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As EV sales surge and cars get heavier, parking garages have to change

Charging points at an underground car park in England. The number of EVs on our roads is increasing.

Peter Titmuss/UCG | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Driving is changing. Today, hybrids and pure electric vehicles are a common sight around the world, and the overall size and heft of cars — whether they’re fully electric or use internal combustion engines — is increasing.

From the accessibility of EV charging points to noise levels, new designs and technologies have already created a range of issues that will need to be addressed in the years ahead.  

Parking garages (known as multistory car parks in the U.K.) are one area where the proliferation of EVs and bigger vehicles is expected to have a major impact.

Earlier this year, the London-based Institution of Structural Engineers published updated design guidance for car parks.

The wide-ranging document covers all structures where cars can be parked — including those on multiple levels, underground or within residential and office buildings — and how they are designed, built and maintained. The guidance has been written for all stakeholders involved in car park design.

One potential issue relates to the load of what we drive. According to the institution, the average vehicle’s weight has increased from 1.5 metric tons in 1974 to nearly 2 metric tons in 2023.

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In a statement, it said the reason behind the weight increase was “due to electric and hybrid batteries and the size of cars increasing.”

“This extra load and the changing fire safety requirements are all considerations not just for new car parks, but for existing structures too,” it added.

Speaking to CNBC, Chris Whapples, a fellow of the institution and contributor to the guidance as an author and overseeing consultant, said some of the market’s top-end executive cars and long-range SUVs were now coming in at over three metric tons.

When the guidance was released in June, there was much focus on the potential collapse of some car parks under the weight of heavier vehicles.

“It is something we have to consider, but we mustn’t be too alarmist about it,” Whapples told CNBC.

“The thing to bear in mind is that the ones that cause the damage, if you like, are the heavy vehicles — not the vehicles that are heavier than they were 40 years ago but still within the capacity of the design for car parks,” he went on to explain.

The latter type of vehicles are still in the majority, he said. Nevertheless, the trend for bigger vehicles shows no sign of letting up.  

“We’re seeing increasing numbers now of SUVs, large executive cars — both fossil-fueled and battery ones — and pickup trucks, which are immensely heavy.”

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The cumulative load of these vehicles in parking garages could present some challenges in certain circumstances. 

“If one pickup is significantly overloaded and that car park is weak, that’s a potential disaster waiting to happen,” Whapples said. Planning and preparation is, therefore, key — hence the updated guidance.

“We said, as an industry, we must actually check our car parks out and make sure that that’s not going to happen,” Whapples said. “Because what we want is the public to maintain confidence in our car parks and structural engineers.”

One way of doing this is to make sure that garages are structurally assessed.

“If it’s not strong enough, then it will need strengthening,” he added. “It may not need strengthening everywhere, it might be just individual elements.”

If this option turned out to be “prohibitively expensive,” Whapples said that vehicles could potentially be screened before entering these garages. Another possible solution could see the “heavyweights” remaining on the ground floor.

Fire safety and sprinklers

When it comes to electric vehicles, another area of concern relates to fire safety. That’s because while EV fires aren’t common, putting them out can be challenging.

“To actually extinguish an EV fire is very, very difficult — particularly if the battery is on fire, because you’ve got so much energy that’s locked in,” Whapples said.

He went on to highlight the potentially crucial role sprinkler systems could play going forward, especially in underground facilities.

“Although the sprinkler system will not put out the car fire, it will reduce the rate of spread within the car park, so it’s constantly … ‘quenching’ the car next to the one that’s on fire, and stopping that one from catching fire.”

This should give the fire service time to get to the site and tackle the flames.

While EV fires are a “worry,” Whapples highlighted that vehicles using gasoline also have the potential to ignite and create challenging situations.

Not ‘anti-EV’

Discussions about how parking lots and garages need to change to accommodate new types and sizes of vehicle extend beyond the U.K.

In Feb. 2023, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, launched a task force focused on developments related to the “fire safe deployment of recharging points in covered parking garages.”

AVERE, The European Association for Electromobility, co-leads the task force alongside the Commission.

In a statement sent to CNBC, the Brussels-headquartered organization said the task force “aims to create guidelines to help national and local authorities implement rules to welcome EVs in covered car parks while maintaining fire safety.”

The statement also said the “rise of e-mobility … helps us mitigate climate change and brings new questions, including weight and the impact on car parks.”

EV charging and parking spots at a site in England. The number of EVs on our roads is increasing, creating challenges and opportunities for parking lot design.

Dana Kenedy | Istock | Getty Images

Among other things, AVERE stressed the importance of establishing a discussion involving a wide range of stakeholders — from parking operators and firefighters to EV representatives, insurers and companies that manufacture and operate charging points.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle fire safety and weight/size increase for all buildings,” its statement noted. “It is easier to change the structures of future car parks, but existing car parks represent a different challenge.”

“That being said, we need to ensure that the rules for existing buildings find the right balance to allow parking operators to operate them at a reasonable cost while increasing fire safety.”

More than 10 million electric cars — a figure that includes plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles — were sold in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.

Looking ahead, the Paris-based organization, which is viewed by many as an authority on the energy transition, estimates that nearly one in five new cars sold this year will be electric.

Back in the U.K., Chris Whapples was keen to look at the bigger picture. “The Institution of Structural Engineers, and myself in particular, are not anti-EV,” he said.

“We’re really trying to facilitate new car parks to actually cope with EVs and the general increase in size of vehicles across the board.”

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