By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
(CNN) — With the GMC Hummer EV, General Motors designers and executives wanted to create a vehicle that would destroy stereotypes about electric vehicles and what they’re capable of doing. On that count, the GMC Hummer EV is a remarkable success. It is unlike any EV — or really, any vehicle with any form of power — before it.
I just hope that EV stereotypes are the only things Hummers will be crashing through. Weighing over 9,000 pounds, the GMC Hummer EV has twice the mass of many other gas-powered SUVs, let alone ordinary cars. In the event of a crash, that mass could represent a serious risk to others on the road. After spending a day test driving the Hummer on-road and off, I was impressed by its capabilities, but I was left worried that its mass paired with its power could be dangerous.
And that’s because the Hummer EV is very good. It has absurd amounts of power. It has four-wheel-steering to help it turn as tightly as a compact car. It rides as smoothly as any other luxury SUV. But it weighs about three times as much as a Honda Civic.
It does so many things so well that it did a great job of making me think the laws of physics had at last been left behind. But they haven’t. Helping you forget that your truck weighs 9,000 pounds isn’t the same as it actually weighing less than 9,000 pounds. And forgetting what you’re really driving can be hazardous.
The Hummer brand is no stranger to heavy-weight vehicles. It was created back in 1992 by a company called AM General, which made the original Humvee military vehicles. The name Humvee, derived from “High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle,” was changed to Hummer for the versions AM General sold to the public. The original Hummer H1, only slightly changed from the armored military truck, weighed about 8,000 pounds.
After GM bought the trademark, it introduced the Hummer H2 in 2002. Still huge, but essentially a standard full-size SUV, it weighed 6,400 pounds. The brand became the target of environmentally conscious customers appalled by the evident waste of gasoline these big trucks represented. The brand was formally dissolved in 2010 as part of GM’s bankruptcy restructuring but now has been brought back as a GMC sub-brand for extreme electric trucks and SUVs that, ironically, weigh even more.
The GMC Hummer EV Edition 1, which costs over $100,000, has three electric motors that can produce as much as 1,000 horsepower. This big truck can go from zero to 60 miles in about three seconds, similar to a Ferrari of just a decade ago. All that power means that, from the driver’s seat, this immensely massive truck doesn’t feel nearly as heavy as it is.
Though I don’t think I’ve ever driven anything as heavy as the Hummer on public roads, I’ve driven plenty of big gas- or diesel-powered trucks. It’s always felt obvious to me that I was control of something huge and heavy. I would, of course, drive accordingly, slowing down a bit and being even more careful.
The Hummer fills a lane side-to-side and is almost 7 feet tall. So, yes, I could see that it was big, but it responded quickly, easily and quietly to the accelerator pedal.
It rides as smoothly as any luxury SUV. The steering can be a bit sloppy — I often found myself having to make slight adjustments coming out of a turn — but, for a big truck, it was hardly anything terrible.
The Hummer EV is also incredibly capable off-road and, thanks, again, to that four-wheel-steering, able to maneuver on trails you might not think it could manage. All four wheels can also turn in the same direction allowing the truck to drive diagonally, The truck moves forward but sideways at the same time as if it were sliding across the ground. Situations where that’s helpful are rare, but it’s a neat trick.
‘Safety’ is relative
I couldn’t shake my worries about safety, though. Not my own safety, so much, but that of others around me on the road. Electric vehicles, with their heavy batteries, tend to weigh more than gas-powered vehicles of similar size. The Hummer EV Edition 1 is just an extreme example.
Of the more than 65,000 Hummer EVs GM has so far said it will build, most won’t have the Edition 1’s 24 battery modules, three motors and underside skid plates that contribute to its gigantic mass. (When asked, GM would not say how many Edition 1 models they will ultimately build.) But they’ll probably still be very heavy. They also may not share all its issues with visibility. This version, which marks a high-point in the weight and speed of electric trucks, raises questions about an automaker’s responsibilities to those who share roadways with their creations.
There’s a simple physics to car crashes. When two moving objects meet, each one will tend to keep going at the speed and in the direction it had already been moving. They can’t both do that once they hit each other. The heavier object will push into the lighter one, shoving it violently out of the way. In crashes between heavier and lighter motor vehicles, those in the lighter vehicle are more likely to die or suffer serious injuries, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
This Insurance Institute has demonstrated this in crash tests. Even with vehicles that were relatively close in weight, the disadvantages of those in the lighter car were clear. It’s also clear from insurance claim data from small, light vehicles. People in heavier vehicles are, conversely, less likely to be injured, but it’s a zero-sum game. Their safety comes at a cost to others. It’s unclear whether the danger to other vehicles continues to increase as the weight gap increases, said Rader, because there are just not many examples of vehicles as heavy as the Hummer. There’s really no way to quantify it until real crashes happen.
A lot also depends on Hummer drivers, Rader said. It could turn out that those who buy the Hummer are extraordinarily conscientious and rarely crash. One other thing we know from insurance claims statistics, he said, is that high-horsepower vehicles tend to get in more — and more serious — crashes resulting in more deaths and injuries. This is true even in vehicles that don’t weigh anything like 9,000 pounds.
GM’s engineers were aware of the potential trouble that could be caused by the Hummer Edition 1’s weight, spokesperson Mikhael Farah assured me. Throughout the development process they worked to ensure all that weight could be kept under control. A number of safety technologies, available on many vehicles, such as pedestrian detection and lane keeping assistance are standard on the truck. The Hummer is also available with Super Cruise, GM’s hands-free highway driving assistance feature that Consumer Reports has called the safest of all such systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot. During my test drive, it ably took control of the big truck and even changed lanes on its own while a driver monitoring system ensured I paid attention to the road.
The engineers even selected the tires to ensure the shortest possible stopping distance, Farah said, a claimed 157 feet from 60 miles an hour. Farah said that’s shorter than some internal combustion-powered trucks. It’s hardly typical, though. The average pickup truck can stop in 140 feet, more than a car length shorter than the Hummer Edition 1’s stopping distance, according to Consumer Reports, which tests these things. The Hummer’s stopping distance is more similar to a really large heavy-duty truck, the kind used for serious work, said Alex Knizek, an engineer with Consumer Reports. Those trucks are designed to carry heavy loads the Hummer EV cannot.
Heft isn’t just a problem with the Hummer EV Edition 1. Other electric trucks will also weigh a lot. Without passengers or cargo, the Ford F-150 Lightning weighs about 6,500 pounds — still very heavy — and the Rivian R1T weighs over 7,000 pounds. By comparison, a Chevrolet Tahoe full-size SUV weighs about 5,500 pounds. A Nissan Sentra weighs 3,000 pounds.
But At Some Point, It’s No Longer A ‘Car’
Extreme weight creates trouble in another way. America’s vehicle safety regulations were designed around the assumption that very heavy vehicles like this would be commercial trucks, not vehicles ordinary people will drive on errands and for fun. The Hummer’s official Gross Vehicle Weight Rating is 10,550 pounds. That figure, which represents the weight of the truck itself plus the maximum weight of occupants and cargo it can carry, means different safety rules apply.
For one thing, the mirror on the right hand side of most passenger vehicles is curved to provide a broader view of the road behind. (Hence, the “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” etching.) Because the Hummer EV’s total weight rating is over 10,000 pounds, though, federal rules require it to have a flat mirror on the side rather than a wide-angle one. The rationale is that heavy trucks are assumed to be big and long, so drivers of these vehicles would need to more accurately assess the distance of vehicles next to them.
When I test drove the Hummer EV, the flat mirror seemed to leave significant blind spots. I quickly learned to rely on the Blind Spot Monitor light before changing lanes. I would recommend to General Motors, given the fact that drivers are really going to need that blind spot to be monitored, that light should be more prominent. It’s inside the side mirror glass itself where it can be hard to notice in the visual clutter. Other automakers, like Volkswagen, put BSM warning lights near, but not in, the mirror so they stand out more.
The GMC Hummer has lots of cameras, but they mostly come into use only off-road where they help drivers see over steep hill peaks and keep an eye on obstacles on the trail.
Automakers like Hyundai and Kia offer side cameras, in addition to mirrors, that come on whenever the turn signal is used. And the big Toyota Tundra pickup offers a forward facing camera that can come on when the truck is moving slowly, like when it is approaching a stop sign or driving in a parking lot. These are good ideas other automakers use that would be useful on the tall, blocky GMC Hummer. GM appears to have a blind spot when it comes to blind spots.
GM’s goal with this truck was to create an eye-popping demonstration of EV capabilities. That could have been accomplished with a concept truck. Engineers could even have built a half-dozen or so real Hummer EV Edition 1 trucks and put them into the hands of professional drivers for demonstrations showing what was theoretically possible in an electric truck without making it available for sale to the public.
People might have been disappointed, but General Motors could have set an important precedent for the auto industry by acknowledging that limits on what constitutes a good idea are no longer constrained by the limits of technology, and proceeded accordingly. Hopefully, the stopping distance on this trend toward increasing weight and power will be shorter than this truck’s.
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