By mid-decade we could see as many as nine or more all-electric pickups from a mix of startups like Rivian and established automakers, including Ford. All face at least one significant challenge, however: a lack of range, especially when towing or hauling a heavy load of cargo.
A newly discovered Ford patent suggests the Detroit automaker might have a solution, however, a drop-in range extender that can be mounted in the bed of the upcoming F-150 Electric where the locking toolbox option normally would go.
Filed Sept. 15 and described in the application to the U.S. patent office as “electric vehicles with removable and interchangeable range extending generators,” the concept isn’t entirely new. Several vehicles already have gone the onboard generator route, including the Chevrolet Volt and the BMW i3 REx.
This approach is distinctly different from a plug-in hybrid where a vehicle pairs an electric drive system with an internal combustion engine that can fire up, either to boost power or to take over when the vehicle’s batteries run down. Significantly, there is a direct link between the gas or diesel engine and the vehicles wheels.
With a range extender, there is no direct link between the engine and the wheels. Its only purpose is to generate current that can be used to either recharge a drained battery or to power the vehicle’s electric motors.
In the case of a pickup, an internal combustion engine could serve a third purpose, functioning as a generator for tools, lights and other goods at a work site. The newly introduced versions of the 2021 Ford F-150, including the all-new hybrid model, will feature the ability to turn the truck into a rolling generator.
The good news with EVs is that batteries are becoming both more energy dense – translating into greater range – as well as less expensive. Manufacturers are promising to deliver at least 300 miles for the various all-electric pickups that have been announced by manufacturers such as Tesla, Ford, Rivian, Bollinger and Lordstown Motors. General Motors has indicated the upcoming GMC Hummer will push up into 400-mile territory.
Those figures should come with big asterisks, however, as they will be impacted significantly – and, likely, quite severely – by a variety of different factors. These include not only the payload a truck is carrying, and the trailer it’s towing, but also by weather conditions. Studies by TheDetroitBureau.com, AAA and Consumer Reports have all indicated that EV range routinely drops by more than 40% when the mercury falls to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
That could prove to be a difficult hurdle to clear when pitching to commercial and professional buyers, as many of the manufacturers are planning with their BEV pickups.
Eliminating range anxiety with a built-in generator could overcome that problem. And the way the Ford patent application has been put together indicates the company envisions its extender to be a removable, rather than fixed, part of the F-150 EV’s design. If so, an owner or operator could plug it into the bed only when needed to boost range, removing it to free up bed space at other times.
According to the application, the range-extender design could store as much as 15 gallons of fuel, enough to boost range substantially between fill and charge ups.
In its application, Ford noted that the “toolbox” shaped generator could be “removably positioned within the cargo space and adapted to selectively output power for either charging the battery pack or propelling the (electrically motorized) drive wheels.”
Of course, the big question will likely be one of cost. Ford has not mentioned pricing for the range-extender package. And purchase price is just part of the equation. As far as fleets and other commercial users are concerned, one of the big selling points for EVs is their low operating cost. Adding a range extender could throw that equation out of balance.
Automakers frequently file patents that never make it into production, of course, so it is far from clear that it ever actually will offer the range-extender technology – and, if so, when.
The Ford F-150 Electric pickup itself is scheduled to go on sale sometime in 2022, around the time we’ll begin seeing competitive truck BEVs like the GMC Hummer, Rivian R1T and Tesla Cybertruck.