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 (EV) 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 (ICE) 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 other externalities 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% greater today than it was in the 1975 model year. For comparison, large SUVs are just 5% heavier and sedans are 13% 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% 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% 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.