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Clean Transport

The Challenge Of Low Emission Towing With A Big Family

As I’ve been planning for a long-term journalism project to cover the stories that don’t get told, I’ve learned a lot about what options there are for people to tow without polluting. Then, on top of that challenge (which is considerable), it’s even more challenging to do this with a larger family. My wife and four kids, plus our luggage and possibly some pets, is a formidable challenge even for gas vehicles. So, what do we do?

Some History

Have you heard the challenging story of the invention of US Interstate Highways? It’s not a story today’s schoolteachers would tell you. It’s an automotive legend.

In July 1919, the United States Army sent an expedition to see what difficulties they’d face trying to cross the country in mechanized vehicles. At the time, anybody with enough paint and the will to do it could create their own highway system (then called an “auto trail“) over existing roads, with colored stripes on poles marking the route. Nobody was responsible for highway upkeep, even at the local level, so much of a highway route was just an unmaintained dirt road going across the landscape between towns and ranches that would give a modern Jeep or HMMWV a challenge.

The expedition struggled to move. They found rutty roads almost everywhere, and the dirt and sand would clog up their engines. Sometimes, the strain of crossing the land would break crankshafts. Even when things were running fine, they’d encounter a rickety bridge that they didn’t feel was safe to cross with their vehicles. Ultimately, it took over two months to make the trip from Washington, DC to San Francisco.

One young lieutenant who went on the trip started thinking about how nice it would be, both for civilians and the defense of the country, for real highways to be built. He later went on to become one of only five people to ever achieve the rank of five-star general, and later became President of the United States. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Interstate Highway System is often named for him on signage.

Needless to say, most people didn’t bother trying to cross the United States by car in those pre-highway days, as it was truly an adventure not for the faint of heart. Even with enough fuel availability, the cars of the day weren’t very good, and neither were the roads. Nobody wanted to get stuck in the middle of nowhere without support.

This put EVs, even with limited battery technology, on mostly equal footing with gas-powered cars. With no real need to drive long distances, range didn’t matter as much. If you could get all of your driving done without having to bother with cranking an engine up (a hard task that could badly injure your arm), shift gears with a primitive transmission, or deal with the noise and vibration of an ICE, many people took that option.

But, as highways improved, suburbs developed, and the electric starter (among other things) made gas cars a lot easier to drive, electric cars lost that footing. From then until the 1990s, battery technology kept them from being able to compete with ICE.

Today’s Challenge

While things have improved drastically, we are still living with limitations of battery technology for zero-emission interstate travel. The first EVs to travel across the US in a reasonable timeframe were Tesla’s vehicles (the Model S) using the supercharger network. Sure, people were and are able to tow with a Model S, but it was primarily designed to maximize what range was available with their battery packs, and it could be hard to make the next supercharger (especially early on) with a trailer.

Other manufacturers all started with small cars, too, as larger SUVs and trucks took too much expensive battery to be economically feasible at the time. Small, efficient vehicles got electrified first because changing them over was the cheapest and most feasible option.

Only now are we starting to see that change. Capable trucks with enough weight, power, and range for towing duties are starting to come out, and will be more popular in the next couple of years. The Cybertruck, F150 Lightning, and the Rivian R1T are all going to be very capable and usually have enough power to pull a big load to the next charging stop. As of this writing, though, only a few prototypes of these vehicles are on US roads (or any road for that matter).

That’s Great, If You Have 3 Or Less Kids

Even among those, the seating capacity is still limited. The “Lightening” only carries 5, as does the R1T. The Cybertruck carries six, but that’s only if mom and dad (or mom and mom, dad and dad, whatever non-binary combinations may exist) want to have a kid sit between them up front (my wife and I aren’t up for that). If you have more than 3 kids, you’re out of luck for now with those vehicles, even if you want to wait for them.

That leaves larger families basically with two choices for now: A Tesla Model X (very expensive new) and waiting for next year’s Rivian R1S, which will cost almost as much as a Model X. Even a used Model X only can be found as cheap as about $45,000 if you can find one that’s heavily used and in somewhat rough shape, and that’s far above what you can get a used gas vehicle for.

Alternatives

Given the limited options and high prices, we can’t be too harsh on people who choose something else for their camping and other family travel with a trailer. It’s just not reasonable to expect everyone to come up with that kind of money.

There are some relatively clean alternatives, though, and as I’ve pointed out in this article, improving a big vehicle by just a few MPG can have a greater overall impact than replacing a 40-60 MPG car with an EV. So, it makes sense to explore those alternatives.

The best options are hybrid three-row crossovers, like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid (36-37 MPG), Kia Sorento Hybrid (35-39 MPG), or Acura MDX Hybrid (used only, 26-27 MPG). Used examples of the Highlander Hybrid are pretty similar to that of the Acura MDX Hybrid, which was discontinued by Acura (Yes, we WTF’d at that one, too). Looking at towing capacity, though, the Sorento gets DQ’d with only 2,000 pounds of tow rating (which means you only really want to tow 1,000 pounds on longer trips).

In sum, the efficient towing game for large families really comes down to three things today: The Tesla Model X (new or used), and if that’s too costly, a new or used Acura MDX Hybrid or Toyota Highlander Hybrid are a lot more affordable.

If that’s too costly, the remaining alternative is to just buy something dirty but capable, like a used Chevy Suburban. Or, give up on hauling a camper and just use tents and/or hotels with an efficient people-mover like a Mazda5 (30 MPG with six seats, and you can use the manual transmission for hypermiling).

Final verdict: the key is to find the most environmentally-friendly vehicle that fits one’s budget, and wait for the market to provide better vehicles in the future.

Featured image by Acura.


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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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