My father-law is a purveyor of custom iron work—a blacksmith, in other words—who designs, forges, and installs his wares across Southern California.
It’s labor-intensive, hands-on, and, given the density of iron, involves moving very heavy loads. While the legacy of a bygone era conjures images of hammers and anvils, modern blacksmithery utilizes powerful machinery to leverage the skill of the human hand, in addition to those old-school essentials.
As is sometimes called for in business, my father-in-law is currently re-balancing his hardware inventory and sold several of his machines and tools to a fellow smith in Northern California. Among the sales were a power hammer (click here for a sense of scale), a propane forge (click here for a sense of scale), and a MIG welder (click here for a sense of scale) with a tank of argon.
I had the pleasure of joining him over the weekend to deliver and assist in unloading the goods.
On the 1,000-mile excursion from San Diego to Santa Cruz and back, we chatted about everything from the pros and cons of cryptocurrencies to the fall of Điện Biên Phủ. Of consequence to my energy work, we also ruminated on how different the trip would be if instead of driving his 2012 Nissan Frontier SV we were driving the ballyhooed new electric pickup from Ford, the F-150 Lightning.
Let’s run some numbers and see how this delivery would have gone in this alternate universe.
Key stats on the real trip:
In the bed of the half-ton Frontier rested the forge, the welder and accompanying tank, iron tools, standard tools (housed within built-in toolboxes), and sundry scrap iron. On the trailer (6’ by 12’ interior dimensions) rested the power hammer.
- Forge weight estimate: 100 lbs.
- MIG welder/tank weight estimate: 340 lbs.
- Tools weight estimate: 300 lbs.
- Scrap iron weight estimate: 100 lbs.
- Power hammer weight estimate: 3,500 lbs.
- Trailer weight estimate: 1,730 lbs.
All told that’s an 840-pound payload in the truck bed and 5,230 pounds being towed (with serious drag due to the dimension of the power hammer).
The Frontier has an 18-gallon fuel tank and on the loaded outward portion of the journey through the heart of Los Angeles, into the Central Valley, up the Salinas Valley, and then over to Santa Cruz we averaged about 12 miles to the gallon.
This necessitated pitstops for fuel in Castaic (180 miles north of our origin) and in King City (215 miles north of Castaic). Given the rapid nature of liquid refueling, neither stop took more than 10 minutes to get us back up to a full tank.
After several hours in Santa Cruz unloading the delivery, we refueled again and got back on the road with the goal of returning back to San Diego as soon as safely possible.
Pulling the empty trailer, but with increased speed, our fuel-economy numbers looked modestly better at a bit over 14 miles per gallon.
On the return, we stopped twice for fuel after leaving Santa Cruz with a full tank, once in Los Alamos (we took the 101 on the return, rather than going through the Central Valley) and once in Laguna Niguel for a top-off on the home stretch.
The convenience of liquid refueling on this journey can hardly be overstated. It enabled us to venture from San Diego to Santa Cruz, make a valuable delivery, and (factoring in a bit of a dinner mishap in San Luis Obispo) return home in 21 hours.
Could the same trip be made in Ford’s electric F-150 without missing a night of sleep in our own beds?
The range and re-charging problems that plague electric vehicles make even the powerful new Ford pickup option a non-starter for a proprietor who needs to make delivery runs such as ours. When hauling significant loads, these problems become insurmountable.
The consumer-oriented Car and Driver and the commercial- and industrial-oriented Fleet Forward have each made this point in recent months. In optimal, unloaded conditions, Ford claims the base model of their electric truck will get 230 miles per charge. That’s a troubling number, even without factoring in the machinery. The added load cuts severely into EV range. And these numbers are not factored into sellers claims or EPA range ratings.
Referring to interviews with Ed Sanchez, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, and Adam Berger, president of Doering Fleet Management, Fleet Forward informs readers:
(T)owing reveals how extreme weights and aerodynamic impacts affect EV range. Although we’re still in the early days of commercial EVs, as a broad rule of thumb any substantial towing or payload will effectively cut the vehicle’s rated range in half, Sanchez says. In some circumstances, Berger says towing can cut EV range by as much as 80%.
“At this point, the industry is concerned about peak numbers, not realistic performance,” Mark Hanchett, CEO and founder of Atlis Motor Vehicles, told the publication.
Car and Driver strikes a similarly dire tone, writing that even with the extended-range battery that Ford claims will provide 300 miles per charge, “Towing anywhere near the 10,000-pound maximum rating…at highway speeds, we believe you’d be hard-pressed to exceed double-digit miles.”
So Fleet Forward says to expect an 80-percent loss of claimed range under load and Car and Driver says you’ll lose at least 66 percent. We’ll be generous with our estimate and use the Car and Driver number, assuming that at a full charge under our iron-mongering load the base model F-150 Lightning will eke out one-third of Ford’s claimed mileage and travel 80 miles per full charge.
Remember, though, achieving a full charge takes hours with a standard charger, so for this road trip, we’ll assume we’re using the “fast” chargers that can give us 80 percent charge in half an hour. That’ll mean our range is actually just 64 miles per charge (one-third of 80 percent of the full 240-mile unloaded range.)
With our range limited to just over sixty miles per charge and a charge time of at least 30 minutes (not accounting for waits in increasingly common charger queues), this 500-mile delivery sounds quite dicey already. Planning pit stops ahead is essential under such circumstances, and the website Charge Hub can help us with that, showing charger locations throughout the U.S.
As far as EV trips go in the United States, the San Diego to Santa Cruz corridor is as plausible as they get, as the state government’s regulations and mandates have saturated California with EVs and EV infrastructure to a greater degree than any other state. Breaking our trip into 60-mile segments under these load conditions even makes it difficult here in California, however, requiring a few shorter intervals to bridge what would otherwise be perilous stretches.
That said, it’s doable, with stops at chargers in:
San Clemente, Los Angeles, Castaic, Grapevine, Bakersfield, Lost Hills, Paso Robles, King City, and Salinas on the outward journey, then a charge in Santa Cruz before reversing course with more range due to lighter load.
A few of those outbound legs are under 40 miles, but three are of 59, 60, or 61 miles, so the number of stops is certainly not overly cautious.
Given the weight of the trailer itself, the Lightning would still not get full value out of a charge on the return. We’ll just ballpark it and say we’ll lose 20 percent of range vs the 66 percent loss we assumed outbound.
That yields about 150 miles per charge and means we would only need to stop at Paso Robles, Grapevine, and Irvine.
Counting those up gives us 9 charging stops on the journey out and 4 on the way back. 13 total.
At 30 minutes per stop using a “fast” charger, that’s 6 hours and 30 minutes of charging on top of our drive time of more than 16 hours and our roughly 5 hours of unloading, etc.
What with the old Nissan Frontier was an up-and-back jaunt would be in the new Ford F-150 Lightning an odyssey taking up the better part of two days, accounting for the same non-driving, non-fueling activities and getting some shut-eye overnight.
F-150 Lightning boosters will likely have two rebuttals to my argument in mind: one is that during charging intervals drivers can “get other work done” and the other is that the 1,000-mile trip in a gasoline pickup will cost hundreds of dollars more in fuel costs than in the Lightning.
The first claim is untenable. The same argument—that you can “get other work done”—could be made for any unnecessarily slow, passive process that impedes productivity. If my web browser takes 10 times longer than another option, I’m not benefiting. Small chunks of time are worth less than the sum of their parts, particularly for creative thinkers who do deep work. At best, the 30-minute minimum charge time means fuel, meals, and “relief” can now be fully synced.
The cost argument is more compelling. There wasn’t a single station we encountered that was selling gasoline for under $4.50 per gallon, meaning the cumulative cost was around $300 for fuel. But let’s remember that a good chunk of that price is policy-based (state and federal gas tax, refining requirements in the state, and so on).
Also, if cost is our primary decision-making input, we should also consider that the base model Ford F-150 Lightning has a sticker price of $42,000—double that of a Frontier on Car Max with 31,000 miles. A base model 2021 F-150 with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine was priced at under $31,000, it should also be noted. And that model would likely get better mileage than our weathered Nissan.
Moreover, relative to spending another entire day out on the road in an electric truck, gas money is well spent in that it frees up more time for other valuable pursuits.
Unless extraordinary advances in battery capabilities are made, EVs—electric pickups included—will remain niche vehicles that can only serve suburban commuters. The Ford F-150 Lightning may also work for some corporate fleets that are looking for brownie points, but that don’t have hauling and distance as meaningful variables in their bottom lines.
For slinging machinery up the coast, we’ll stick with the trusted internal-combustion engine.