Can You Charge An Electric Car By Towing It? You May Be Surprised


If you’ve ever driven a car, you are well aware of the risk of running out of fuel. When the fuel gauge is pretty low, it is a gamble to drive anywhere but the nearest gas station. While electric vehicles are gradually replacing fossil fuel-powered cars, they run the same risk of running out of charge. 

So that bring us to the question, can you charge an electric car by towing it? It is possible to charge your electric car by towing it. Through the process of regenerative breaking, a charge is applied to the vehicle’s battery by towing it behind another vehicle. This will give a minimal charge to the vehicle’s electrical system, but will still give the vehicle some additional miles.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, utilize large batteries to store the energy needed to drive. As the vehicle is driven, the energy is used up, requiring a recharge. Normally, an EV can be recharged daily by plugging it into a power source in a garage or outside the home. Many recharging stations are popping up across the country to accommodate the popularity of EVs. However, as with any vehicle, there may come a time when it runs out of juice and that can leave the driver stranded. Fortunately, most, if not all EVs can be towed to recharge the battery.

How Towing Charges The Batteries

To boil it down, EVs operate using electric motors to turn the wheels. When the driver wants to brake, the motor slows down or reverses to capture kinetic energy as electricity. Unlike a traditional wheel that rides on a bearing, the electric motor turns the momentum of the coasting vehicle into electricity to charge the battery. This process is commonly called regenerative braking. One way to think of it is when coasting, the electric motor turns into a generator and recaptures some of the spent electricity. 

If an EV is low on power, the regenerative braking system can be used to recharge the batteries. However, this is not an effective way to completely recharge the battery, but only to charge it enough to either get home or to a charging station. It is essentially the equivalent of pouring in a gallon or two of gasoline to get a car to the next gas station. Once the battery is charged enough, the vehicle should be driven under its own power to the recharging station.

Is This Harmful For Your Electric Car?

If it is done properly, there should not be any issues tow charging an EV. Some how-to steps will be discussed below, but the central idea is to trick the car into thinking that it is coasting so that the regenerative braking system can charge up the battery. 

Under normal driving conditions, if a driver were to coast downhill, the force of gravity is pushing the vehicle along. During that coast, the batteries are getting a little boost as the drive motors generate electricity. When properly tow charging, this same effect is achieved only over a longer and more controlled period of time resulting in more of a charge.

There is a case where the difference between towing to charge and towing to simply move the vehicle is negligible. If the distance to get the vehicle to a charging station is similar to the distance it would take to recharge the vehicle, it is best to just tow it to the recharge station. Certainly, it can be charged on the way there, but it is not always necessary. Of course, this is subject to location. There are likely more opportunities for charging stations in populated areas compared to rural areas, so towing in town may not be required.

Another important point to consider is the type of EV. A pure, battery-powered electric ride will likely have no issues using this method. However, a hybrid vehicle should not be towed in this manner because the drive systems are a bit different.

How To Tow Charge An Electric Vehicle

To preface this section, keep in mind that it is always better to keep the battery at full charge. Since driving conditions can be unpredictable, it is better to be safe. Plug it in after driving or make sure to recharge before taking a trip. Tow charging is not an ideal way to charge your car and should only be used in an emergency.

Here are the steps to safety tow charge

  1. Safety
  2. Check that the battery has enough charge to “wake”
  3. Call for some help
  4. Hook up and tow
  5. Get to a real charger

The first step is to be safe. If possible, pull off of the roadway out of traffic. You will be in and out of the car hooking up tow straps and ongoing traffic poses a risk to yourself and to those helping town the vehicle. Turn on hazard lights to let other motorists know to proceed with caution.

Second, the battery cannot be completely dead. There should be enough power for the vehicle to “wake” and to be able to shift into drive. This is required for the regenerative braking effect to work. If there is not enough juice to do that, then it is time to call a tow truck that can haul it away. 

Third, get some help. Once you are in a safe spot, call up someone who can help. Ideally, it is going to be best to have a vehicle with a good amount of power, such as a pickup truck or SUV. The initial pull from a stop will be a bit heavy since the magnetic friction of the electric motors will be fully applied. Also, a pickup truck or SUV will likely have a tow package to hook the tow strap to. If this type of vehicle is not available, it is possible to use nearly any vehicle as long as there is a way to safely hook up the tow strap. A smaller engine and transmission may generate some excessive heat under the load. Take care that towing is not going to cause more problems.

Fourth, hook up and tow. Pull away slowly, keeping tension on the tow strap, and ease into traffic. In order to get an adequate charge, the vehicle needs to be towed for about 15 minutes depending on speed. Be aware that increasing speed can be a bit risky when towing, so use caution. Drive with hazard lights on and stay in the slow lane to allow other motorists the opportunity to get around you. While there is no exact equation, just watch the battery charge indicator on the dash to determine when to stop. Use caution while towing in traffic and be sure that the towing driver and the towed driver are able to communicate.

Fifth, get to the real charger. While having some extra juice might be exciting, it is smart to drive to an adequate charging station and get a full recharge. Depending on the vehicle, getting a full charge may take a few hours, so plan to stop somewhere accommodating. Best case scenario: drive home and plug it in for the night.

Finally, and this should not be overlooked, thank whoever came to your rescue. Treat them to a meal, help them finish up their backyard project, or surprise them with some of their favorite beverages. This is way cheaper than paying a tow truck bill.

Does This Work For All EVs?

There are a couple of competing answers to the question about tow charging any EV. First off, the principle does work. There are YouTube videos of individuals successfully tow charging as well as published testing. On the same note, some manufacturers do not recommend tow charging probably to avoid liability and warranty issues were there to be an accident. However, as long as the vehicle thinks it is just coasting, the regenerative braking system will charge up the battery. So does tow charging work for all EVs? Depends on who you ask. 

Some EV manufacturers have accounted for tow charging and may have even maximized its potential. Rivian is a leader in electric pickup trucks and targets consumers who hike, camp, go off-road, or basically anything that takes them far away from a charger. There is a rumor that if the Rivian is shifted into reverse while tow charging it charges at a higher rate than if it’s in neutral, supposedly due to the added resistance. However, there is no official word on this feature as of yet, but it would not be surprising to see these kinds of “hacks” pop up as popularity increases.

Overview

If you happen to be running low on power, in a pinch you can tow charge your electric vehicle. Give heed to any warnings in your owner manual, but as long as you have enough charge to get into drive, your neighbor should be able to tow you around town and charge the battery. Be careful to properly and safely tow the vehicle to avoid other problems. If you are unsure about whether or not your specific model can do it, don’t risk ruining any of the internal components and call a professional. And of course, as my grandpa would say, it is just as easy to keep the top half full as it is to keep the bottom half full.

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