The answer to the question of when a full battery electric vehicle (BEV) will be capable of taking grey nomads on the Big Lap really has three parts:
If you are sticking to the tarmac or good dirt roads, many BEVs available today can (and have done) The Big Lap.
The DC fast-charging network for quick intercity trips already stretches from Adelaide in the south to Port Douglas in the north. Adding to, and beyond that is a series of three phase power outlets installed and mapped through a joint venture by the Australian Tesla Owner’s Club (TOCA) and the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA).
Using those with an aftermarket portable car charger plus a few adaptors for different outlets means you can easily do a relaxed tour around Australia. Between Adelaide and Port Douglas, as well as all around Tasmania, you can even do that trip at the same pace as ICE vehicles.
This is because the quickest DC fast-chargers give you an 80% charge in 18 to 50 minutes (depending on the EV model).
Beyond the DC fast-charger networks (which BTW are growing all the time) – you can still easily travel the distance of one car charge in a day and then get a 100% charge at a caravan park overnight.
The answer to this comes in two parts:
Tow ratings. Until now, not a lot of BEVs have been released with tow ratings. This is despite BEVs technically being better suited to towing than petrol, or even diesel, vehicles. (This is because electric vehicles have massive torque right from the get-go so they don’t need to be revved into a torque band like internal combustion engine [ICE] ones. The Tesla Model X has long been a stand-out exception here with a 2250kg braked tow rating. However, more BEVs are now being released in Australia with tow ratings.
The effect of towing on BEV range. This is somewhat hard to define as the effects of towing on BEV range have largely been anecdotal, with range reductions of 15% to 50% being reported. A slippery tow will reduce the range a lot less than a flat fronted tow with roof racks on top.
Some BEV manufacturers are addressing this and doing their own testing: Rivian for instance quote that when towing at the full load rating (5 tonne), the range of the R1T ute will reduce by 50%.
However, the uncertainty about range when towing is about to be reduced. Several of the next generation of BEVs are to come with a ‘towing mode’ function. By selecting the tow type (for instance – light, medium or heavy trailer) the range estimator will recalibrate to give a more accurate figure. Teslas currently do this in a simpler way by adjusting the range estimate whenever a trailer is connected and ‘Trailer Mode’ is enabled.
“Not too far away” is the answer. Rivian in the US have just begun customer deliveries of the first true off-road capable 4WD ute (the Rivian R1T) – with more ute and SUV models from other manufacturers to be released over the next couple of years. Whether more than one or two come to our shores is the tricky question.
The R1T offers all sorts of off-road and camping capabilities – including an optional camp kitchen drawer that inventively uses space freed up by not having an ICE powertrain. By the way, that camp kitchen option comes with both an induction cooktop and 240V power outlets – making the Rivian perfect for ‘glamping’ weekends away. The Rivian R1T is slated for Australian release – hopefully sometime in 2022.
On top of the two from Rivian comes the recently announced Ford F150 Lightning. A full battery EV with a rumoured maximum 750km range (officially it is to be 500km when carrying a 1 tonne load), a huge ‘froot’ (front boot) capacity of 400L and 240V outlets providing power it is due for US release in May 2022. Sadly, according to Ford the F150 Lightning won’t be coming to Australia any time soon.
Further examples include GM relaunching Hummer as a full EV brand and a Chevrolet Silverado BEV. Several start-ups are also marking out the utilitarian vehicle space – including Bollinger with their B2 BEV ute. Further down the line comes the Mercedes EQG concept. Recently shown at the 2021 Munich Motor show, it is a reboot of the classic Mercedes G series – as full electric. Whilst Mercedes are yet to set a production date, rumours suggest that we may see it on (and off) the roads in 2023 or 2024.
It seems once the floodgates open, there will be a deluge of BEV utes and SUVs hitting the market.
And now I come to the unstated ‘part 4’ of the initial question: once you’ve driven a true off-road capable, 4WD BEV – could you ever go back? The answer from several dyed-in-the-wool 4WD experts is a very emphatic “NO!” In fact, after an extended test drive of a Rivian R1T, Motortrend 4WD reviewer Christian Seabaugh recently wrote the headline: “Why the Rivian R1T makes it difficult to return to conventional gasoline vehicles for overland adventures”.
So why are BEV 4WDs seeming so much better? It results from BEVs having natural advantages that outgun ICE rivals in several areas.
In performance and safety, these include greater control when rock-hopping, regenerative braking improving the safety of hill descents and a significantly lowered centre of gravity reducing the chances of a rollover.
In the ‘work and play’ department, BEVs also have it over ICE. In several of the coming models, each wheel has its own drive motor and can steer independently – meaning those fitted with it can literally turn around in their own length. 240V power outlets and massive batteries also mean convenient power without the noise and fumes of a generator. (Let alone the full-electric camping kitchen option in the Rivian R1T). The Rivian by the way also comes equipped with a built-in tyre compressor.
Worried about running out of charge? In the US, Rivian are building an ‘adventure network’ of chargers associated with national parks and other wilderness areas to meet that demand. Hopefully when they arrive in Australia, Rivian will emulate that here as well.
All-up, it seems that when the EV arrives in the 4WD world, it will take it by storm. As for me – I can’t wait to experience the wonder of driving through the wilderness in silence, with only the sounds of the natural world to disturb it.
After all, isn’t that why we head out there?