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The Comeback of Small Cars and Trucks Is Good for Everyone

It’s likely that smaller vehicles are having a renaissance.

Published January 25, 2023 10:28AM EST

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Is the world of SUVs over? If you ask Vincent Cobée, CEO of the French automaker Citroen, then the answer is an overwhelming yes. He made this case in a series of interviews in Europe with statements that are discordant with what is happening in North America, where light trucks, SUVs, and pickups dominate the market.

Cobée told British car site Auto Express: “On a battery EV, if your aerodynamics are wrong, the penalty in terms of range is massive. You can lose 50 kilometers between good and bad aero, 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 put in bigger batteries. But Cobée said that won’t work long term: “People will start limiting weight and battery sizes, either through tax, through incentives, through regulation, through naming and shaming.”

He also noted that in Europe, at least, there is a cultural shift happening: “If you live in a big city, five years ago if you drop off your kids with a big SUV, you’re a man. Now, if you do this, you’re a ‘terrorist’ … ”

In an interview with The Sunday TimesCobée said “big batteries are wrong.” He called for more aerodynamics and better efficiency. He is not alone: We have written that electric vehicle efficiency still matters, and so does the upfront carbon of making them.

We quoted Peter Huether of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE):

“The environmental impact of EVs isn’t just about the electricity generated to power each mile. The manufacturing process also causes the release of greenhouse gases at several stages, known as the embodied emissions of the vehicle. EVs in particular—with heavy battery packs—use minerals that need to be mined, processed, and turned into batteries. The pursuit of greater driving range and larger vehicles requires increasing battery size, also increasing embodied emissions.”

The quantity of minerals that will have to be mined is mind-boggling. A new study led by Thea Riofrancos, associate professor of political science at Providence College, claims the U.S.’s transition to electric vehicles “could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market, causing needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its borders.”

Riofrancos calls for smaller batteries and reduced vehicle ownership.

“Compared to a decarbonization scenario that maintains US vehicle ownership rates, scenarios that reduce car dependency, and therefore use and ownership, and limit EV battery size can lower the demand for lithium between 18-66 percent. Even if the car-centricity of the US transportation system continues, limiting the size of EV batteries alone can cut lithium demand by as much as 42 percent.”

Cobée used an interesting analogy for excessive battery size, comparing it to a giant multi-day camping backpack: “Do you go to the office with that backpack? The answer is no. So why would you go to the office with a car with one tonne of battery?”

Ford

But even in North America, people may be getting over their fixation on vehicle size. The Ford Maverick, a compact pickup with a hybrid drive, has flown out of the showroom. Treehugger contributor Jim Motavalli called it “a welcome return to sanity.” Now General Motors is considering the introduction of an inexpensive all-electric pickup truck that is even smaller than the Maverick.

Others believe that cars and trucks will keep getting bigger as they go electric. Consultant and car guy Steven Lang noted: “Rising EV sales may be the final death knell for subcompacts. A highly efficient electric vehicle does far more to lift a company’s fuel economy average than a subcompact car, and automakers can build these EVs in the shapes and sizes that consumers prefer over subcompact cars.”

The automakers certainly prefer larger vehicles: “Automakers are unlikely to embrace building small cars with razor-thin profit margins.”

But the price and availability of lithium and copper might tell another story. It all comes back to a recurring Treehugger theme: sufficiency. How much car or truck do you need? How far do you have to go? These days, with the bumpy economy, how much can you afford? It’s likely that smaller cars and trucks are making a comeback, and this will be a good thing for everyone.

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