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The Proof is in the Pulling

The first buyers of the Ford Lightning immediately found that its range was a serious problem, especially when towing a heavy load like a travel trailer. YouTube now has many examples of unhappy Lightning drivers organizing much of their trip around dozens of charging stops. How about other battery-powered pickups?

First published in Hydrogen Fuel News on December 21, 2021:

In a June 1, 2021 HFN article I looked at the specs of the new Ford F150 Lightning, a battery-powered F150 pickup with excellent potential but a too-short highway range. We encouraged Ford to consider powering it with hydrogen to resolve that deal-breaker. A hypothetical “LightningH” could run a thousand miles on hydrogen, 500 when towing.

Since the article was released, other battery-powered trucks are emerging. Because Ford’s Lightning will carry a literal ton of batteries and that’s about all that can be handled by a half-ton pickup, they’ll all have about the same range. The next of this new vehicle category, the Rivian, recently completed a heavy tow of 2700 miles. That’s an excellent test of a battery-powered pickup.

How did its towing range compare with our estimate for the battery-powered Lightning? As predicted, it’s just too short.

During the 2700-mile test run, the Rivian averaged 100 miles between recharge stops. That’s less than estimated in my June article, but squeezing out the last few dozen miles turned out to be a nail-biter in practice. The driver found himself scanning ahead constantly, organizing the entire trip around distance to the next charger. A partial charge every hundred miles (typically taking the battery state from 15% to 80% to avoid the need to slow-charge the remainder) set the truck’s realistic towing range.

He stopped to recharge 28 times during the trip! A quick summary of the adventure is available at Rivian R1T Successfully Tows 2,700 Miles Cross Country: Report. The bottom line? It’s as forecast in my June article: A battery-electric pickup may be fine around town but won’t meet the tougher expectations of most drivers. We take long trips in our conventional F150, towing a travel trailer. Our gasoline-powered range is reduced by half, but at 300+ miles it’s still fine. At that point I need a few minutes anyway, to empty while the truck fills.😉

A hydrogen-powered LightningH will do even better than my gasoline-powered machine.

How about availability of hydrogen refueling stations? Another of the HFN articles, also reposted here, calculates that just 100 hydrogen-fueling stations, placed strategically around the U.S., should do well as a “starter network” supporting perhaps ten to twenty thousand H-trucks or full-size SUVs. As California has shown, refueling a hydrogen vehicle at one of these stations takes about the same time as refueling a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle, hours less than a huge battery-driven EV might require to fully recharge. Ford could easily build that starter network as part of a LightningH release – Congress just allocated money to help with this sort of thing.

But: The most important aspect of the Rivian’s “Proof is in the pulling” run is this: While battery-electric cars around town (and for moderate highway use) will be fine, pickup trucks performing near the max are just too much for batteries to handle. Even more so, for the big rigs hauling our supplies over the Interstates, hydrogen looks to be the only practical solution. Multiple tons of batteries, relatively short range and long recharge times aren't going to cut the mustard for the long-distance heavy haulers. This limit will become even more apparent as we develop zero-emission commercial aircraft. A thousand tons of batteries in a Boeing 787 just won’t fly.

It is suddenly obvious via this single Rivian test run that we’ll need both battery and hydrogen energy to provide climate-friendly transportation for the planet.


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