Solving Electric Pickup Trucks’ Achilles Heel: Towing & Range

Nichole S. Gehr

No matter who builds them, there’s no denying that it’s awesome to see the electric pickup truck world starting to come into reality. There’s the Tesla Cybertruck, which boasts some very impressive numbers, especially for the top package with 500 miles of predicted range. For buyers who think the Cybertruck is too disco, there’s the Ford F-150 Lightning coming. Other trucks, like Rivian, also promise some great things that they’re likely to deliver on.

All of these trucks have one big problem few are talking about: range when towing.

Car and Driver mentioned this problem recently in an article about the F-150 lightning. The Lightning will have the chops to tow big loads, no doubt. All that electric torque on tap means that some very impressive loads are possible, and Ford’s targeted 10,000 pounds is probably less than it could really do if you felt like pushing the limits (don’t do that, though). The problem isn’t capacity, but range.

With a gas-powered truck or SUV, range isn’t really an issue. There are gas stations everywhere, and putting in a full tank of new gas only takes 5 minutes. Yes, it sucks if your MPG gets cut in half and you’re buying twice as much fuel, but it’s still very practical to hook up a big trailer and tow to your heart’s content on even the most rural roads.

With an electric truck, losing half of your range is a much bigger deal. The lack of DC fast charging stations means you will often not be able to reach the next charging station at all with a trailer in tow. Even if you can get to the next one, you’ll spend a lot more time doing the charging. What was a relatively easy trip in a gas-powered pickup or SUV becomes a very slow-going and painful adventure.

Real-World Tesla Model X Numbers

The real numbers are worse even than that. Towing the maximum load a Model X can handle, Bjørn Nyland went up a mountain in one of his videos. On more flat land, it appears that towing that weight made for consumption numbers over 600 Wh/km, or 960 Wh/mile. Climbing up the steep hills, that number went up over 1500 Wh/km, or 2400 Wh/mile. That means that even a 100 kWh battery would be depleted in about 100 miles on the flats, and just over 40 miles climbing steep hills. Ouch.

Even lower weights and relatively aerodynamic trailers can present a challenge for EVs. One person I was talking to recently told me that he pulled a Hi-Lo camper (one that folds down to half its height for travel) and with far less weight than what Bjørn Nyland was pulling, but even then, consumption numbers for the Model X he was using were around 700–750 Wh/mile on the flattest segments of road going normal highway speeds. Assuming a completely flat route (those don’t exist in the real world), that reduces the range of the 100 kWh Model X down to under 140 miles, meaning it got less than half its original range.

In practice, with some terrain, the Model X was losing about 2/3 of its range.

Bigger Packs Will Help, But There Are Limits Even For Them

Sure, the Cybertruck is supposed to have somewhere around a 200 kWh battery pack, and the F-150 Lightning is supposed to have around 150 kWh, but simulations do show that there are going to be some serious limitations to these trucks, even with big batteries.

Between the numbers I’ve gathered for a small collapsible trailer (they tend to add 400 Wh/mile when pulling them) and a small non-folding trailer (they add about 600 Wh/mile), combined with the numbers A Better Route Planner (ABRP) has built in (this is usually provided by manufacturers or based on manufacturer information), we can estimate whether some of the upcoming trucks will be able to make it to some popular destinations, and more importantly, back home.

ABRP estimates the best tri-motor Cybertruck will consume 485 Wh/mile at 65 MPH, which isn’t a lot more than the targeted EPA rating of 500 miles. Dividing 200 kWh by 500 miles yields 400 Wh/mile, so only going up to 485 Wh/mile for 65 MPH is pretty impressive, and may be a low estimate.

Unloaded, the top-shelf Cybertruck would create a minor inconvenience if one was to take on the challenge of going from Phoenix to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and then back. On the way out, one would have to stop at the Flagstaff Supercharger (this is right at the top of one of the most intense highway climbs in the U.S.), and then stop at Page, Arizona’s Supercharger. No biggie.

Adding in the 400 Wh/mile for a modest travel trailer yields a problem: one would have to stop at both the Flagstaff and Page Superchargers, and then take the next leg of the trip at a maximum of 40 miles per hour — about 25 MPH below the speed limit on much of that route. Once at the end of the route, getting home to Phoenix (or the Interstate to take you elsewhere) would be a piece of cake due to the downhill nature of the ride after that.

Most people either wouldn’t be willing to drive like that (because going that slow is somewhat dangerous) or wouldn’t do it because they didn’t know better, and would end up getting stranded out in the boonies.

Now, add another 200 Wh/mile for a larger and/or less aerodynamic trailer (which is pretty normal at RV parks) and you start having serious problems on these rural trips. There simply isn’t enough battery power to get to the North Rim and back, even from Page, Arizona’s Supercharger.

I’ve checked with businesses and campgrounds along this route, and there’s no 50-amp RV service between Page and the North Rim. At the North Rim itself, there are no charging opportunities, with the possible exception of a 110-volt house plug that they may or may not let you use. There’s a restaurant and a hotel with Tesla Destination charging partway there, but that kind of beats the point of having an RV, doesn’t it?

Now, you can tell me this is an edge case, but not for somebody buying the tri-motor Cybertruck with its much-bragged-about towing and battery capacity. If they’re going to spend the extra bucks on this truck, many expect to be able to pull a modest camper basically wherever they want. They’ll want to be able to go to places like Carlsbad Caverns National Park, near El Paso:

Or, they might just want to be able to go from Denver to Los Angeles without needing to go 25 MPH below the speed limit on a big stretch of rural road:

Now, before anybody accuses me of bashing the Cybertruck because I don’t like it’s looks (it’s true, I don’t like the looks), let’s do Denver to Los Angeles with the same 600 Wh/mile trailer with the F-150 Lightning:

Or the Rivian R1T:

Every upcoming electric truck, with the best battery pack on offer for that truck, is going to be a ride on the struggle bus to make it to many parts of the country, and will even struggle a bit along some Interstate routes with decent access to fast chargers. And remember, this is with a fairly modest travel trailer, not the big three-axle toy-hauling behemoths we often see on American roads these days, which a half-ton truck can barely pull with a leveling hitch or as a fifth wheel.

None of these range simulations even come close to what it would take to haul a much larger trailer like this one. Photo by Jayco RV.

The problem is very real, but there is a solution.

There Is A Good Solution Here

ICE fanatics (I’ve been accused of that, even on here) would stop at about this point in the story and tell us that electric trucks are for wimps or communists, and that they’ll obviously never work for “real” truck use. Me? I think every problem is an opportunity in work clothes.

What we really need to be doing is finding ways to make trailers more efficient. The days of hauling around giant brick-shaped 10,000 pound monstrosities can’t last forever. Not only is it a waste of energy, but it’s intellectual sloth to think that we can’t come up with a better solution that fits the needs and wants of people hauling cargo and/or recreational trailers.

Obviously, the biggest issue is going to be aerodynamics. Blunt the edges a bit and you’ll cut the energy needs back. Go for even better teardrop shapes (actual teardrops, not rounded ovals) and you’ll use even less energy hauling the trailer around. Drop the trailer down a bit, or shape it to fit behind the truck that’s hauling it, and you’ll get ever better gains in efficiency.

Other things — like weight, the rolling resistance of 4 or 6 cheap trailer tires, and many other design choices — are holding everyone back, too.

What do you think about this challenge? What would you do to make travel trailers, cargo trailers, and utility trailers more efficient and better for the environment? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments!

Featured image by Jayco RV.


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