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GM discontinues its first EV in favor of electric SUVs — Do large EVs have the same climate impact?


a close up of a black SUV in the rain
Image Credit: Vista Wei // Unsplash

Electric vehicles are entering a new era. Long gone are the days when big automakers have one or two EVs on the market. Now, the top car companies have full slates of electric cars, trucks, and SUVs at different styles and prices, and that includes General Motors.


Now GM, the maker of one of the first mainstream EVs, the Chevrolet Bolt, is discontinuing the affordable EV to free up factory space for the more popular and lucrative SUVs.


The automaker paired the news with its plan to partner with Samsung SDI to build its fourth U.S. battery plant. Together, they’re investing more than $3 billion into the plant to further o take advantage of subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act that aims to boost domestic manufacturing.


The Bolt move is conflicting for EV advocates.


Some, like Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, a nonprofit group that aims to broaden EV acceptance, told E&E News that the move felt “premature.”


“The Bolt is at its peak right now. Sales are high. With great effort and expense, they’ve resolved the battery issues. It’s a great option for consumers that are looking for a long-range vehicle at a reasonable price,” he told the publication, adding that “it will definitely leave a hole in the market.”


Others are on the opposite side of the road. “The Chevrolet Bolt represents GM’s first serious electric vehicle effort,” Karl Brauer, an analyst for iSeeCars.com, an automotive search engine told E&E. “But the Bolt represents GM’s electric vehicle past, not its future.”


And then there are EV advocates in the middle for both safety and climate mitigation reasons.


Safety regulators like National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy, warn that with the increasing size of EVs, the weight of these cars paired with the extra pounds from batteries may not be as safe.


There are also scientists who not only champion the safety of smaller vehicles but also the emissions benefits compared to their large counterparts. As researchers in a recent Nature article explained, lighter vehicles maximize climate benefits compared to bulky SUVs and trucks.


So why is GM making the switch?


When the Bolt first debuted in 2016 it had some pretty serious battery issues. Since GM has mended those problems leading it to become one of the most inexpensive EVs on the American market. However, the 2023 EV landscape is much different than it was in 2016.


EV demand is surging. With the Environmental Protection Agency’s new vehicle emissions standards they will rise even more — EVs could make up over 30% of new car sales by 2031, up from just 4.5% in 2021.


However, as the popularity of EVs rises, and the country overcomes infrastructure barriers involving battery supply chains, range, and charging station availability, carmakers still have to deal with the tastes of the average American consumer when it comes to buying a new car.


According to the online car resource, Edmunds, the Toyota Camry is the only actual car that ranks in the top ten most-sold vehicles of 2022. It came in at #5, with the Tesla Model Y as the only EV on the list. If automakers want their EVs to make the top ten list, they’re going to have to make EV versions of their top-selling vehicles: pickups and SUVs.


Whether it be vanity or the extra legroom and cargo space, Americans love SUVs and trucks. About two-thirds of overall U.S. vehicle sales are SUVs — and about 1 in 4 are pickups. For GM, the top-selling automaker in the country last year, the Chevy Silverado full-size pickup was unsurprisingly its bestseller. For Toyota — which followed GM closely for the 2022 automaker crown — its bestselling vehicle was the RAM4 SUV.


According to S&P Global Mobility, by the end of this year, EVs will be 10% and by 2025, they’ll make up 25% of new car sales. It’s a likely story that as more automakers turn their attention to the most popular vehicles, many if not most of these EVs will be SUVs and pickups.


Still, the lack of climate change mitigation potential of SUVs compared to sedans should cause a moment for pause.


While the car-buying landscape now is much different than when the Bolt debuted in 2016, the climate landscape is also different with more and more urgency to mitigate climate change and reach emission reduction targets.


As a January 2023 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cleaner Production found, electrification and “SUVisation” are definitely shaping the car market. The study focused on the European market, finding that a similar merging of SUVs and EVs is happening across the pond.


By running four different scenarios to simulate CO2 emissions from cars in Europe, the researchers also found that electric SUVs do not necessarily contribute to emissions mitigation namely because of battery supply constraints.


Compared to SUV-loving America, the market for huge cars was once low in Europe. With the surge, the researchers believe that downsizing and lower motorization are worth pursuing.


There is a similar worry in the U.S. As Canary Media recently reported, a big electric car could be dirtier than a small gas-powered car according to data from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.


By distilling data about fuel economy, pollution, and emissions into one overall green score, ACEEE found that trucks like the Mini Cooper Hardtop, Volvo XC40 Recharge Twin, and the very popular Ford F-150, had lower green scores than the gas-fueled versions.


While the EVs no doubt have less environmental damage than their gas counterparts, heavier and less efficient vehicles overall cause more environmental damage, regardless of power source because of emissions and other kinds of pollutants from vehicle manufacturing, production and distribution of fuel, and vehicle tailpipes, as well as the end-of-life impacts of disposal and recycling.


“Inefficient and heavy EVs have lower environmental impacts than similarly sized gasoline-fueled cars, but they underperform more efficient EVs,” senior transportation research analyst with ACEEE, Peter Huether said in a press release.


“To reduce pollution from automobiles, we need policies that both support more electric vehicles and encourage automakers to improve efficiency among all types of vehicles through a variety of strategies, including reducing vehicle weight,” he added.


“Not all electric vehicles are created equal.”


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