How Far Can You Tow With an Electric Truck?

2021-12-22 06:22:59 By : Mr. Bruce Yu

As more and more types of vehicles become electrified, a persistent question has hung over all-electric pickup trucks: What happens when you tow? Now that the first mass-production, long-range, all-electric pickup truck—the 2021 Rivian R1T—is on the market, we can find out.

With more than 100 years of gas- and diesel-powered towing on the books, the world is pretty familiar with what happens when you put a trailer on the hitch. Fuel economy while towing is, compared to driving around empty, abysmal. Pulling thousands of extra pounds, especially at freeways speeds, takes a lot of extra fuel. The same applies to battery-powered vehicles, which today don't have the luxury of a gas station at every freeway exit.

Although we've towed with electric SUVs in the past, they could only give us a general idea of what to expect. SUVs just can't tow as much as full-size pickups and aren't really intended to on a regular basis, anyway. Pickups, though, need to be able to fully utilize their beds and tow hitches day in and day out if the owner demands it. Their owners, in turn, need to know what the vehicle's real-world limits are, so we hitched up a 9,000-pound trailer to a new Rivian R1T during our Truck of the Year competition to find out.

Our R1T was a Launch Edition equipped with the standard 135-kWh battery and 21-inch road wheel and tire package, EPA-rated at 314 miles of range. Our trailer was a flat tilt-bed car hauler loaded with the Dirt Every Day Chevrolet Astro van we stole out of the company storage lot, with the van itself loaded with 16 100-pound horse stall mats for ballast. In total, the trailer weighed 8,992 pounds and was hitched to our 7,134-pound R1T for a gross combined weight of 16,135 pounds. All R1Ts have a maximum conventional towing rating of 11,000 pounds, and the company claims pulling that load will cut your range by 50 percent to roughly 159 miles.

Before we hit the open road with the truck loaded up to 82 percent of its maximum towing capability, we needed to get a feel for how it tows. Weighing over 7,000 pounds empty, we didn't expect it to get pushed around by the trailer, but that can depend on more than just weight, and you never know how a vehicle is going to tow until you try it.

Closed-course testing revealed the R1T to be very stable while towing the trailer loaded to 7,500 pounds. The air springs and cross-linked hydraulic anti-roll bars did an excellent job of countering the forces applied by the trailer while cornering, accelerating, and braking. The body control lent a feeling of solidity and confidence while towing.

Instrumented testing revealed the truck was still able to accelerate to 60 mph from a stop in 7.5 seconds, only 4.4 seconds slower than unladen. For safety reasons, we don't measure emergency stopping with a trailer, but we did find Rivian's integration of the trailer brake controller into the instrument cluster and steering wheel controls well-executed and easy to use.

Real-world testing is different than a proving ground, so to get an idea of how public roads, traffic, and hills would affect the R1T while towing, we started with a short 39-mile run from California City, California, up to Tehachapi, with the trailer loaded up to its full 8,992-pound test weight. Average speeds would be somewhat high thanks to a route of mostly desert back roads and state highways. All vehicles with trailers are legally limited to 55 mph in California, so we stuck to the speed limit for this first leg (much to the frustration of every other vehicle with a trailer on that stretch of highway).

More important, the elevation gain between the two cities is 1,942 feet, climbing from 2,018 to 3,960 feet, putting extra strain on the truck and its battery.

Starting with a full battery, we hit the road. It didn't take long to appreciate an electric truck's greatest towing advantage: instant torque. Whether leaving a stop, passing a slower truck, or going up a hill, the R1T always has way more power than it needs to quickly and safely get the job done, even with nearly 9,000 pounds on the hitch. Likewise, altitude had zero effect on the truck's performance.

Putting the truck into Towing mode automatically revises your estimated range, which is itself based on how you've been driving lately. We weren't surprised, then, to see our range drop from nearly 300 miles in default All Purpose mode to less than 200. Thirty-nine miles later, we arrived with 136 miles of range remaining and the battery at 55 percent. Assuming the rate of energy usage remained about the same, that would give us a total range of 175 miles, or 56 percent of its EPA-rated range. This is slightly better than Rivian's guidance, which is impressive considering the second half of the drive was all uphill.

After two more days of testing around Tehachapi, it was time for the real test: returning the truck and trailer to Los Angeles. According to Google Maps, the most direct route to our destination was 123 miles. Given how hard we'd been working the truck the past few days, we weren't surprised to see the estimated range drop from 292 miles to 123 miles, but we weren't happy about it, either. That's just 39 percent of the EPA-rated range. And, you know, exactly how far we needed to go.

The good news was, we'd be losing a total of 3,829 feet in elevation over that drive, dropping from nearly 4,000 feet to just above sea level. The bad news was we'd need to climb over four mountain passes in the process, including one less than 10 miles from the destination when the battery would already be low. It really made us wish we had time to wait for the battery to get all the way to 100 percent, but 97 percent would have to do.

Just to make things more realistic, we decided to ignore the 55-mph towing speed limit. Most people do anyway, and it's not a thing in most states. We felt comfortable cruising in the 65- to 75-mph range with this load.

With a combination of gravity and carefully wielded regenerative braking, we were able to prove the range estimate entirely wrong, and 123 miles later, we glided easily into our destination with 47 miles of range remaining and the battery at 40 percent. Assuming again our energy usage remained  about the same, this would indicate an actual range of 170 miles, again in line with Rivian's official guidance.

Trailer unhitched and driving mode switched back to the default All Purpose mode, our estimated range jumped to 90 miles.

Towing roughly 9,000 pounds with a Rivian R1T reduced our driving range by 45 percent on average, slightly better than Rivian's estimate of a 50 percent reduction when towing the maximum 11,000 pounds the truck is capable of. Our range dropped from an EPA-estimated 314 miles to as low as 170 miles. For context, that's 30 miles farther than a standard Nissan Leaf can cover on a single charge but less than most other EVs.

For more context, keep in mind your results will vary greatly for all the same reasons they would when towing with a gas- or diesel-powered truck. How far you'll make it on a charge will depend on the weight of your trailer, the shape of your trailer and any load it's carrying, the roads you drive on, the speeds you drive at, and how you drive. Our blocky old van sitting high on a flatbed trailer was an aerodynamic brick, but the majority of our route was a gradual descent from elevation.

Of course, your range is also a function of the public EV charging network. If needed, we could've stopped at a public DC fast charger and juiced up the truck and extended our range significantly. This option currently has drawbacks, though. Unlike gas pumps, EV chargers are almost never built for pull-through traffic, making it difficult to park a vehicle with a trailer at a charger without unhooking the trailer. Second, even the best DC fast charging is still slower than a gas pump. Rivian says you can add 140 miles of range in 20 minutes, and as with all EVs, charging isn't linear, so it'll take more than 20 minutes to add the next 140 miles of range. Regardless, figure an hour to stop and charge, all said and done.

Yes, you can absolutely tow with an electric truck, but at least in the case of the Rivian R1T, expect to lose up to half your driving range as you approach its maximum towing capability, much as you would in a gas- or diesel-powered truck. If you need to tow more than 150 miles, plan to hit a public charger along the way and give yourself ample time to fill up.

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