Crash tests indicate the country’s crash barrier system cannot handle heavy electric vehicles

LINCOLN, b. – Electric vehicles that typically weigh more than gasoline-powered cars can easily crash through steel highway barriers that aren’t designed to withstand the extra force, raising concerns about the nation’s roadside safety system, according to crash test data released Wednesday by the University of Nebraska.

Electric vehicles typically weigh 20% to 50% more than gas-powered vehicles, thanks to batteries that can weigh almost as much as a small gas car. And they have lower centers of gravity. Because of these differences, guardrails can do little to prevent electric vehicles from penetrating barriers that are typically made of steel.

Last fall, engineers at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility in Nebraska watched as an electric-powered pickup barreled toward a guardrail installed at the facility’s proving ground on the edge of the local municipal airport. The nearly 4-ton (3.6 metric ton) 2022 Rivian R1T tore through the metal guardrail, barely slowing until it hit a concrete barrier a few feet away on the other side.

“We knew it would be an extremely demanding test of the roadside safety system,” said Cody Stolle of the facility. “The system is not designed for vehicles over 5,000 pounds.”

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The university released the crash test results at a time when the rising popularity of electric vehicles has led transportation officials to raise alarm about the weight difference between the new battery-powered vehicles and the lighter gas-powered ones. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board raised concerns about the safety risks that heavy-duty electric vehicles pose when they collide with lighter vehicles.

Road safety officials and organizations say the electric vehicles themselves appear to provide superior protection for their occupants, even though they could prove dangerous to occupants of lighter vehicles. The Rivian truck tested in Nebraska showed virtually no damage to the interior of the cab after crashing into the concrete barrier, Stolle said. In response to the publication of the test results on Wednesday, Rivian Automotive Inc. noted that the truck used in the testing received a 2023 Top Safety Pick+ designation, the highest award given by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But the entire purpose of guardrails, which are found along tens of thousands of miles of roadway, is to prevent passenger vehicles from leaving the road, says Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. Guardrails are intended to prevent cars from going off the road in critical places, such as over bridges and waterways, near the edges of cliffs and ravines, and over rocky terrain, where injury and death in an off-the-road accident are much more likely . .

“Guardrails are kind of a safety feature of last resort,” Brooks said. “I think what you see here is the real concern with electric vehicles: their weight. There are a lot of new vehicles coming out in this larger range in that £7,000 range. And that is a concern.”

The preliminary crash test, sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, also involved a Tesla sedan crash, in which the sedan lifted the guardrail and went under it. The tests showed the barrier system is likely to be outpaced by heavier electric vehicles, officials said.

The extra weight of electric vehicles comes from the oversized batteries needed to achieve a range of about 300 miles per charge.

“So far we don’t see good compatibility between vehicles and barriers with electric vehicles,” Stolle said.

More tests, involving computer simulations and test crashes of more electric vehicles, are planned, he said, and will be needed to determine how to design road barriers that minimize the effects of crashes for both lighter gas-powered vehicles and heavier electric vehicles.

“Right now, electric vehicles make up about 10% of new vehicle sales, so we still have some time,” Stolle said. “But as EVs continue to sell and become more popular, this will become an increasingly common problem. There is some urgency to address this.”

The facility has seen this problem before. In the 1990s, as more and more people began buying lightweight pickups and SUVs, the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility discovered that the then 50-year-old guardrail system proved inadequate to handle their extra weight. So it became about redesigning guardrails to adapt.

“At the time, lightweight pickups made up 10 to 15% of the fleet,” says Stolle. “Now more than 50% of the vehicles on the road are pickups and SUVs.”

“So here we are again trying to do the same thing: adapt to the changing composition of vehicles on the road.”

It’s impossible to know what that change will look like, Stolle said.

“They can be concrete barriers. It could also be something else,” he said. “The scope of what we need to change and update is yet to be determined.”

Philip Jones, executive director of the Alliance for Transportation Electrification, which supports the use of electric vehicles in North America, questioned why electric vehicles were singled out in the tests, noting that several large SUV models can weigh about 6,000 pounds .

“The EVs are not necessarily heavier,” Jones said. “I drive a Chevy Bolt and it weighs 3,700 pounds.”

But he acknowledged that the first generation of electric vehicles is heavier overall than their gas counterparts. Successive generations will likely be lighter, he said, as manufacturers work to make smaller batteries that can carry more current.

The Federal Highway Administration declined to immediately comment on the test results in Nebraska.

Concerns about the weight of electric vehicles go beyond vehicle-to-vehicle collisions and compatibility with guardrails, Brooks said. The extra weight will affect everything from faster wear and tear on residential streets and driveways to car tires and infrastructure like parking garages.

“Many of these parking structures were built for vehicles that weighed 2,000 to 4,000 pounds – not 10,000 pounds,” he said.

“What really needs to happen is more collaboration between transportation engineers and vehicle manufacturers,” Brooks said. “That’s where you might see real change.”

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