As Autumn approaches, my plans for recreation with my daughter shift from the beach and pool to the mountains, hiking and camping. We really enjoy packing our trailer and heading out to the great outdoors – as long as we have a comfortable bed, that is. But as I plan our outings, I am reminded of a very real issue – the impact my trailer has on my vehicle’s fuel economy and range. It gets me thinking – how might we accommodate lifestyle choices as we bring to market new technology vehicles?
A couple of years ago, I purchased a Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the first generation of the wildly popular plug-in hybrid Jeep. It has been awesome – 20-25 miles of all electric range followed by traditional hybrid fuel efficiency. Compared with my prior Wrangler, my average efficiency has jumped from about 18 miles per gallon (going downhill with a tailwind, that is) to 30 – 40 miles per gallon average when I am leveraging the electric powertrain for trips close to home. In fact, on one tank this summer my average eclipsed 50 miles per gallon because the vast majority of my trips were within 20 miles of home, and I recharged every time I parked in my garage.
This proved to me what I already expected – in certain conditions, electric power (even with limited range) can be a huge benefit even for me. Yet, my experience during camping season is very different.
I purchased my travel trailer last year, a very small one because my Wrangler can only tow 3,500 pounds. So, our trailer is 18 feet tip to tail and less than 3,000 pounds when unloaded. It is well within the capabilities of my vehicle and allows me to enjoy the benefits of my Jeep wherever we roam. But I realized very quickly that the benefits of my plug-in hybrid powertrain vanish almost as soon as I connect the trailer to my tow ball.
The 30, 40 and 50 mile per gallon experience of local travels is non-existent. In fact, I average between 8 and 11 miles per gallon when the trailer is connected. Now, when you consider that the fuel tank in the Wrangler is five gallons smaller than my previous Jeep due to the expected increased efficiency of the powertrain, my range is abysmal. I have to stop about every 150 miles to refuel my tank. Getting to a campground in nearby West Virginia requires at least one stop in each direction, especially considering the incline required to traverse the beautiful mountains of the state known as “Almost Heaven.” (Fortunately, I am able to recharge the Jeep with a Level 1 cable while at my campsites, so that is something!)
Now, when I go camping, I almost always bring with me my 9-year-old daughter. She is a very patient child and is usually undisturbed as long as the power and reception on my tablet continue to stream Netflix or YouTube kids. But there are limits. When my tank runs dry, I pull over and refuel. It takes maybe 10 minutes depending on the configuration of the station and proximity to the highway. But I wonder what the impact on our trip would be if I was driving a full battery electric vehicle. Would I still get 150 miles before I have to stop, and would I be able to find a compatible DC-fast charging station that was operable and could recharge my battery in less than 30 minutes? And finally, what would that 30 minutes do to the spirit of my trip overall? Would I be pressing my luck?
Yes, many of the new electric vehicles entering the market boast a range in excess of 300 miles per charge, but what is the impact of lifestyle choices? For decades, AAA has been advising us to remove bike racks, inflate our tires and remove unnecessary weight to achieve the greatest fuel efficiency possible for our vehicles. (To that end, AAA has shared with me that they receive a lot of calls to help drivers with flat tires in EVs and that many of those EVs are not equipped with spare tires. If that is the manufacturers’ strategy to save weight and boost efficiency that is not a compromise I, as a driver, would be willing to accept.) But what about those of us who wish to carry something like a small house with us?
According to the RV Industry Association, more than 11.2 million American households owned a recreational vehicle (RV) in 2021, up from 6.9 million in 2001. While this may not be an overwhelming share of drivers in the nation, it is not insignificant. In just the past three years, more than 1 million travel trailers were shipped in the U.S., which is the same type of camper I pull. And when we consider the millions of drivers who may not own RVs but who engage in other activities that can compromise vehicle fuel efficiency (i.e., tow trailers with all-terrain vehicles, carry kayaks and bikes, etc.), the number grows exponentially.
Which leaves me wondering – when might EVs provide sufficient power and range to accommodate the various lifestyle choices of American drivers? Yes, fast recharging infrastructure and vehicle charging capabilities will help alleviate some of this challenge, but will it be enough and how long will it take to penetrate the remote regions in which many of us travel for our recreational purposes? What about those who may take their RVs, while towing all-terrain vehicles, to remote desert locales to dry camp and recreate for the weekend? Will they be able to get there and back with EVs?
This is just one of the unique consumer considerations we must think about – but there are others.
For example, the Transportation Energy Institute operates a Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicle Committee and released a couple of reports evaluating the unique power and mobility needs of this sector, which presents a number of complications for new vehicle technologies to overcome. We will continue to explore this market, as are many organizations, but I am not aware of much research that has been done relative to the additional power demands of lifestyle choices on light duty vehicles.
I raise these questions, not to suggest that new technologies cannot evolve to satisfy the diverse needs of the motoring public, but to ensure that we are thinking about the wide variety of use cases to which we task our vehicles.
I am able to offer personal experiential evidence that in some situations, an electrified Wrangler fully fits my needs – errands around town, short trips to and from home with constant recharging when in my garage. However, when I need to travel further and use my vehicle to pull something heavy, I am reminded of the toll that takes on every vehicle and it raises questions for me about the efficacy of EVs for these specific use cases.
The Institute does not advocate for or against any solution or policy, but it is incumbent upon our organization, and I believe all stakeholders, to ask questions to ensure that the direction in which the transportation industry is evolving is able to satisfy the various needs of all consumers.
Which raises another critical question – equitable access to affordable transportation for all. This issue is why we are taking time to evaluate what role the Institute might be able to play with regards to equitable access to affordable and reliable transportation. I have written in the past about the cost of new vehicles exceeding affordability for the vast majority of consumers and this is certainly true for those living in underserved communities who often earn less than the national average. These consumers continue to drive older, less efficient, and higher emitting vehicles because transitioning to newer vehicle technologies is not an affordable option for them. We must not leave these communities behind as we evolve the market – we must think about their needs, help elevate their standard of living and deliver to them more efficient, cleaner options at prices they can afford.
To elevate this topic in the national discourse, the Institute will be publishing a white paper examining the various issues that affect equitable access to affordable transportation. This is already a key priority of the Administration through its Justice40 Initiative. The intent is to basically to lower the transportation energy burden on American consumers – we must ensure that this priority extends beyond this program and is a key element of every policy and market development discussion related to the transportation sector.
It is essential that we continue to find solutions that benefit the environment and all drivers. What works for one community may not work for another and we must recognize that, appreciate the differences, and pursue a variety of options that move us efficiently in the direction of lower emissions and affordable mobility. The Transportation Energy Institute, powered by more than 60 diverse individuals serving on our Board, is committed to helping the market find sustainable solutions that will benefit everyone.