In the campsite of the future you probably won’t be sitting around with a tin-foil helmet on, communicating with Martians. But you are likely to park beside someone towing with an electric vehicle, possibly even one with autonomous driving ability, which will surely take all the fun out of watching a novice try and reverse park a 22-footer.
It seems that electric vehicles (EVs) are all the automotive media wants to talk about these days. The fervour is due in large part to the fact European car makers are being forced by legislation to have a certain percentage of EVs or other low- and no-emission vehicles in their model mix in order to stay in business.
Mercedes-Benz, for instance, is aiming for the complete de-carbonisation of its products and production processes by 2039. This means that in less than 20 years the company that invented the automobile is planning to exclusively offer either battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Elsewhere, brands like VW and BMW have reportedly committed some $75 billion to pump-prime their EV development.
“Lots of major manufacturers now are committing to electrifying their vehicles. So, it’s coming to Australia whether we like it or not. It’s a matter of when, not if,” says Marty Andrews, the CEO of Chargefox, one of Australia’s leading providers of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Toyota says that over the next decade people will buy its electrified vehicles in one of four categories: hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
With this as a backdrop, we wondered, what will the future of towing look like when the Australian vehicle fleet features a preponderance of HEVs, PHEVs and EVs? And how suitable are these vehicles for the demands of towing?
One of the primary goals of electric vehicles is, of course, to reduce vehicle-based emissions, which are a major contributor to global warming. After all, transport represents about 19 per cent of Australia’s overall emissions, says Marty Andrews.
But to achieve a significant reduction requires far greater EV market penetration than we see today. In some markets, such as China and Norway, government subsidies have helped drive strong consumer demand. But here in Australia less than 3000 EVs found a home in 2019, compared to the overall market of 1.6 million new vehicle sales.
Marty Andrews agrees that EV sales in Australia at present are “pretty insignificant” but adds, “Once you get to a threshold, which I think we will do by the mid-2030s, where most cars sold are electric, then turnover starts to happen pretty quickly. Half of the new cars sold each year are fleet and fleets turn their vehicles over every three to five years. When you get to the point where most of the new cars sold are EVs, and they get turned over every three to five years, then the second-hand market starts to fill out. The average lifespan of a car in Australia is about seven years, so when most (new) cars sold are electric, a decade later most cars on the road will be electric.”
THE HEV STEPPING STONE
While pure EVs are still something of a novelty in Australia, that’s not the case with mild-hybrids, or HEVs, which we’ve become familiar with largely thanks to Toyota, its ground-breaking Prius and subsequent extension of the tech across the range.
Many industry observers believe the hybrid, and its closely-related cousin the plug-in hybrid (PHEV), are logical stepping stones for consumers who are concerned about making the transition from the proven and long-established internal combustion engine (ICE) format, to the relatively unknown EV format.
So-called ‘mild-hybrids’, like the RAV4 hybrid, make this transition easier because they continue to be powered by a combustion engine, albeit one which is assisted by an additional battery-electric power source. The battery of a mild-hybrid is recharged by regenerative braking as the vehicle decelerates, so they don’t need to be plugged in and drivers don’t need to worry about running out of power, provided there’s fuel in the tank.
The upside is significantly better fuel consumption and lower emissions than a comparable ICE-only model, thanks to the electric motor and battery, which support the ICE when accelerating. The downside is that the battery-only range of mild-hybrids is limited to just a few kilometres, which is where the PHEV comes in.
ATTACK OF THE PHEVS
PHEVs are being introduced by a growing number of car makers because the technology can be integrated into an existing ICE powered platform, meaning development costs are lower than the ground-up cost of a pure EV.
You recharge a PHEV by plugging it in to an electrical power source, just as you do in a pure EV, but unlike an EV the PHEV can keep driving when its battery is exhausted, as the ICE takes over. The downside of a PHEV compared to a pure EV is its limited electric-only range and the need to top up with fossil fuel.
The Range Rover and Range Rover Sport PHEVs, for instance, promise 51km of pure electric driving, after which their drivetrains revert to a parallel hybrid arrangement, where the electric drivetrain assists the ICE to lower fuel consumption. So, Land Rover says many urban drivers will be able to regularly enjoy zero emissions journeys, citing a 2016 report which found that 56 per cent of car trips in the UK were less than 8km.
HERE COME THE EVS
Pure EVs do away with the ICE altogether, relying on a battery and electric motor (or motors) for propulsion. The battle lines in EV development tend to be around battery technology, with billions being spent in developing lighter and more powerful batteries that can deliver more effective range.
Generally speaking, the larger the battery in terms of its kW/h capacity, the further you’ll be able to drive on a charge. That’s important given that EV range, while improving rapidly, is still less than what you’d expect to get from an average ICE-powered passenger car.
Just as published ADR81 fuel consumption figures for an ICE vehicle are rarely accurate in the real world, the range estimates provided by EV manufacturers be found wanting. Confusingly, there are also a variety of standards used by different car makers to measure range, including ADR, NEDC and WLTP.
Driving style, terrain and climatic conditions can all impact EV battery range, just as they do in an ICE-powered vehicle. In some instances, we’ve seen and heard of forecast battery range dropping rapidly and alarmingly after a journey begins, due to one of other of these conditions.
It follows then that towing anything will have an impact on an EV’s battery range, as evidenced by a Cars Guide article, which involved towing a 1746kg Avida van with a Tesla Model X Long Range in 2019. The Model X had a braked towing capacity of 2250kg and an impressive official driving range of 565km (NEDC), but the article’s author Malcolm Flynn discovered over the course of a 325km tow loop that the Tesla’s energy consumption doubled versus its unladen consumption, almost halving its range as a result.
Concerns about battery life in EVs are also common, and valid. While home-based AC trickle charging is perceived to be less detrimental to battery life than high voltage DC fast chargers, the latter are the only viable option when using EVs for out-of-town trips.
Chargefox’s Marty Andrews says there simply aren’t enough high-mileage EVs out there to provide a robust data set to analyse the impact of repetitive fast charging on battery life. However, he cites the example of a friend who has an early Tesla Model S that has just ticked over 300,000km, has been fast-charged all its life, and still has 95 per cent of its battery capacity.
Manufacturers are also taking technical steps to alleviate battery concerns, including the adoption of multi-cell construction technology, which enables individual battery cells to be replaced should they fail. Many also offer extended warranties on their electric drivetrains. The Audi e-tron, for instance, comes with an eight-year, 160,000km warranty on the battery and electric motors.
CHARGING AN EV
Charging time of EVs varies according to the battery size and the charging source. If we look at the Mercedes Benz EQC 400, with its 405V, 80kW/h lithium-ion battery, then the slowest charge comes from a standard 240V AC outlet, which will add a snail-like 4km per half hour. A slightly faster method is using the 11kW AC home-charging kit that Mercedes sells as a $1250 option, which adds 15km of range per half hour of charge. The pace goes up again when using a public DC fast charger, such as those provided by Chargefox at shopping centres and other locations, which adds 199km of range per half hour. Finally, there’s the jet-like 220km of range per half hour added when using a DC ultra-rapid charger, such as those used on Queensland’s electric superhighway.
Counter-intuitively, EVs deliver their best mileage in stop-start urban traffic, as opposed to highway cruising. This is because EVs, HEVs and PHEVs have a feature called regenerative braking, which switches the electric motor to a generator during braking, deceleration or downhill running. This effectively captures kinetic energy that is otherwise lost and uses this to partially recharge the battery. Audi estimates that brake energy regeneration is responsible for as much as 30 per cent of the range of its new e-tron.
RANGE ROVER Si4 PHEV
The Range Rover PHEV is available as a drivetrain option in the Range Rover Sport and the pukka Range Rover. The Si4 PHEV features a lithium-ion battery that can be charged to deliver a meaningful 51km of electric driving, or used to extend the range of the petrol-electric combination.
The 2.5-tonne Range Rover Si4 PHEV delivers an outstanding combined-cycle fuel economy of just 2.8L/100km, compared with 12.8L/100km for the supercharged petrol V8 version of same. This efficiency is achieved by combining its 221kW 2L turbo four-cylinder petrol engine with a 105kW electric motor and a 13.1kW/h battery. The resulting combined outputs of 297kW and 640Nm are channeled through an eight-speed ZF automatic and permanent all-wheel drive system.
The Si4 PHEV can be enabled to drive in EV-only mode, or in its default parallel-hybrid mode, during which a certain amount of battery regeneration occurs as you drive, although this is not enough for a full charge.
A huge plus for the Range Rover PHEV is that it’s capable of towing up to 2500kg-braked.
The all-electric powertrain of the mid-sized EQC by Mercedes-Benz features a sizeable 405V, 80kW/h lithium ion battery providing power to twin asynchronous electric motors situated at either axle. Combined maximum outputs are a healthy 300kW/760Nm, with drive channelled through a single-speed transmission to accelerate the 2.4-tonne five-seater to 100km/h in a rapid 5.1 seconds.
With an energy consumption rating of 21.4kW/h/100km, the family SUV offers a claimed range between top-ups of 434km (ADR). However, the alternative WLTP range figure of 353km is likely closer to the mark.
Out on the road the direct drive system at each axle and single speed transmission ensures remarkably smooth and linear acceleration. Add to this the quietness of the electric drivetrain, enhanced by acoustic laminated glass and an impressively soft ride, and you have an exceptionally refined drive experience.
The EQC comes with a rated towing capacity of 1800kg, but when we checked this with Mercedes-Benz Australia they confirmed there is as yet no ADR-compliant towing package available in Australia.
The latest EV due on the Australian market this September is the Audi e-tron, a direct rival to the similarly-sized Mercedes-Benz EQC 400. The Audi comes in two body styles and with two different power/range outputs.
The e-tron and e-tron Sportback feature what is essentially the same technical and mechanical package, with the former sporting a more conventional SUV body style, while the latter boasts a dramatically-raked coupe-like roofline.
The Audi e-tron and e-tron Sportback 55 quattro variants store up to 95kW/h, for a range of over 400km, while the e-tron 50 variants store up to 71kW/h for a range in excess of 300km.
Audi claims its battery is one of the fastest-charging on the market, with the 55 able to manage a 150kW DC fast charge for a longer period than most rivals, while the 50 is capable of 120kW DC charging. Using these DC charging options restores 80 per cent of charge in 30 minutes, or a full charge in 45 minutes, says Audi, while both units can also be charged (more slowly) with the supplied 11kW AC home-charging kit.
The electric Audis boast a rated towing capacity of 1800kg, but we were unable to establish before going to press if the e-tron will be available with an ADR-compliant towing package.
TESLA MODEL X
There are no such questions with the Tesla Model X, which comes with an ADR-compliant integrated tow bar which folds out of sight when not in use, and a braked tow rating of 2250kg.
With its extravagant Falcon Wing doors the Model X is about as subtle as a sledgehammer when you’re getting in and out of it. The large seven-seat SUV weighs 2500kg and is available in two variants: the $165,712 Long Range, and the $185,212 Performance.
Both vehicles have the same 100kW/h battery pack, dual electric motors and all-wheel drive, but the Performance variant has the wick of its software turned up to deliver blistering zero to 100km/h acceleration of 2.8 seconds and an NEDC range of 553km. The Long Range covers the zero to 100km/h sprint in 4.6 seconds but ekes an NEDC rated 580km out of its battery.
While performance, range and towing ability are all strengths that Tesla has over its EV rivals, so too is its extensive network of charge stations, covering every Australian state and territory. Interestingly, while Tesla owners can use other charging networks, the reverse is not true and Tesla chargers are for Teslas only.
One of the issues preventing the mass uptake of EVs in Australia is our vast distances and a relative lack of infrastructure. Right now, there are an estimated 800 EV charging stations across Australia, of which less than three quarters are fast charging points, compared to around 6500 service stations.
Furthermore, EVs are expensive, largely due to the cost of their batteries. In the case of the Hyundai Kona, one of the only vehicles to offer both an ICE and an electric version, the Kona EV’s $65k price tag is some $25k more than the similarly equipped petrol model.
The limited number of EV options available and lack of choice for anyone wanting to tow vans weighing more than 1800kg are also factors limiting uptake. One thing that might change this is the looming US heavy-duty EV pickup war.
The battle for what some commentators are calling “rugged electrics” has grown in intensity since Tesla whipped the covers off its outrageous looking Tesla Cybertruck in November 2019. Due in late 2021, Tesla claims that the single motor rear-wheel-drive version of the polarising machine will tow 3400kg with a range of 402km; the twin motor AWD version will tow 4500kg with a range of 482km; while the tri-motor AWD Cybertruck is claimed to be able to tow a remarkable 6350kg, with a range of 804km and zero to 60mph acceleration of 2.9 seconds.
Not surprisingly, GM and Ford have responded with plans for their own GMC Hummer EV and Ford F-150 EV pickups respectively. Both companies are understandably keen to protect the largest and most lucrative category of the US auto market from the Silicon Valley upstart, which has already shown its disruptive abilities in other vehicle sectors. Other rivals including Rivian and Lordstown Motors have also released details of their own EV pickups, due in 2021.
Until we begin to see the flow-on effects of the rugged electrics battle down under, the range of EVs with significant tow ratings is still fairly limited. This means that the best towing options for Australians right now remain ICE-powered vehicles, with the best way to reduce your carbon-footprint being to adopt tried and proven standards of towing efficiency.
These include ensuring your vehicle is serviced regularly; maintaining the correct tyre pressures when laden; avoiding overloading and carrying unnecessary weight; driving at speeds below the 100km/h limit; avoiding towing on days where there are strong side or headwinds; and ensuring your rig is as aerodynamic as possible.
While the die has certainly been cast for EVs to become the dominant form of personal transportation sometime in the next three decades, the internal combustion engine is likely to continue to be the first choice for tow vehicles for some time to come. A steady growth in the number of mild hybrid and PHEV options available from the likes of Toyota is the likely next step towards improving efficiency.