What you want to know: We tested a Ford F-150 Lightning hauling a trailer

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
May 7, 2023 | Ford, Towing, F-150, Electric Cars, ev, F-150 Lightning, Electric Trucks | Posted in News and Notes | Never miss an article

Photography by J.G. Pasterjak

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The Ford F-150 Lightning tows like magic, but can it go the distance?

The towing abilities may not be surprising for a vehicle that weighs 3 tons and has 700 horsepower on tap at any speed, but the dynamic reality is even better than the numbers suggest.

The truck is whisper quiet, and the lack of a transmission means a speed adjustment is just a tilt of the throttle away. No waiting for a downshift, no hunting for overdrive once cruising. Just a smooth, steady pull from any speed.

And the power is nearly bewildering. Need to merge onto the highway with an 8000-pound trailer? Fuhgeddaboudit. The Lightning with a load accelerates with such authority that finding a gap in traffic is the least of your worries.

Ford’s BlueCruise lane management system seemed a bit overwhelmed by some crosswinds we experienced and frequently implored us to put our hands back on the wheel–which, honestly, was fine. When hauling a load, we’re not quite ready to trust the computer with the intricacies of the tow. Maybe (hopefully) we’ll get there someday, but for now we’re fine staying in the game full time.

Braking is likewise exceptional. The onboard brake controller worked seamlessly with our 20-foot, 8000-pound enclosed trailer, and we didn’t have to make any adjustments after setting the initial specs of the trailer in the truck’s control system.

Yes, on the road, the F-150 Lightning's performance with a trailer is utterly spectacular, but that’s not really what you want to know, is it? Okay, here comes the asterisk hammer, headed straight for your heart.

When we hooked up the trailer to the Lightning, we were showing 270 miles of range with a full charge. Once we entered the trailer specs into the computer, the system revised its estimate to 163 miles of range.

At 6.7 miles into our test loop, the truck informed us that because of the ambient temperature (85 degrees) and the load, it was revising its estimate to 97 miles.

Our test circuit started with a 20-mile drive up a busy I-95, where we had the cruise set between 65 and the speed limit of 70 mph for most of the run.

Next, we exited onto a state highway and spent some time cruising through residential streets, doing some stop-and-go driving, and pausing to post witty things on the internet. This was maybe 5 to 6 miles of the trip.

We then got back onto state and county highways and continued the rest of the way home. Our speed remained between 55 and 65 mph, with the cruise set for probably 75% of it.

On the highway, the estimated number of miles remaining dropped slightly faster than we were actually covering them. Under stop-and-go use, however, the truck seemed to lose expected miles more slowly than we covered them.

This kind of makes sense when you account for the additional energy recovery of stop-and-go driving and the lower overall speeds of in-town use.

Towing at a continuous high speed is kind of a worst-case use for an electric truck, unfortunately. After 60 miles of testing, it indicated 55 miles of remaining capacity. That number probably would have ended up closer to 50-52 if it were all freeway towing–or 58-60 for around-town creeping. Ultimately, we were looking at somewhere around 100-110 miles of freeway towing for our 8000-pound trailer.

Let’s do some math to figure out what that actually means.

On the loop we drove, our test Lightning returned an indicated average of 1 mile per kWh. If you’re charging at a commercial charging station like Electrify America, you’ll pay $0.41 per kWh as a guest or $0.31 per kWh as a member (plus a $4 monthly membership fee).

We’ll assume that if you own a Lightning, you’re an Electric America member. So that means you’ll pay $0.31 per mile for your “fuel.”

Charging at home saves some bread. In Florida, we’re currently paying $0.11 to $0.14 per kWh, depending on time of day and local demand.

Let’s compare that to the 5.7-liter 2010 Toyota Tundra in our fleet. It towed this very same trailer with the very same load barely a week ago. It ran 10 miles for every $3.29 gallon of 87-octane unleaded.

That’s a fuel cost of $0.33 per mile, depending on local fuel prices. Also, Tundras get fairly lousy fuel economy, so a less thirsty truck could probably approach the commercial charger cost per mile pretty easily. Still, you’ll never come close to the efficiency of charging at home on a cost-per-mile basis.

Scaling these numbers for better fuel economy is fairly linear as well. Our Tundra gets about 10% better mileage when towing a smaller and lighter open trailer, dropping its per-mile fuel cost to around $0.28. Assuming the Lightning sees a similar 10% improvement, commercial charging costs drop to around $0.26 per mile, and it also gains another 10 miles of range.

So let’s talk about range. Yeah, 100 to 120 miles isn’t much. And this is where any goodwill the F-150 accrues through efficiency or proficiency breaks down when it comes to towing.

The Tundra, gas hog though it is, still has a 26-gallon fuel tank that can be filled in less than 10 minutes at almost any highway exit in the country.

Topping off an empty Lightning with a DC fast charger takes more than an hour, although if you’re the guy hanging out at the DC fast charger for over an hour, you’re about as popular as Nickelback.

And that’s if you can find a DC fast charger, as most outlets featuring them have only one, and that one isn’t always working. Plus, most DC fast chargers won’t actually top you off, not wanting to overload the battery with too much juice too quickly.

A more likely scenario has you using a Level 2 charger, which takes about 14 hours to go from zero to hero. Even Ford’s 80-amp Charge Station Pro will take close to 8 hours to return a tapped battery to full charge.

When we plugged our 220-volt Level 2 charger into the Lightning upon returning home, the onboard computer said needed close to 9 hours to top it off from its roughly 50% charge.

So yeah. It tows well–truly, truly well–just not very far.

Want to load up the car for a trip from GRM’s Central Florida HQ to Solo Nats in Lincoln, Nebraska? Eh, probably not doable.

Looking at the map of available stations, driving an unladen F-150 Lightning to Lincoln would be fairly easy and add just a few extra hours to the overall trip.

But as soon as your range drops to 100 miles or so, and if your charging solution at the end of that 100 miles is a very low-amp charger, driving the Lightning to Lincoln is kind of off the table.

Certainly, lack of infrastructure shoulders a huge part of the blame for this. The technology of electric vehicles has improved far more quickly than our ability to properly support them on the roads (Tesla being an exception, but no one is holding their breath for the Cybertruck).

And the infrastructure that’s already in place is not cut out to accommodate someone towing a trailer. Most charging spots are pull-in/back-out, so unless you want to be a real jerk, you’re going to have to unhook the trailer.

Bottom line: The truck as a tow rig is absolutely outstanding, but it’s really no more than a preview of a brighter future that will require more battery capacity as well as better and more reliable public charging infrastructure.

In the meantime, for regular, non-trailer truck stuff and around-town use, the F-150 Lightning makes a strong case for being efficient and user-friendly.

Of course, we haven’t mentioned the price. That’s because it’s a whole other ball of wax, complicated by an absolutely toxic dealer environment, a chip shortage, the proliferation of car loans nearly as long as mortgages, and the fact that apparently everyone is eating lead paint chips off their walls.

When we were finally able to find a dealer willing to sell us a Lightning equipped like our extended-range Lariat test vehicle, the cost was, no kidding, $113,000. MSRP is closer to $73,000, so our math shows a $40,000 markup–so more than 50%.

The Lightning, and trucks like it, are absolutely a huge part of the future landscape of utility and tow vehicles, but it’s not the future yet. For now, they’re exceptional, economical-to-operate vehicles that work well within a limited scope of use for the few willing to pay exorbitant dealer fees to be early adopters.

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Comments
QuikMcshifterson
QuikMcshifterson New Reader
11/1/22 11:42 a.m.

It's kind of an interesting problem as even if battery technology improved and battery prices declined, for the near term they are still relatively slow to re-charge and weight quite a bit.

Even if we could double the range of the truck for nominal cost in batteries, it would add quite a bit to the weight of the vehicle and then simply increase the length of time to reach a full charge (although, obviously increase the range between charges).

Obviously the energy density of batteries will most likely continue to improve but I'm just not sure it will ever rival the energy density of gasoline / diesel / hydrogen.

In addition, while charge rate will improve, there's just nothing to show that it will even get remotely as fast as simply filling up a gas tank.

For non-towing applications electric seems more and more compelling all the time but for towing (any distance greater than in-town), I'm just not sure it's the right technology for the foreseeable future.

 

 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/1/22 12:04 p.m.

Towing involves a lot of energy, so the ability to replenish that energy becomes more important that it does in other modes. The amount of time you spend towing will determine how much of a priority that is - we tend to over-emphasize it because that's how people think. Does an extra hour on a trip you do a couple of times a year matter more than having fuel up a few times a week? It really shouldn't. Does it matter more if you do that trip every week? Obviously, yes. Where you draw that line is up to you. 

Sarah Young
Sarah Young Copy & Design Editor
11/1/22 12:21 p.m.

In reply to QuikMcshifterson :

For non-towing applications electric seems more and more compelling all the time but for towing (any distance greater than in-town), I'm just not sure it's the right technology for the foreseeable future.

Yep, I think that's a fair tl;dr for the subject.

 

fschlottau
fschlottau New Reader
11/1/22 1:54 p.m.

Another big part of the problem is the absolutely horrendous aerodynamics that trailers have. With a few rare exceptions they are massive air-brakes that happen to hold some cargo. Aero vault and others are the rare exception. 

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
11/1/22 1:54 p.m.

Yeah EVs are still clearly a compromise, and towing exacerbates the gulf between what works and what's reasonable.

I'd say we're at the point now, though where most EVs are highly suitable for most drivers on most trips, which is a lot more than we could say even just a few years ago. Infrastructure continues to be a major issue, as public charging is ridiculously expensive and the tiny fuel cost savings will never offset the additional buy-in required. Sorry, apartment dwellers!

Towing is an even more specialized use case, and the argument really breaks down there. Currently the best argument I can see for a Lightning as a regular tow rig would be for someone using it for in-town service duty. Like a lawn service or a contractor. Someone who's making short, local trips and returning to a common stop every day where they can recharge using residential-cost electricity. I wouldn't question for a minute if my lawn guy showed up with a Lightning or Rivian one day, except that maybe he ws charging me too much. But I'd probably just let him use my L2 while he was there and have him shave something off the bill.

madmrak351
madmrak351 Reader
11/1/22 2:11 p.m.

Did I see a great opportunity for a comparison between the aero vault and a conventional enclosed trailer? Equal cargo weights say 4K lbs, same routes/ distance behind the Lightning!

CrustyRedXpress
CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand Dork
11/1/22 2:14 p.m.

First real-world towing test I've seen, nice. 

I've always been confused by the hype around EV tractor trailers that seem to be intended as over-the-road trucking segment. My understanding of the technology is poor, but I thought they would be among the last segments to use EV, largely b/c the reasons JG outlined.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/1/22 2:14 p.m.

What's your view of the cost of public charging versus the price of liquid fuel? Last time I checked, I was paying roughly the equivalent as a car making 30 mpg on a car that likely would be making 30 mpg if it was powered by gas.

ICE is a compromise too, it's just the one we grew up with so we accept those compromises. For example, I'm working on a project that's requiring me to idle a Miata for long periods in the garage. That's a way to kill yourself or at least make all your clothes stinky. And the Mini sitting beside it has probably been inactive long enough that the carb needs another rebuild. 

I don't think cost savings are the best reason to buy an EV, although they are real if you can feed off your own supply. They bring a bunch of different attributes to the table. For example, if your lawn person was plugging in to charge every night, the time spent refueling disappears. Even if it only takes 15 minutes to detour to a gas station and pump in a tank, if you're doing that four times a week that's an hour's work gone. If you've got a fleet of 8 trucks, that's a full person's workday in a job market where it's hard to find workers. And then there's the maintenance aspect...

It takes a full examination of costs to determine if there are actually savings, not just "public charging costs money".

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/1/22 2:15 p.m.
madmrak351 said:

Did I see a great opportunity for a comparison between the aero vault and a conventional enclosed trailer? Equal cargo weights say 4K lbs, same routes/ distance behind the Lightning!

GRM has a connection at Aerovault, this would be a really useful test and I suspect Aerovault would jump at the chance. Heck, GRM is in Vegas RIGHT NOW. They could do this test tonight. Find a Lightning. Go rent an equivalent U-Haul and do a back to back test.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
11/1/22 2:20 p.m.
CrustyRedXpress said:

First real-world towing test I've seen, nice. 

I've always been confused by the hype around EV tractor trailers that seem to be intended as over-the-road trucking segment. My understanding of the technology is poor, but I thought they would be among the last segments to use EV, largely b/c the reasons JG outlined.

Agreed, but they also can be used for highly predictable routing so that mitigates a lot of it. I don't know how far the average rig travels and if it's limited by cubes or mass. I suspect most companies will have a mix - if you're hauling straight across the country, you burn liquid fuel. If you're trucking from LA to Vegas, you burn electrons.

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