Ford and the University of Michigan's life-cycle emissions assessment of electric trucks found that carbon reductions grow with vehicle size.

Keep on trucking: Electrifying pickups reduces more emissions than other vehicle types

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA, accounting for nearly one-third of emissions. Investments in and production of electric vehicles are booming as automakers rush to meet growing demand for lower-emission vehicles. Yet amid all the EV talk, little data has been released quantifying emissions reductions from electrifying one of America’s most popular vehicles: the pickup truck.

Ford teamed up with the University of Michigan to evaluate life-cycle assessments of electric pickup trucks’ emissions compared with internal combustion engine models and how they contribute to overall transportation decarbonization.

The study

The researchers performed a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment on electric trucks and compared the data to that from electric sedans and SUVs. 

They examined three different powertrain options on 2020 model vehicles: internal-combustion engines, hybrid electric, and battery electric. Each engine type was examined for midsize sedans, midsize SUVs, and full-size pickup trucks. The team noted differences in factors such as fuel economy, annual mileage, and vehicle production. The results indicate that battery-electric sedans, SUVs, and pickup trucks have about 64% lower greenhouse gas emissions over their life cycle compared with internal-combustion models. 

But a key finding is that the actual tons of emissions saved is greater for pickup trucks than for the other vehicles. Because larger vehicles consume more fuel, the researchers concluded that emissions reductions grow as vehicle size increases. 

Over vehicles’ lifetimes, battery-electric sedans save about 45 metric tons of carbon dioxide over internal-combustion models, SUVs save 56 metric tons, and pickup trucks save 74 metric tons. 

Another notable finding is that battery-electric vehicles cause more emissions during manufacturing than internal combustion-engine vehicles, largely due to battery production. However, this impact is offset by reduced emissions while the vehicle is operating. Sedans break even on emissions in 1.2 to 1.3 years, pickup trucks in 1.3 years, and SUVs in 1.4 to 1.6 years.

Regional variations

The study highlighted regional differences in vehicle emissions due to weather and electric grid power mixes. Temperatures and driving conditions affect a vehicle’s fuel economy. And EV life cycle emissions are affected by how the electricity used to power them is generated. For example, an electric vehicle primarily charged with solar power may have a smaller overall carbon footprint than one that relies on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

Life-cycle emissions for each vehicle class and powertrain, accounting for differences in grid emissions for electricity balancing areas and county-level differences in drive cycle and temperature effect on fuel economy.
Life-cycle emissions for each vehicle class and powertrain, accounting for differences in grid emissions for electricity balancing areas and county-level differences in drive cycle and temperature effect on fuel economy. Credit: Maxwell Woody et al 2022 Environ. Res. Lett. 17 034031

The researchers developed maps showing the grams of CO2 equivalent generated per mile over the lifetime of each powertrain and vehicle type by county across the U.S. Battery-electric vehicles still outperformed internal combustion models in nearly 99% of counties, and they outperformed hybrids in about 96% of counties.

Future implications

The study results can help increase manufacturers’ and the public’s understanding of the decarbonization impact of EVs versus internal combustion engine vehicles. It gives automakers insight for reaching carbon neutrality as they introduce new EV models. 

The study also could influence EV charging strategies. For example, the researchers concluded that charging EVs during times of day with the lowest power grid emission intensity — such as overnight, when wind is at its peak — can offer an average of 11% emissions reduction.

“This is an important study to inform and encourage climate action. Our research clearly shows substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be achieved from transitioning to electrified powertrains across all vehicle classes,” Greg Keoleian, U-M professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability, said in a news release