Home » EVs Are Just The Wrong Tool For Serious Towing In 2024

EVs Are Just The Wrong Tool For Serious Towing In 2024

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Gasoline cars are the wrong tools for city driving. I live in a big city, and when I step out of my BMW i3 and into my girlfriend’s Lexus RX350,I always think:”This is a good car, but it’s clearly the worse for this task.” Traffic hits me with the double-whammy of both wasting my time and wasting my fuel, whereas when the 405 turns into a total parking lot with me behind the wheel of my i3, I can at least take solace in the fact that my vehicle is in one of its most efficient driving conditions. The RX350 needs regular brake jobs because it doesn’t turn slowing-down into reusable energy. Not to mention, I have to fill up the Lexus at gas stations instead of just plugging in in my garage. But just as EVs are well suited to certain tasks like city driving, internal combustion engine-powered cars are also well suited for certain tasks, towing being chief among them. In 2024, EVs are just not the right tool for long-range towing, and this recent TFL Truck YouTube video makes that very clear.

It’s a tricky thing talking about EVs in 2024. Few topics are more polarizing; you’ve got EV skeptics on one side saying the government is shoving electric cars down our throats despite EVs being worse for the environment than gas cars (an erroneous claim), and you’ve got Elon Musk worshippers on the other saying EVs are a panacea for all human suffering. I was recently on Fox News talking about how hybrids are the most palatable vehicles for the most people in the U.S. today, and that they thus represent a great way to reduce carbon emissions, and of course I got flak from both sides. One side called me a weenie for liking hybrids, the other side said idiotic things like “hybrids are the worst of both worlds.” But being a car journalist means keeping it real, and all these years in the Lion’s den at Jalopnik mean my skin is thicker than a Cybertruck body panel. So I’ll keep it real when it comes to long-range towing: This just isn’t the right job for an EV.

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This might seem like a painfully obvious “take” to many, but to plenty of folks, the idea of an EV not being the very best at all tasks is a hard pill to swallow. But this is just how it is in 2024, and the TFL Truck video above — which shows both a Tesla Cybertruck and a Ram 2500 Cummins Diesel towing ATC 28-foot toy haulers weighing roughly 8,000 pounds each — makes that painfully obvious.

It’s not really about the driving dynamics. In theory, an EV makes for a great tow vehicle; they’re well-ballasted and planted (i.e. they’re heavy as hell), they offer prodigious torque, their regen tech offers relief for their friction braking system, there’s no transmission to overheat, and on and on. No, the problem really just comes down to energy density.

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I’ve talked about the concept of “Vehicle Demand Energy” before, but I feel like now that EVs are really making inroads into the mainstream, the concept becomes more important than ever. VDE represents the amount of energy needed to propel a vehicle down a road in a given driving condition/drive cycle.

The reason why daily-driving EV pickup trucks works is that around-town/highway driving doesn’t require a ton of energy, relatively speaking. If you want to daily-drive your Tesla Cybertruck or Ford F-150 Lightning or Rivian R1T, you’ll probably get close to your EPA-rated range (over 200 miles), and that’s probably enough. You’re propelling the vehicle plus maybe a passenger or two down the street, going up against bearing friction, gravity, rolling resistance, and — the biggest factor on the freeway — drag. 122kWh of battery capacity is totally enough when VDE is low.

But when you’re towing, especially up a grade, VDE jumps up massively; this is why Davis Dam is typically the “sizing” condition for vehicle cooling systems. You need a lot of power to pull thousands of pounds up a 5.7-percent grade. This is irrespective of whether your vehicle is an EV or if it’s gas-powered (OK, an EV require less cooling drag, reducing VDE, but that’s not a dominant factor that sets VDE).

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If you need a ton of power to get up a long grade, you need a ton of energy onboard, and sadly, EVs just don’t have that. A diesel truck like the Ram 2500 in the video above can handle long-duration, high VDE demands by carrying 30-ish gallons of diesel onboard. A single gallon of diesel is equivalent to 37.1 kW-hrs of energy, so the Ram has over 1,100 kWh of energy to pull from. Meanwhile, a Tesla Cybertruck has just 122.4 kWh onboard — that’s equivalent to just 3.3 gallons of diesel. Granted, the Cybertruck is much more efficient than the diesel Ram, but it’s not 10 times more efficient. Which is why its range is so terrible when towing a heavy load.

TFL managed to tow its heavy trailer 85 miles, with about 10 miles left on the battery, for a total of about 95 miles of range. That’s not good. As TFL notes, to tow the 1,000 miles from Colorado to LA, they’d have to recharge 11 times, and since it takes about 40 minutes to recharge the battery, they’d have to spend over seven hours charging. The diesel truck needed 8.73 gallons to travel 85 miles, so its range given its tank capacity of probably 31 gallons (there’s an optional larger tank) is about 300 miles. So if they were to do the same trip to California, they’d have to fill up four times; at a total of about 5 minutes each, that’s 20 minutes to refill the Ram versus seven hours to recharge the Cybertruck. And that doesn’t even factor in route changes in order to get to Tesla Superchargers. Yikes!
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But it’s not even just about range or charging time. It’s also about cost. And this is maybe the less obvious takeaway from this video. To travel those 85 miles required the Tesla Cybertruck to expend 107 of its 122 kWh. At a cost of 35 cents per kWh (which seems about average – maybe a little on the low side), the Cybertruck cost $37.45 to travel those 85 miles. The Ram 2500? Its 8.73 gallons cost a total of $26. While TFL’s local diesel cost of less than $3 a gallon is definitely lower than the average diesel price in the U.S. of $3.62, even if TFL had paid the average, they’d still have only paid $31.60 — about 15% less than the Tesla.

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Then there’s the issue of charging, which — as I mentioned before — you’ll be doing 11 times trying to drive 1,000 miles. “You could take up 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Supercharger stalls,” Roman says in the video above. Why? Because many Supercharger locations don’t have pull-through chargers, meaning you have to back the truck up close to the Charger, which you cannot do with a trailer hooked on. TFL, as shown above, had to unhook the trailer just to charge the truck.

“I wouldn’t recommend towing something this large a long distance,” says Andre in the clip. “It’s all about the right tool for the right job; this is just not the right tool,” chimes in Roman. “I had another 250 miles range according to the [Ram]…right tool for the right job,” continues Roman.

The two did mention a similar test they did in an F-150 Lightning; Tommy from TFL managed a range of just 86 miles, with 9% battery remaining. Tommy estimates the truck would have done 95 miles before the battery was completed depleted:

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Roman and Andrew also mention a Silverado EV test they did. They managed to tow a smaller trailer over 230 miles on a single charge:

How did the Silverado EV pull this off? By just having more energy onboard. Over 205 kWh. Unfortunately, with an EV, if you want more energy onboard, it’s a lot more complicated than slapping in a larger blow-molded fuel tank and filling it with more fuel — you have to install more heavy, expensive, dirty-to-mine batteries.

As batteries become cheaper and more energy dense, EVs will begin to make more sense as serious tow rigs, especially as charging infrastructure improves to include more pull-through chargers that don’t require disconnecting the trailer. Whether they’ll be cheaper is not yet clear; the Silverado not only has a big, expensive battery onboard, but filling up that battery would have cost $98 to fill (about the same as a gas truck towing the same distance) if TFL had used the 48 cents-per-kWh Electrify America charging station, per the video above. Yikes.

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Still, it’s worth noting that EVs are cheaper to maintain that ICE-powered trucks, and what’s more, even the giant battery-having trucks (which require more resources to be built) will be better for the environment in the long run from an overall emissions standpoint.

For now, though, EVs trucks are 1. too expensive. 2. require far-too-frequent charging. 3. cost too much to recharge 4. require unhooking the trailer. And I could go on and on with drawbacks; I do think that EVs as serious tow-rigs (and not just casual around-town tow trucks — a role that they’re proficient at, as mentioned in the clip above) will eventually make sense. But that time is not now.

For short-range towing or daily-driving though, where VDE is low, an EV pickup would be great. I drive my low-range BMW i3 on electric-mode everyday, and for commuting duties, I’ll never go back to ICE.

Does This Even Matter? Yes It Does. Because Car Buying Isn’t Logical

You might think that none of this matters. People rarely tow anyway, so we should all still love EV pickups. But that’s not how the human mind works.

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The argument “Most people don’t need to tow 8,000 pounds 1,000 miles at a time, so EV trucks are totally better than gas trucks” is about the same as saying “Most Porsche owners don’t drive fast around a track, so a twist-beam rear axle is fine” or “Most people don’t need hundreds of miles of range, so a used Nissan Leaf is fine instead of a Tesla Model S” or “Most Jeep Wrangler owners don’t go offroad, so let’s just make them two-wheel drive.”

People buy vehicles because of their potential. It’s been this way since the beginning of time. People aren’t buying a machine, they’re buying an image, and the image is based on what the truck is capable of, not what most folks will actually use the truck for. So if someone sees that a Cybertruck or an F-150 Lightning can only tow 100 miles at a time before needing to sit on a charger for 40 minutes, they might lose all interest in that truck even if they will only ever use the truck to take their kids to school and soccer practice. It’s just reality.

Images: TFL Truck

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Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
7 days ago

“Large boxy EV with not amazing range gets even less range when hooked up to a large, boxy heavy object”

This surprises literally nobody.

Last edited 7 days ago by Urban Runabout
MrLM002
MrLM002
8 days ago

I somewhat agree, however I think that there is plenty of heavy towing in town that can be done by BEV.

Right now what we need is advancement in trailer tech in the form of regenerative braking. That’s a great and simple asset, the issue becomes where to send the power generated by regenerative braking.

Every current production BEV I know of cannot charge while driving.

A battery pack in a trailer drives up the cost and weight.

I think it would work for certain use cases like refrigerated or frozen goods trailers, but trailer tech definitely needs to advance.

Pappa P
Pappa P
8 days ago
Reply to  MrLM002

As a BEV slows down with a trailer attached, the weight of the trailer will contribute to the tow vehicles regenerative braking, so the energy is already being recovered into the tow vehicle’s battery.
A regenerative system for the trailer would only be beneficial when towing something like a reefer, where the trailer actually needs a power source.

MrLM002
MrLM002
8 days ago
Reply to  Pappa P

How many road legal Trailers over 2000lbs do you know of without brakes?

If it’s going to have brakes why not make them regenerative brakes?

Pappa P
Pappa P
8 days ago
Reply to  MrLM002

That’s a good point. If the trailer has trailer brakes, there should be a way to recover that energy. I’m thinking a simple alternator or generator setup, with an extension cord and a simple software fix.

It's a minivan
It's a minivan
8 days ago

“People buy vehicles because of their potential. It’s been this way since the beginning of time. People aren’t buying a machine, they’re buying an image, and the image is based on what the truck is capable of, not what most folks will actually use the truck for.”

I think this is sometimes true but definitely not always. An hbr study identified the types of promises a brand can make to a consumer. About a third of brands make functional promises, ie what the product can do. However, brands also frequently make emotional (how you’ll feel) (35%) or how enjoyable it is to buy (22%). There’re also brands that sometime lean on value, sustainability, or making amends.

So why might I buy a cybertruck over an f150 (or a whatever over a something else)? Maybe I think a cybertruck is more capable, but more likely I’ll feel like a baddass in my stainless steel tank with unbreakable (ish) windows. Or more likely a combo of the above.

If this all just boiled down to the underlying capabilities of a car, many of us wouldn’t drive what we do. DT would have recognized long ago that most of his fleet is terrible. While rational capability seems like it should underpin a vehicle’s story and feeling, and sometime it absolutely does, emotion goes beyond that. That why Jason drives a Pao.

ExParrot
ExParrot
8 days ago

A plug-in series hybrid pickup with a small diesel combustion engine-generator seems it would be the Goldilocks solution for anything intended to tow.

Whatever is the smallest battery pack that can achieve 800V for high torque. Ideally around 30 kwh to provide for at least 60 miles. Size the diesel at around 150 hp to run continuously during tow operation.

Regarding the diesel generator, having a large battery pack could allow for use of high bio-diesel or even vegetable oil blends as you have the ability to keep the tank heated and the fuel with a low enough viscosity. With the electric powertrain, EV only range, and a renewable fuel source, I would ask the question of whether the diesel emissions equipment requirements could then be relaxed (DPF, NOx catylists, and DEF injector elimination) to simplify the powertrain and increase reliability and efficiency).

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
8 days ago
Reply to  ExParrot

This is in line with my opinion on the industry kind of missing a major potential for easy improvement. Either a normal hybrid or PHEV powertrain would allow the ICE to be sized for efficiency with the EV capability handling increased power demand under load, plus you’d have regen capability to capture energy otherwise lost braking and descending hills.
I like your idea of mentioning alternative diesel options which, when you consider diesels are pretty efficient at a constant engine speed and load, I could see a strong case for the emissions concessions you mentioned.

ExParrot
ExParrot
8 days ago
Reply to  Jason Smith

If 90% of actual driving miles are going to be 0 tailpipe emissions, and the actual operation of the combustion engine is on long distance over-the road miles that tend to be outside population centers, then it would stand to reason that there would be minimal benefit to having the equipment.

Needs to be a data-driven decision though.

My personal number one reason to support electrification though is to reduce or eliminate the use of friction brakes. The concept of just grinding a pad against an iron rotor to turn energy you’ve spent money on into heat is crude and wasteful when that energy can be recaptured and reused. Looking forward to when Regen can provide 1G of braking.

Who Knows
Who Knows
8 days ago
Reply to  ExParrot

For most use cases, I don’t think you’d even need to go the diesel route, since I’m seeing peak brake thermal efficiency numbers (40+%) for purpose built gas engines that are not far off from similarly sized diesel engines, as long as the engine can be fully optimized around a narrow operating range and power density isn’t a priority. This sort of range extender application, where the engine is just running a generator steady state would be fine, and could probably be even a bit more optimized than the engines for hybrids that usually have these sorts of high efficiency engines.

If the engine is only needed for say 20% or less of driving, then durability isn’t as much of an issue (100k miles engine = 500k miles vehicle), and aftertreatment could just be a TWC.

Seems like any of the larger trucks with IFS could have a standard hybrid drivetrain from a normal car installed in the front, the 30-40 kWh of batteries you mention, and a rear e-axle, and be off and running as an EV for daily distances, with the engine available for the occasional longer trips.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
8 days ago

The absurdly long video about towing with 4 EV trucks over the Rockies might be worth a skim

https://youtu.be/LJFbevgCsig?si=8n89E5Iv9__UerWG

Seriously Out of Spec Reviews…2.5 hours? Edit!

That being said, its clear that its not an impossible task, you just need more batteries.

To go from the “small” Silverado EV pack of 180 to over 200 kw with the 4WT is about 10 grand. Which is exactly how much it cost to go from a gas 6.6 to a diesel and people make that choice all the time.

I think we need to see a big jump in energy density before it becomes normal to tow with EV, but I don’t agree that EV isn’t for serious towing. Right now if towing is your job…yes, an EV will cost you too much time. If Towing is part of your lifestyle, then a Silverado EV or something with similar power will do you just fine.

anAutopian
anAutopian
8 days ago

So you’re saying if I really want an EV truck to get the Semi?

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
8 days ago

Human behavior to irrational buy due to potential, either thru learned behavior under captialism and/or a desire to be cool as hell is always fascinating to me. As it end stage seems to eventually harm producer. Example, the bicycle industry. I’ only briefly worked in the industry, but I’ve been racing road bikes for over a decade now and made alot of friends in the various levels in the industry. The top level of the industry is all “Bike Guys”, who like cool, fast bikes. The entire focus of the industry has been on making marginal gains in speed at the cost of comfort and usability. The market has been steadily losing consumers to gravel as amateur level of racing/group rides/community started to become more professionalized. Then Covid happens, first time since Lance was a little too honest on Oprah, theres actual demand for road bikes. And the industry pushes all thge WFH, high income earners who would be naturally consumer number one for the bike industry into the top models. Sworks, RSL, Evos, these like 10k race weapons. The thing is these bikes are built so well for one specific purpose, there actually terrible to just ride around. Just wildly stiff, built towards a slammed fit. I’ve ridden hundreds of bikes, and the new 14k Sworks Tarmac SL8 is one of the worst bikes at just riding around I’ve ever ridden. And they were selling these things to just some dude who is looking for something fun to do. Then they went to their local group ride and half the peloton is like “yeah, I’m riding 12 hours plus a week.” So, some dude goes out and tries to ride 12 hours at zone two on a carbon fiber 2×4 with wheels. And his back, wrist and neck hurts like hell, and he is like “screw this”, and sells the thing at a massive loss and takes up running. And now half the industry is going solvent because it was entirely built on hooking whales.

I know its not an apple to apple comparison, as bicycles are a luxury good, and its alot easier to stop ridding a bike then driving. The morale though, it’s all fun and high profit margins to sell the coolest stuff. At some point however, you’re selling something so unusable for actual day to day function, that your consumer can feel jaded in mass and then you’re stuck with a bunch of high end specialized product sitting collecting dust till the bank comes and takes it.

Yngve
Yngve
8 days ago

Totally agree. It is interesting to see Spesh realizing this as well, and coming out with the Aethos for folks who want a high end road bike that isn’t all about aero…ditto the plethora of ‘allroad’ bikes that are starting to pop up. I’m actually trying to sell my not super racy road bike, as I spend all of my time on my gravel rig these days.

It almost looks like the car industry is coming to terms with this as well. Recently there’s been a small uptick in PHEVs as the market realizes that BEV trucks are dumb. I’d be particularly interested to see how an F150 Hybrid and RAM’s new Hybrid would perform in the above test.

Ryan L
Ryan L
8 days ago

Growing up my neighbor towed his 19ft bayliner with a 85 Delta 88. It just didnt’ make sense to buy a dedicated towing rig to drive a boat to and from the boat launch.

I know you tried to quiet this arguement with the “people buy for the potential” but that wont stop me from asking – what percentage of the truck buying populace really buys it to do heavy towing vs bringing the boat to the launch or towing a small trailer of 4 wheelers.

Can a CyberTruck or Ford Lightning handle towing a polaris ranger to the cabin say 130 miles away?

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
7 days ago
Reply to  Ryan L

Grandpa towed his 28′ Airstream with his 1971 LTD.
I wonder what a Lucid Air Touring could do with a similar trailer?

Last edited 7 days ago by Urban Runabout
Jb996
Jb996
8 days ago

Strictly from a physics/chemistry standpoint, hydrocarbons are a wonderful energy storage medium. They are far more energy dense than our best ion/charge storage batteries, and will be for the foreseeable future. They are liquid and dense at room-temperature making storage easy, unlike hydrogen. They can be transferred quickly and easily, unlike either electron charge or high-pressure hydrogen.

I wonder what the world would look like if as much money was put into synthetic fuel (like Porsche has dabbled in) as has been put into batteries and EVs?

I understand that making synthetic fuel requires enormous energy, but at a grid-level, I think that environmentally friendly energy generation is easier than at the consumer level. And synthetic fuel is created using carbon captured from the environment (from plants grown within the last year, which have extracted airborne carbon), so overall, it is carbon-neutral.

Last edited 8 days ago by Jb996
V10omous
V10omous
8 days ago
Reply to  Jb996

I truly think this is where we end up, unless it becomes practical to put 500 kWh batteries in trucks.

Solar and wind power are falling rapidly in price; soon we will have more power than we know what to do with. Using that electricity to make what amounts to a super dense and transportable battery (e-fuels) might be the best way to keep heavy trucks, airplanes, very large ships, etc. powered. With the upside of existing ICE vehicles being able to use the fuel without much modification if any. Something that wouldn’t be true of say, hydrogen.

Aaron
Aaron
8 days ago
Reply to  Jb996

To paraphrase Justin Roczniak, the problem with oil is that it’s really, really good.
Short of micro-scale nuclear reactors, it’s virtually impossible to beat the energy density of hydrocarbons because the earth did all the hard work over millions of year. While the point-of-use density of e-fuels is similar to that of “organic” fuels, the net energy density is still going to skew well into the wrong direction. The amount of energy needed to extract C02 from the atmosphere, crack the carbon off, desalinate seawater, crack the hydrogen off, then combine the carbon and hydrogen atoms in the correct way is going to be massive.

If we’re going to bank on technologies that are perpetually just around the corner, solid state batteries and hydrogen fuel cell range extenders are probably a safer and more efficient goal. Sure, we’d have the benefit of being able to maintain existing fleets, but how long until most of those vehicles age out versus when e-fuels will be ready for wide scale adoption?

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