Existing Guardrails Inadequate for Heavier EVs, Tests Suggest

Crash test data from the University of Nebraska has revealed that existing road guardrails are not sturdy enough to handle electric cars. Since battery electric vehicles (BEVs) typically weigh more than conventional gas and petrol-powered cars, they are much more likely to crash through steel guardrails on the highway.

On average, an electric car weighs around 20% to 50% more than a similar fossil-fuel-powered vehicle. This additional weight is primarily due to electric-vehicle batteries, which can weigh as much as a small conventional vehicle. These batteries are usually placed along the bottom of an EV to lower its center of gravity.

This extra weight makes BEVs so heavy that existing guardrails cannot stop their movement. With EVs expected to replace a large chunk of the petrol and diesel vehicles on the roads, this data raises significant concerns about the future effectiveness of America’s roadside safety system.

During fall 2023, engineers from Midwest Roadside Safety Facility in Nebraska carried out a safety test using the 3.6 metric-ton Rivian R1T. The electric pickup truck was so heavy that it punched through the metal guardrail installed on a testing ground, barely slowing down until it crashed into a concrete barrier several yards away.

Cody Stolle from the Nebraska-based testing facility said the team knew the test would be “extremely demanding,” noting that the highway guardrail system was not designed to stop cars heavier than 5,000 pounds. These guardrails prevent drivers from veering off the road at cliff edges and ravines as well as over waterways and bridges.

However, their function seems to be significantly impaired when electric vehicles are involved. More officials and stakeholders are now raising concerns regarding the safety risks caused by the weight differences between electric cars and conventional gas-powered vehicles. In 2023, the National Transportation Safety Board noted that heavy electric cars pose major safety risks when they collide with lighter cars on the road. Some organizations and road-safety officials say that although electric cars can crush smaller cars in collisions, they provide superior protection to EV drivers.

The Rivian in the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility test barely had any interior cabin damage despite tearing through a steel guardrail and crashing into a concrete barrier. According to a response from Rivian Automotive Inc. (NASDAQ: RIVN), the electric truck used in the test was issued the highest safety award by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2023.

Stolle explained that electric vehicles aren’t compatible with existing guardrails and said the issue will become more prevalent as EV adoption expands. Consequently, mass electric-vehicle adoption will also force road engineers to adapt guardrail technology to ensure all drivers are as safe as possible.

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