By Russ and Tiña De Maris
There’s a whole lot of hoopla surrounding Tesla’s electric “truck.” With thousands of folks already plunking down a deposit for the futuristic-looking unit, we have to ask the question: Just how practical is a Tesla Truck for the RVer?
In principle, it sounds like a great idea. Who among us wouldn’t like to have the seemingly lower operating costs of an electric vehicle? Too, most folks want to do their bit to help earth, and a truly zero emissions vehicle goes a long way in that direction. And it seems, for some, the thing just looks cool.
But will it do the job that we as RVers need? Principally, will it really tow a trailer? Will it literally go the distance to the campground and back? Sad to say, early details that help us zero-in on those questions are in a bit of a short supply, but there are plenty of inferences that can be made with what we do know.
In your basic conventional pickup, a fifth-wheel hitch is bolted down through the pickup bed and attached to connections welded to the truck’s ladder-like frame. But Tesla’s unit is unibody construction – no frame. And if the battery pack is directly under the bed, the idea of bolting anything down through the bed looks pretty impractical. Some have argued that industry will come up with some sort of alternative adapter plate on which a fifth-wheel hitch could be mounted.
All well and good, if that’s truly the case. But next, there’s the small matter of swing room. Having bumped across the U.S. in all directions, we can assure you the average RVer is going to get into some tight spots. We did – and after a few thousand miles of towing and tight spots, our low-profile truck tool box (the kind that sits right on top of the bed side-rails, behind the cab) took plenty of hits when we were forced to make extremely tight turns to get out of trouble with our fifth-wheel. Why is this important?
Well, you won’t need to worry about hitting a truck bed box in a Tesla: Simply put, that six-and-a-half foot “spacious” bed won’t allow for a fifth-wheel hitch and a tool box. The surely-required slider hitch will take up plenty of bed space. But here’s the rub: The aerodynamic “sail pillars” that are designed into Tesla’s body – those little hang-downs behind the cab area – will be high enough to get clobbered by the fifth-wheel trailer any time a tight turn is made. Yes, the sail pillars are surely stronger than the truck’s windows (thank heavens!), but even if the pillars weren’t damaged, the front end of any fifth wheel will take a serious beating.
To avoid that problem, one website promotes the idea of a “Cyber Fifth-Wheel.” There’s a photo here showing their vision. The rig would be designed so it would clear the truck’s sail pillars, and would be equipped with additional batteries to help give power to the towing unit. In their vision, the fiver roof would be studded with solar panels, thinking that some of that power could get shoved forward to the truck motors for propulsion. “Sure, it will be expensive, but it’s so impressive that we’re certain it would be a hit,” says the piece on insideevs.com.
Maybe this design would overcome the physical impact equation that would plague “normal” fifth wheels. “Expensive”? Wow! That goes without saying. RV manufacturers already charge and arm and a leg for fivers, and haven’t changed their design format in forever. It would take a specialized manufacturer to stick their neck out and go for this. But that still leaves a problem – and it’s the same one that would have to be dealt with for those who’d want to tow a conventional travel trailer.
While Tesla’s specs call out a 250-mile range on a full charge, that doesn’t take into account the increased load of a trailer. And not just weight, but aerodynamic drag. Looking closely at the Tesla promo material, you’ll see a cover rolls down over the truck bed. It’s all part of that aerodynamic design required to keep the mileage up. Leave the cover open, watch your driving range decline.
Yes, Tesla says the single-motor unit, the one that’s first out of the production box, will pull 7,500 pounds. That’s probably true, but the question is this: Just how FAR will it pull the weight? A piece on roadandtrack.com tried to tackle that question. Using Tesla’s Model-X electric sedan, the website points out that the Model-X, using a 100-kWh battery, claims an EPA mile range of 328 miles on a full charge. But, using hypothetical examples, tacking a towed vehicle on the back of the X (which has a 5,000-pound tow capacity), things start to get a bit ugly. Put a family in the car, hitch up a trailer, drive 100 miles up a 1-percent grade at 75 miles per hour. Add 500 pounds of payload and the wind drag of the trailer, and making the trip would require 100.4 kWh. That’s more than the battery pack that would NORMALLY run the car 328 miles by itself.
Keep in mind, adds the information from roadandtrack, that’s not taking into account the use of other accessories that draw on the battery pack. No air conditioning or heat, for example. Take off the trailer, repeat the trip, and the trip would take about half the energy required for trailer towing.
We haven’t found specs from Tesla on how big the battery pack for the truck model would be, but other industry sources are suggesting 200 kWh – twice that of the Model-X. But the specs Tesla provides show less range for the truck – 250 miles – even with twice the battery pack. If the same trailer towing draw-down on economy applied to the truck, you’d need to stop after 72 miles to charge up.
Surely, these calculations are hypothetical, but in a real-world test, which is still down the road many months, if even half-off, what’s the result? Fire up the Tesla Truck, hitch up the bumper pull trailer and head out down the dusty trail. Are you willing to stop in two hours to wait for as long as it takes to recharge before getting on with the road trip?
An electric truck is a great concept. But at this point, from a practical matter, until the electrical density of vehicle batteries gets a serious upward adjustment, they are, in our minds, just a concept.