The Electric 4×4: Sureshot or Longshot?

Nov 27, 2013

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s recent remark that the company may be up to the challenge of producing an electric pickup truck sparked the imaginations of auto consumers. As electric vehicles (EVs) make inroads in the consumer consciousness and batteries become increasingly efficient, 4×4 and offroading enthusiasts are wondering when EVs will offer all-wheel or four-wheel drive as an option.

Early Rounds of EVs

“Philosophically, it’s inevitable – everything will go magnetic drive,” says Michael Breem, owner of EV West, based in San Marcos, Calif. “The efficiency is far beyond where gas is and on trails and in rocks there are technical advantages to electric motors.” But questions linger for offroad consumers. Would an electric motor short circuit the rugged reputation that trucks, Jeeps, and SUVs have earned? When you add a heavy load or a trailer onto a truck, will the range drop dramatically? Would the phenomenal torque that comes with an electric drivetrain make an electric truck or Jeep a no-brainer?

One thing that everyone in the offroad community agrees on is that we’re still in the early stages of electric vehicles. As advancements are made and costs go down, the field is full of cautious optimism. “It’s crazy how early on we are in the adoption curve,” Breem says . “It’s gonna require some behavioral adoption and we’re taking baby steps with the batteries – they’re getting better, lighter, and lasting longer.”

Gaining Ground and Charge

Recent gains in travel distance on a battery charge are encouraging and charge times are steadily being shaved. Toyota’s Gen2 RAV4 EV houses a 40 kilowatt-hour battery pack, and gets around 150 miles of range using hyper-mile techniques. In September, Tesla announced they are developing a hybrid lithium-ion/metal-air battery pack that could extend the range of cars like their Model S by up to 40 percent. This next generation hybrid battery would offer 400 miles of driving between charges.Tesla has a network of supercharging stations and plans to cut full battery charging time down to five minutes, only slightly longer than it takes to fill a gas tank.

Are 4x4s Around the Corner?

Electric motors are far simpler than traditional ones, but could they withstand the punishing elements associated with offroading? The elements and electronics traditionally don’t play well together and water fording and mud could pose problems unless an electric drivetrain was sealed. “For offroading on trails, electric 4x4s would be interesting,” says Jason Scherer, Rubicon Express race driver. “Electric motors make excellent torque almost instantly and the ground clearance and lack of drivetrain parts that could break by putting motors at the wheels would be great.”

Dry desert conditions and rocks present more offroad challenges. “Right when you accelerate the torque is there so you’re not waiting for rpms,” says Mel Wade, CEO/owner of Off Road Evolution in Fullerton, Calif.. “I think it would be great for a rock crawler.”

These developments would need to be refined for trucks and Jeeps and may be years away. Today, the RV market may be the most obvious choice for EVs. “In the recreation field, families with motor homes who are only doing 60 miles a day – which is 90 percent of the offroad industry – could go to electric motors,” says Justin Herrmann, Strategic Racing Designs’ lead fabricator and EV project manager. Herrmann believes you could electrically power a motor home with a slam charge or battery pack that transfers solar energy.

The Jeep Equation

Jeeps were originally developed for military maneuvers and they have a reputation as the ultimate all-terrain vehicle. So how realistic is it that we’ll see an electric Jeep Wrangler someday?

“I think Jeeps could go electric,” Breem says. “The side effect of all this is that you generally improve the vehicle in all other aspects besides range and cost.”

“Electric drivetrain Jeeps would be awesome because you never go far or fast and you need a ton of torque,” says Herrmann. Another advantage with electric Jeeps is they would have better weight distribution. According to Breem, “You’re lowering the center of gravity because batteries can be put very low in the vehicle, so I would think that an electric Jeep would be more stable.”

Is Resistance Futile?

Offroaders are all for a cleaner environment, but performance is prized above all else. When an electric truck or Jeep can keep pace with a traditional one all bets are off. “Motorsports guys are going to be a little sad about losing nostalgic things like the rumbling of a motor,” Breem says . But he’s quick to point out that offroaders have traditionally been open to adopting the latest technological advancements. Consumers will be the ones who have the trust the ability of electrically-powered 4x4s and they will ultimately determine their fate.

Research by: CJ Bantam, freelance writer in the offroad industry.