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‘Wave of vehicle bloat’ in U.S. as car parc gets heavier

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Market Trends
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The average weight of a new vehicle sold in the U.S. last year was 4,329 pounds, which is about 175 pounds heavier than in the three previous model years and more than 1,000 pounds heavier than the average weight of 1980 MY vehicles, according to Bloomberg.

While it’s not just electric vehicles (EVs) that are heavier because of the added weight of their battery packs — SUVs and pickup trucks are heavier too and preferred by most American families — Bloomberg says the upward trend in vehicle weights is exacerbated by more EVs and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) coming to market.

The “wave of vehicle bloat” began in the 1980s, in part due to air bag, crash test ratings, and safer vehicle structure materials and construction requirements, Bloomberg reports.

In a recent interview with Automotive News Europe, Stellantis CTO Ned Curic said decreasing vehicle weights is his biggest engineering challenge.

“[Cars] that used to weigh a ton and a half are now three tons,” he said. “It’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for resources, it’s not good for efficiency.”

In 2021, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) began using a new side impact test because SUVs were heavier, which meant increasing the weight of the barrier that runs into the vehicle and increasing its speed. Now, EV mass is the new challenge.

Late last year, IIHS tested its propulsion system to ensure that it could handle heavier EVs. It did so by adding 9,500 pounds of heavy steel plates and concrete blocks onto an F-150 and seeing whether it could reach the target speed of 40 mph for frontal, small, and overlap crashes on both sides of vehicles. The test proved the system successful in its ability to tow a vehicle in at that speed for the frontal crash.

During a special presentation at the Collision Industry Conference (CIC)’s April meeting in Richmond, Virginia, IIHS Senior Test Coordinator Sean O’Malley said the most recently weighed EV, a 2023 Rivian R1S, came in at more than 7,000 pounds — almost 3,000 pounds more than a 2023 Honda Civic. That’s a difference in weight equivalent to a 2023 Ford Ranger.

When it comes to kinetic energy that would move through a vehicle of that mass, O’Malley said it would be 60% higher than a Civic.

But Bloomberg points out that U.S. car parc, or what consumers prefer, changed to heavier vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks beginning in 2018. Mitchell International Director of Claims Performance Ryan Mandell shared data with Repairer Driven News last September that shows the preferred car parc increasingly became SUVs, pickups, and luxury vehicles between 2019 and 2022.

“Then came a push for better fuel economy and emissions reductions, a process that packed on more pounds and culminated in some of the heaviest vehicles yet: battery-powered ones,” Bloomberg wrote. “EV batteries add roughly 1,000 to 1,500 pounds for a long-range sedan or SUV. Those figures could double with the beefiest new pickup trucks coming to the US in the next 12 months, including the 8,000-pound Chevy Silverado and the steel-plated Tesla Cybertruck, weight unknown.”

And weight isn’t solely a consideration for manufacturing and the environment. It also affects repairs. Collision repair shops need to have a lift that can handle the weight of EV batteries as well as it’s width. For example, Audi and Volkswagen EV batteries are the size of a queen mattress and weigh 2,000 pounds. In general, using an inground cassette lift with at least 67 inches between the lift posts is best, according to OEMs and EV repairers that spoke during CIC’s April 2022 meeting. A clear area and level floor is also needed underneath the lift for a battery table.

According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) preliminary 2022 data, pickup trucks became the heaviest vehicle type in the U.S. in the early 2000s and was the heaviest by 2014. After weights plummeted down the following year, they steadily rose for several with one dip and are now going back up. The chart below, generated from EPA’s data, shows vehicle weights by type between 1988-2022.

According to a 2011 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), adding 1,000 pounds to a vehicle increases the chance of fatalities in an accident by 47%.

“In 2008, the average car on the road was roughly 530 pounds — that is 20 percent — heavier than the average car on the road twenty years earlier,” NBER wrote in the study. “Heavier vehicles are safer for their own occupants but are more hazardous for the occupants of other vehicles.”

Automakers typically lightweight their vehicles by changing up material mixes to include, or be made mostly of, lighter materials such as aluminum, composites, and carbon fiber.

“The future of aluminum extrusions is undoubtedly bright,” said Abey Abraham, Ducker Carlisle principal and Society of Automotive Analysts president, in a March AEC “Shapemakers” podcast. “Extrusions, quite literally, form the backbone of the BEV housing. Innovation is happening all around us and, just as I had mentioned in the last podcast, Tesla pushed the boundaries with the body-in-white by moving into a structural casting.

“We have to also be aware of and understand that the market’s moving towards further mixed material designs and mixed product form designs where there might be some changes in the market in the future.”

Although the materials associated with lightweighting, such as composites, are more expensive on a cost-per-pound basis, suppliers are increasingly able to make the case that they offer benefits that offset that expense, according to participants in a roundtable discussion held by the Center for Automotive Research last year.

Bloomberg reports that weight can also be decreased by improving battery pack energy density and more efficient design focused on mass reduction. However, lightweighting and battery pack energy density changes are costly and slow, the article states.

“Whoever turns things around the quickest has the best chance to compete with Tesla, which dominates the US EV market,” Bloomberg says. “Tesla has an all-electric fleet that’s similar in weight to the US average, despite the batteries. Perhaps its biggest trick in getting there was to convince customers that sometimes it’s OK to size down.”


Featured image: New SUVs parked for sale on a dealer’s lot in July 2o23. (Credit: Bilanol/iStock)

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