Guardrails on US roads may not be ready for heavy new electric cars

New testing shows that modern electric cars are often too heavy to be stopped by the average guardrail during a crash.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studied how modern electric vehicles behaved during test crashes against guardrails.

In one test collision, a 7,000-pound Rivian R1T electric pickup barely slowed down as it smashed through a standard steel guardrail.

In another test crash, a Tesla sedan plowed under the guardrail, lifting it over the vehicle.

“We knew it was going to be an extremely demanding test of the roadside safety system,” said Cody Stolle, assistant director of The Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The system was not made to handle vehicles greater than 5,000 pounds.”

Some electric cars can weigh as much as 50% more than a comparable combustion engine vehicle, and their centers of gravity sit lower to the ground thanks to the arrangement of their batteries. Combined, these characteristics make them more likely to overwhelm steel guardrails that were designed to corral lighter vehicles.

Electric vehicles are often safer for their occupants than combustion vehicles in the event of a collision. Rivian has pointed out that the truck used in the test crash has received the 2023 Top Safety Pick+ award, the highest safety rating awarded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But last year, officials the National Transportation Safety Board said they were worried about the new safety risks heavy electric vehicles presented.

“We have to be careful that we aren’t also creating unintended consequences: More death on our roads,” said NTSB head Jennifer Homendy. “Safety, especially when it comes to new transportation policies and new technologies, cannot be overlooked.”

And experts say as the proportion of electric vehicles on the roads grows, so will the need to improve shared safety features.

“Right now, electric vehicles are at or around 10% of new vehicles sold, so we have some time,” Stolle said. “But as EVs continue to be sold and become more popular, this will become a more prevalent problem. There is some urgency to address this.”