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Alternating Currents: What if every truck in the United States sold was a Rivian R1T?

Electric trucks are coming. Lots of electric trucks are coming. The first one to market appears as if it will be Rivian’s much ballyhooed R1T. It’s a cool looking truck, and I honestly hope they sell hundreds of thousands of them. It’s not likely to be an incredibly efficient truck, and it’ll certainly be a large resource drain, but anything that gets America’s truck-buying culture to kick its greenhouse gas emissions habit is all right by me. I got to thinking the other day, “What if every truck sold in the U.S. next year was a Rivian? What would that look like?” so now we’re going to do a little bit of math to figure that out. 

Truck sales 

Full-sized pickup trucks are pretty much the market leader here in the U.S. as it consistently outsells every other segment in most states, and there are so many options in this segment. It includes the Ford F-series, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, Ram, Toyota Tundra, and Nissan Titan. They’re big, bold, brash, and highly inefficient modes of transportation. Most important for this conversation, they combined for 2,334,940 unit sales across 2020. 

Medium-sized trucks are a much smaller market, but shouldn’t be discounted. The Toyota Tacoma is more than a third of this market, but plenty of other competitors are available, including the Honda Ridgeline, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Chevrolet Colorado, Nissan Frontier, and Jeep’s Gladiator. This segment is less than a quarter of the one populated by its larger siblings, selling 608,275 units last year

So in just one year Americans added 2,943,215 new trucks to the road. I won’t get into commercial trucks or heavy duty models, as it’s unlikely the Rivian R1T will replace those in any appreciable manner yet. 

Fuel economy

Obviously not all trucks are equal, and some achieve far better fuel economy than others, but I’m trying to come up with a decently reliable figure without digging too deep into the weeds. According to the EPA, the small pickup class posts combined city/highway fuel economy numbers between 17 and 23, while the large truck class can see numbers as low as 12 and as high as 23. With a combination of scientific method and SWAG, I determined that a good representative number for the average new pickup sold is 19 miles per gallon combined. (Honestly, that’s probably a little conservative, as truck sales tend to be weighted toward larger engines, 4 wheel drive, and larger body configurations these days, but I’ll give the truck people the benefit of the doubt.) Certainly we’ve seen worse, but in 2021 is 19 mpg really an acceptable number? I contend that it isn’t.

The average American drives 13,476 miles in a year. With an average of 19 mpg, each truck on the road is burning approximately 709 gallons of gasoline. Over the course of one year owners of brand-new trucks are consuming 2,086,739,435 gallons of dino juice. Billion, with a B. 

Carbon emissions of ICE trucks

Each gallon of gasoline consumed is converted into twenty-three-point-six pounds of the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide from ‘well to wheel’ as is commonly accepted. Extend that math and we’re seeing 24,623,525 tons of carbon. Twenty-four million tons. Every year. Only from trucks, and only in the United States. 

Carbon emissions of Rivian R1T 

Now, obviously I’m not going to gloss over the emissions caused by driving electric. For the moment our electric grid is still polluting with fossil fuel energy creation, and obviously it does cost a good bit of carbon to produce the battery pack mounted in each Rivian in the first place. A lot of this data is contested, so for now I’m going to use the same numbers that Engineering Explained came up with in their recent video (it’s a good video, you should watch it). That means we’ll be dealing with about 330 pounds of carbon per kilowatt-hour of battery built. 

Rivian has said that it will offer the R1T with three different battery packs, a 105 kWh pack, a 135 kWh pack, and a 180 kWh pack. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say they’re all 180 kWh large packs (which technically won’t be available until 2022). If every new truck buyer purchased a 180 kWh Rivian R1T instead of their gasoline pickup, it would cost around 29.7 tons of carbon emission per truck just in batteries, or 87,413,485 tons. 

Keep in mind that a 180 kWh battery pack is massive, and not all Rivians will be sold with that, but I want this exercise to compare an average scenario for ICE to a worst-case scenario for EVs. You know, just to prove a point. 

Electricity needed to power millions of new Rivians 

We’ve previously calculated that we think the R1T will achieve about 2.17 miles per kWh of energy. Extrapolate that out to annual consumption by dividing 13,476 miles by 2.17, and we’ll see 6,210 kilowatt-hours of electricity to drive an R1T for a year. That’s 18,277,772,046 kilowatt-hours of electricity needed to charge and operate a national fleet of electric pickups from Normal, Illinois for one year.

When you multiply that by the 0.952 pounds of CO2 created by the national electric grid to produce a kilowatt-hour, you get annual emissions from 2.3 million Rivians equal to 8,700,219 tons of CO2.

How electricity production and carbon emissions would change

The American power grid currently produces and consumes about 4.2 trillion kWh per year. If you add an extra 18.3 billion kWh on to that to account for all of these excess electric pickups miraculously appearing in driveways, this would account for an increase in American energy consumption of about 0.4 percent. Negligible. We see bigger increases than that in December when everyone puts up holiday lights! 

So what about emissions? Would a Rivian fleet be better for carbon emissions than the current F150/Silverado/Ram/Sierra/Titan/Tundra/Ridgeline/Ranger/Canyon/Colorado/Frontier/Gladiator fleet? 

According to all of our numbers above, the Rivian fleet would start out at a carbon deficit to the ICE trucks because of the extra carbon created in the production process as it relates to batteries. 87,413,485 tons is not an insignificant number of tons. BUT! The Rivian fleet would also produce around 16.5 million fewer tons of CO2 in the energy used to power them per year. Divide 87,413,485 by 16,523,306 and the Rivian fleet would ‘pay off’ its carbon deficit within 5 years and 4 months of ownership. 

Conclusions 

  1. Considering the average car on the road today is 12 years old, it’s safe to assume that each new EV pickup sold will easily reduce the national truck fleet’s annual carbon emissions. 
  2. No, I don’t think Rivian will sell nearly three million units next year. But if it did, it would have a net long-term benefit for the environment. 
  3. If you’re going to buy a big electric pickup, please consider buying one with a smaller battery. Actually, if you’re going to buy any EV, please consider buying one with a smaller battery. The emissions caused by building those big packs takes much longer to ‘pay off’. All things equal, the 105 kWh Rivian R1T would cause about 12 tons fewer of carbon emissions for production, and would reduce that pay off time to about 3 years and 2 months. 
  4. Americans buy too many trucks.
Written by Bradley Brownell
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