As General Motors Co. prepared in 2020 to go all-electric, it didn’t look to a normal sort of vehicle. It started with the Hummer.
In its original form, this mammoth off-road truck had horrible gas mileage and was a magnet for controversy. But in a commercial that GM paid for during the Super Bowl that year, the electric Hummer became something else. Its battery would endow it with even more capabilities than before — astonishing 1,000 horsepower and lightning speed — while also carrying the halo of zero carbon emissions.
Here was a vehicle, GM hoped, that could have motorheads and greenies trading high-fives.
“We think they’re going to love it.” said Phil Brook, then-head of marketing of GMC, told Automotive News after the broadcast of the ad, which incongruously featured basketball star LeBron James shattering a backstop in slow motion. Brook added, “The Hummer EV has incredible capability with zero emission, it really is the best of both worlds.”
But if a mission was to extract the Hummer brand from controversy, it failed.
The new Hummer is once again creating divisions and igniting a new debate over how big and powerful an EV ought to be. And importantly, the criticisms against it could also be leveled against other big trucks and SUVs that are key to automakers’ electrification plans, from the Ford F-150 Lightning to the Tesla Cybertruck.
Regulators are starting to take up the issue, including National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy, who delivered remarks Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
“I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power, and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles,” Homendy said Speaking specifically of the Hummer, she said its weight “has a significant impact on safety for all road users.”
When the original Hummer crested in popularity nearly two decades ago, it created a culture clash between the off-roaders who appreciated the truck’s rock-hopping ability and environmentalists who decried its spectacularly wasteful 10 miles to the gallon.
In the mid 2000s, SUVs and trucks were starting to go supersize. None were bigger than the Hummer. Adapted from the U.S. military’s Humvee transporter, its biggest fan was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cigar-chomping actor-turned California governor.
At the same time, a backlash against big vehicles was forming. Many Americans turned to the new hybrid Toyota Prius as they woke up to the connection between burning gasoline and heating the climate.
The new emerging conflict is different. It pits EV advocate against EV advocate.
On one side are the same off-roaders — or wannabe off-roaders — who appreciate the abilities afforded by the Hummer’s electric platform, like its speed and 1,000 horsepower. Automotive reviewers have lauded the truck’s special features, like variable suspension to clear obstacles, four-wheel steering, underbody cameras and removable glass roof panels.
On the other side is a new breed of environmentalists and urbanists who say the city street has no room for a 9,000-pound beast that is wider than LeBron James is tall.
“The revamped Hummer no longer emits tailpipe emissions, but it’s still an environmental and societal disaster,” wrote David Zipper, an urban mobility analyst, in a recent op-ed for Fast Company. He cited data showing that the Hummer is dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. He added that the battery is so large that the vehicle’s emissions exceed those of a gas-powered sedan when the emissions to generate the electricity are factored in.
The Hummer, he added, is “a warning about how car electrification could go off the rails if regulators give Detroit a free hand.”
Such criticism unsettles those whose mission is to foster all kinds of electric vehicles. Ben Prochazka, the executive director of the nonprofit Electrification Coalition, thinks a broad consensus is needed to persuade a doubtful public that electric vehicles are for them, no matter what they drive.
“If we’re only building sedans, we miss out on a huge part of the market,” he said. “We’re limiting ourselves if we’re limiting what vehicles we can make electric, especially right now.”
Over the top
The split among EV supporters raises some difficult questions: In an age of rapid climate change and limited resources, should America simply reproduce the huge but wasteful SUVs and trucks that are currently so popular? Or should policymakers steer drivers toward vehicles that are small and modest, and use less resources — in other words, the opposite of the Hummer?
Critics say the new electric truck is dangerous to people because it has too much speed, damaging to roads because it has too much weight, and too consumptive of resources that few people scarcely thought about when the first Hummers were in their heyday.
Meanwhile, General Motors — whose mantra these days is “Zero Emissions, Zero Crashes and Zero Congestion” — never hesitates to point out that it is the only traditional American automaker to commit to electrifying all its vehicles by 2035.
In response to a request for comment late last year, the company sent a long list of the Hummer’s features intended to keep both driver and those around the vehicle safe. “Our customer’s safety is a top priority regardless of the type of propulsion or mass of the vehicle,” wrote Mikhael Farah, GMC’s spokesperson, in an email.
The heart of the controversy
Each of the complaints about the Hummer is intimately connected with its Hummer-sized battery. At 2,923 pounds, the battery alone is heavier than an entry-level Honda Civic.
The battery is the biggest contribution to the vehicle’s extraordinary curb weight of 9,063 pounds. That is heavier than the biggest traditional Hummers, heavier than Ford’s heaviest pickup truck, the Ford F-450 Super Duty, and, as Zipper points out, the same weight as three Toyota Corollas.
The battery also makes possible the instant torque that gives the Hummer and other EVs much better acceleration than traditional cars. Hummer really reaps that speed: Despite its hulking profile, it goes zero to 60 mph in just over three seconds, as fast as a Ferrari.
This combination — brick-like weight plus lightning speed — worries road safety advocates in an era of large vehicles and reckless driving.
Last year, 7,485 American pedestrians died after being struck by drivers, the highest number in four decades, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Larger, heavier vehicles generally create more carnage than small ones.
“I’m distraught we’re missing this opportunity to tie issues of climate health with literal safety on the roads,” said Leah Shahum. She is the founder of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit that aims to redesign cities to make the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Vision Zero Network’s website advocates for calming traffic by lowering vehicle speeds and building features like roundabouts, while also “incentivizing transit and smaller vehicles over menacing, tank-sized personal vehicles.”
The weight of the battery also weighs on the minds of infrastructure advocates, who worry about the wear and tear that heavier electric vehicles will cause on America’s roads and bridges.
Finally, the battery is of growing importance to those who consider the Earth’s limited resources.
As Rodney Sobin, a program director at the National Association of State Energy Officials, put it in a recent webinar, “The electric vehicle isn’t the magic bullet that now says you can drive around guilt-free in your 4-ton truck all over the place to buy milk.”
The topic of Sobin’s webinar was critical minerals, a previously obscure resource that future Hummer drivers might be obliged to feel guilty about.
The rising tide of electric vehicles has vehicle makers scrambling to find enough of metals like lithium, manganese, cobalt, graphite and nickel to make batteries. A worry is that prices for these materials will shoot through the roof, making the EVs unaffordable for the masses and prolonging the gas vehicle’s reign.
Given the scarcity of minerals, some wonder if it’s wise to lock these resources into oversized private vehicles that spend most of their time parked in a wealthy person’s garage.
That prospect led Olaf Sakkers, a mobility venture capitalist, to write a post on LinkedIn in September where he coined a term.
“The consequence has been the creation of battery sponges — like the monstrous Hummer EV but also every Tesla — that suck up limited resources into their over-engineered bellies and trap them there for a decade or more,” he wrote.
On Twitter, people in the mobility space have pointed out that a Hummer’s 205-kilowatt-hour battery could be partitioned to power about 400 electric bicycles. Put another way, it could suffice to power an electric bus that carries dozens of children to school each day.
The electric Hummer is even being tagged with a phrase that dogged the old, gas-guzzling one: bad for the climate.
According to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a clean energy advocacy group, the per-mile emissions of an electric Hummer are higher than that of a gas-powered Chevrolet Malibu sedan. That’s because the electric grid, with its own fossil fuel emissions, has to feed that Hummer torrents of electricity.
“Behemoth EVs can still be worse for the environment than smaller, conventional vehicles,” wrote Peter Huether, an ACEEE transportation analyst.
While the Hummer’s superlatives makes it an easy target, other large and desirable EVs are vulnerable to the same criticisms because they approach the Hummer’s prodigious size, weight, speed and use of battery materials.
The longest-range version of Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, exceeding the heaviest internal-combustion-engine version by three-quarters of a ton. The most powerful and long-range version of the Rivian R1T pickup truck — made by a company that highlights its desire to preserve the planet — might weigh in at 7,148 pounds, almost as much as the biggest gas- and diesel-powered Hummers weighed back in the day.
Rugged EV dreams
Other EV advocates, meanwhile, think that any drawbacks of a massive, rock-hopping, demon-fast Hummer are more than made up for by the particular yearning it conjures.
“There are folks out there that will want to have a dream car of some sort that drives their motivation,” said Zach Henkin, a director of EV research at the Center for Sustainable Energy, a clean energy nonprofit.
He and others believe that aspirational vehicles like the Hummer are what will get people on board with electric vehicles, even if they wind up in a sensible, affordable little SUV like the Chevy Equinox. “People want to drive their audacious vehicles, and we should let them, encourage them even (if it’s zero-emission at least),” he wrote in an email.
A lot of drivers seem to be at least a little serious about buying electric Hummers.
About 90,000 people put down reservations until GM closed the list in September, saying it could make no more. But those reservations — for $100 and refundable — are a far cry from actually purchasing a Hummer, which in this model year is available for $112,000 or more.
As of September, GM had made and sold 782 of them, according to a report from Kelley Blue Book.
The backlash against the Hummer and other heavy EVs is still at the murmuring stage, and hasn’t yet hardened into corporate-shaming campaigns or sheaves of policy proposals.
It popped up last year in Washington, D.C., where the city raised registration fees on weighty vehicles. The premise: Heavier vehicles cause the city to spend more to fix damage to roads, and cause more serious accidents.
Starting in 2024, drivers with vehicles over 6,000 pounds will pay an extra $500 fee, and vehicles over 3,500 pounds a more modest surcharge. However, there’s an incentive for EVs. To encourage their purchase, the city trimmed the taxable weight of any electric vehicle by 1,000 pounds.
The think tank RMI has a proposal that takes that approach several steps further. In its framework, state motor vehicle departments could sculpt vehicle fleets to meet climate goals. They would do so by tailoring registration fees to encourage climate-friendly factors like low weight, fuel efficiency, fewer miles driven or proximity to transit.
While disagreement over the wisdom of electrifying behemoths like the Hummer is growing, most EV advocates are approaching the conversation on tiptoe.
After all, every actor in the debate — vehicle safety types, resource experts, electrification advocates, even many aspiring Hummer drivers — agrees that vehicle electrification should occur as soon as possible, and wants to be on a united front.
The question is how to think and talk about the Hummer, which once again has become a magnet for strife.
“People don’t know what to do,” said Shahum, of the Vision Zero Network, who said she has gingerly brought up the topic in conversations with a partner environmental nonprofit, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Nobody wants to be the one to rain on the parade in a win to improve the climate,” she said. “The last thing anyone wants to do is pit these needs against each other.”