Key pointsThe weight of cars in Australia is rising, with the average car weighing 2.05 tonnes.The two most popular new vehicles in Australia are utes, both of which are among the heaviest on the market.Heavy vehicles are harder to stop, make accidents more intense and emit more pollution.
Australia has a weight problem, experts warn, and it has less to do with what we put in our mouths than what we put on our roads.
The average weight of cars in the country is rising, with the two top-selling vehicles among the heaviest on the market and SUVs and utes making up more than three in every four cars sold in Australia.
The trend, partly fuelled by tax incentives, could impact on passenger and pedestrian safety, they say, as well as on pollution levels, and is likely to come under greater scrutiny as motorists transition to electric vehicles.
Figures from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries show heavier SUVs made up more than half of all vehicles sold last year, at 53 per cent, while substantial light commercial vehicles such as utes represented 23 per cent of vehicles sold in the country.
The physical burden of vehicles in Australia has been steadily climbing for more than a decade, with new vehicles now weighing an average of 2.05 tonnes.
Utes are popular but heavy
An industry insider, who asked not to be named, said rising vehicle weights were not something many in the automotive industry wanted to address.
“Three quarters of Australia’s new car market is SUVs and utes and that didn’t happen overnight,” they said.
Griffith University lecturer Anna Mortimore says financial incentives had fuelled the trend, such as fringe-benefits tax cuts for utes.
“We’ve had a huge uptake of large utes and that’s probably what’s going to be a difficult area to rein in,” she said.
“The popularity of utes needs to be addressed some time between now and 2030.”
Utes currently represent the two most popular new vehicles in Australia, the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger. Both of these vehicles are also among the heaviest on the market, weighing more than three tonnes each.
Are electric cars heavy?
Even though they are regularly blamed for weight issues, the two electric cars ranking among the top 10 sellers weigh significantly less, with Tesla’s Model Y at 2.4 tonnes and MG’s ZS EV at 2.06 tonnes.
iMove Australia managing director Ian Christensen says despite their use of dense batteries, electric vehicles could lighten the burden on Australia’s roads if consumers chose to swap utes for modest SUVs.
“If, for some unexpected reason, people decide to give up their HiLuxes for small electric ones, you would get a big reduction in weight but that’s not coming from vehicle technology but consumer choice,” he said.
What’s the problem with heavy vehicles?
Rising vehicle weights are seen as a safety issue by some, Mr Christensen says, as greater weight makes vehicles harder to stop and brings more energy into accidents.
The issue is not new to vehicle manufactures, he says, which are seeking to mitigate the risk by adding greater safety features to modern vehicles, such as crumple zones, airbags, and autonomous braking.
But Australian Electric Vehicle Association national president Dr Chris Jones says both manufacturers and policymakers should take action to reverse growing vehicle girth.
“It’s an engineering challenge to get electric vehicles of satisfactory range light enough but that’s a challenge manufacturers need to embrace,” he said.
Could taxes help stop the rise in vehicle weight?
Another way to stem rising vehicle weight, said Mr Jones, would be to change the way motorists pay for roads.
The association has previously recommended a “mass multiplied” road user charge that see all drivers pay for how many kilometres they drive each year, multiplied by the weight of their vehicle.
Under the scheme, driving a heavy ute or a large electric vehicle for long distances would cost owners more.
“People would have to think about weight when they buy a vehicle,” he said.
What about trucks?
A more pressing issue, Mr Christensen says, will be how Australian roads deal with even heavier vehicles: battery-electric trucks.
Australia’s bridges, roads and overpasses were not necessarily built to hold as much weight as some of the new freight vehicles, he says, and would demand immediate attention from transport researchers and policymakers.
“We will have to allow heavier trucks on the road, otherwise, there’s no way we can adequately decarbonise transport, but we’ll have to be watchful for damage and get truck operators to avoid taking their heavier trucks over roads and bridges that are unable to bear their weight,” he said.