators of how people will use Ford’s electric pickup are that it will only come in the “crew cab” variety that’s better suited for hauling kids to soccer than for hauling haybales and that Ford has scrapped its plans to produce electric versions of the more powerful F-250 and F-350. The pickup trucks Americans drive these days — and the F-150 is the benchmark — are social signaling mechanisms. Trucks tell us little about what you do for a living, but much about how you conceive of yourself. The electric F-150 will carry its own nuanced wrinkle, signaling “truck guy, but not Trump guy.”

A few years hence, it will be fascinating to see what percentage of Ford’s electric pickup sales have come from the commercial fleet buyers it claims are its targets and what percentage have come from the luxury consumers that prowl American suburbs.

Environmental Harms from EVs

With all of that said, it could still be the case that the environmental benefits overcome these drawbacks. The data, however, challenge that argument.

According to a May report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), electric vehicles require six times more mineral inputs than comparable ICE vehicles. The average EV needs over 200 kilos of what IEA deems critical minerals — including cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese. With a battery that is 50 percent heavier than that of the Tesla Model 3, the electric F-150 will far exceed these averages.

The production of these minerals can be significant environmental and social stressors in the regions of the world where they are produced. A 2020 Nature Communications article finds that 70 percent of cobalt resources, for example, are located in high-risk contexts.

Battery disposal is similarly fraught. Unlike ICE vehicle batteries, the lithium-ion batteries that power cars have yet to spur a recycling market. According to Chemical and Engineering News, this lacuna emerges because battery recycling is itself a resource- and capital-intensive smelting-and-extraction process that demands the treatment of toxic compounds. By 2030, CEN reports that the annual generation of lithium-ion battery waste will reach 2 million metric tons.

Further, according to IEA’s global estimates the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of an electric vehicle (taking into account battery production, vehicle manufacturing, and battery recharging via electricity) are just 50 percent lower than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of an ICE vehicle, at 40 metric tons to 20.

Because of the electricity generation mix that leans heavily on natural gas and coal in the U.S., the Niskanen Center estimates that the EV tax credit’s value in terms of avoided emissions is a startling $5,000 less than the $7,500 given to EV buyers. Considering where Americans are most likely to drive pickup trucks, it is probable that when applied to the electric F-150 the tax credit will be even less effective. The states where pickups make up the highest percentage of vehicle purchases (Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and West Virginia) are some of the biggest emitters per megawatt-hour.

Further straining the case for incentivizing the purchase of new electric pickups is the problem of non-exhaust pollution. Removing the tailpipe emissions from a vehicle does not eliminate the harmful release of particulate matter from vehicles’ brakes and tires. A University of Edinburgh research team found in 2016 that non-exhaust sources account for 90 percent of PM10 and 85 percent of PM2.5 from traffic. The extraordinary weight of the electric F-150 will exacerbate this issue and undermine the argument that it is beneficial to local air quality.

Our acute focus on vehicles’ greenhouse-gas emissions has blinkered our attention from the wide-ranging environmental and social costs large vehicles like the electric F-150 impose. Unfortunately, Ford’s new pickup is just the first in a coming wave of massive electric trucks, many of which will qualify buyers for the full $7,500 tax credit. In 2022, GM will launch its 9,000-pound electric Hummer, the truck GM Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson says makes investing $8 billion in electric vehicles an easy call. Despite the clear costs these vehicles impose, piecemeal federal policy will further saturate our roads with them in the years to come.

Jordan McGillis is the deputy director of policy at the Institute for Energy Research.

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