It is the weight of an elephant, can move like a crab and in a previous life was mocked by environmentalists. The Hummer, the avatar of gas-guzzling machismo, has returned as an electric vehicle with unlikely billing as an ally in efforts to avert the worsening climate crisis.
The reincarnation of the huge pickup, test-driven by the Guardian in Arizona’s scorching heat, has been hailed by manufacturer General Motors (GM) as proof that electric vehicles (EVs) can now reach even the most obdurate followers of supersize car culture in Middle America.
GM hopes to dispel the notion that green cars have to look like a Prius under skinny Hummer wheels. “We want to turn EV skeptics into EV believers,” said Mikhael Farah, a GM spokesman. This Hummer has even been endorsed by the White House as a boon for the climate—in November, Joe Biden screeched around GM’s Detroit factory in a Hummer EV. “This saucer is something else!” exclaimed the president, a self-confessed “car guy.”
It’s a stunning reimagining of a brand that was created from a spartan, military-grade Humvee and became a kind of muscular invading force on roads in the early 2000s. Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he started issuing serious warnings about climate change, advocated it. Boxy and unrefined, the Hummer embodied an oddly masculine aesthetic that seemed almost to revel in its gargantuan fuel consumption.
Even at a time when the size of cars has been taken on steroids, concerns about the climate crisis made the Hummer a prominent cartoon villain. In 2003, dozens of Hummers were vandalized and set on fire by environmental activists in Los Angeles, with many of the vehicles spray-painted with the words “gross polluters” and “fat, lazy Americans.” In 2010, Hummer was discontinued.
The electric resurrection of the Hummer, first announced in 2020, has produced a vehicle that doesn’t emit the carbon pollution that’s overheating the planet or many of the other toxins that routinely kill thousands of Americans and millions worldwide who breathe polluted air.
But in many ways it still pushes the boundaries of absurdity. The vehicle weighs more than 4.5 tons, a bulk closer to that of a small bulldozer than the kind of cars commonly seen on American streets a decade or so ago. The massive Ultium battery that powers the vehicle weighs nearly 3,000 pounds, about the same as two grand pianos. The wheels look like they could cross Mars.
The large display panel in the Hummer’s thick interior really shows a picture of the car on Mars when you put it in off-road mode. Of course, most trips are on roads—nearly half of car trips in American cities are three miles or less—which means Hummer drivers will be piloting a metal behemoth that weighs the same as a young blue whale when they go out to get some milk. “The Hummer is a niche statement of excess,” according to Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
The price for the first Hummer EV iteration – subsequent models will be cheaper – is $110,000. About 66,000 people have ordered a pickup or SUV version of the Hummer, and while GM says most people have never owned an electric car before, many are also adding it as a second or third vehicle, somewhat negating the climate benefits. “It’s huge, it’s terribly expensive and it doesn’t fit every lifestyle,” said Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research. “GM is not going to overproduce it because there is a limited base of people who want it.”
On its own terms, however, the Hummer EV is a capable piece of technology. Fully charged, the battery will drive the vehicle for 329 miles before needing a top-up. The Hummer is nimbly powerful on rocky terrain, with the test drive showcasing its ability to effortlessly traverse plunging, bumpy trails in the cactus-dotted desert west of Phoenix.
The task is supported by a host of technology – the Hummer has 18 different camera angles from below and around the vehicle that you can see via the screen, as well as an innovation called “crabwalk”, where each of the tires is set at a 10-degree angle to enable a kind of sliding , diagonal movement to maneuver away from steep edges of tracks.
On the flat, it’s a raw pace too, with the instant response of electric acceleration catapulting the Hummer forward from a standstill to 100km/h in three seconds, a speed that might make both passenger and driver let out a cry of surprise.
Inside, the Hummer EV is more comfortable than the original and features lunar topography designs—a nod to GM’s role in creating a moon buggy, which was, of course, electric—but it retains a certain butch aesthetic. This points to Hummer’s broader significance – a demonstration that electric vehicles can now provide the power, size and responsiveness that American buyers appreciate, even if they still only account for a small share of sales.
“What we wanted to do is get a truck buyer who would never buy an electric car in their life, or never even think about it,” said Brian Malczewski, chief exterior designer for the new Hummer. “We’re hoping to finally get the truck buyers who might be the hardest to get into this space. This is the perfect channel for that, I think.”
GM is not alone in attempting this. Ford has announced an electric version of its F-150 truck, which has been the best-selling vehicle in America since Ronald Reagan was president, Tesla has its much-hyped Cybertruck, and newcomers like the Rivian have gotten a lot of attention. At the other end of the market, you’ll even be able to get an electric Maserati this year, although like many electric cars, the price is eye-catching.
“I think electric powertrains for heavier work trucks, SUVs and pickups, like the Hummer, are going to be great,” said Chris Gearhart, director of NREL’s Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences. “The torque profile of an electric motor will give these vehicles a lot of traction, and the potential to use some of the electric power in the batteries to directly power work stations and provide backup power could make these vehicles incredibly useful.”
While EV options are expanding, it remains unclear whether production levels and sales will increase in step with the urgency of the climate crisis. GM has promised to sell 1 million electric cars by 2025 before going all-electric a decade later, but delivered only 26 electric cars to customers in the final quarter of last year. Toyota wants to sell 3.5 million electric cars annually by 2030 but currently has none for sale in the US. Public charging infrastructure remains uneven across the United States, and Biden’s attempt to fund 500,000 new chargers has yet to be passed by Congress.
Phasing out gasoline cars by 2035, which the U.S. must do if it is to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and help avoid climate catastrophe, remains a steep challenge, but several experts say replacing them with similar electric alternatives will be the fastest and most pragmatic , ways to reduce emissions from car-dominated American life.
“Electric cars are by far the best and most economical way to reduce greenhouse gases in transportation,” says Sperling. He added that better public transport, cycleways and denser housing would also be beneficial, but these measures are “much less important for reducing greenhouse gases, to leasing in the US and other rich car-centric countries”.
Others argue for a more fundamental change that moves people out of cars altogether, rather than simply replacing one type of large vehicle with another. Last month, Harvey Miller was crossing the road in Columbus, Ohio, when he was knocked to the ground by an SUV, leaving him bruised. Miller said the “devastated” driver, who said she had not seen him, luckily stopped the car before crushing him to death.
Miller was walking home from Ohio State University’s campus where, ironically, he teaches classes on transportation safety and urban mobility. The incident underscored for him the lingering problems with America’s fixation on wide highways, sprawling suburbs and huge vehicles, even as electric cars become the norm.
SUVs are much more likely to kill pedestrians than cars, research has found, because of blind spots from the elevated seating position and bulky fronts that hit people high in the torso and head rather than lower in the body. Their ubiquity in American life can also crowd out or scare away those who seek other means of getting around.
“The Hummer scares me — it’s massive and not compatible with urban life,” Miller said, adding that SUVs can also be dangerous. “These large vehicles take up a lot of space and are expensive. I’m disappointed that Biden is championing them and not other forms of mobility, like walking and cycling infrastructure. Cars should fill niches for some people, not be the standard.
“I’m not against electric cars – they’re the future, but you have to support buses, walking and cycling too, otherwise it’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. People need alternatives. Unfortunately, car culture is so ingrained that even painting a cycle lane can get a huge shock.