Electric Ford F-150 Pickup Truck Tows a Million Pound Train. Is This a Big Deal?

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Ford truck driving in front of a train

In a word, no. Ford can sell this fiction, but it is all about friction.

A lot of people in my we-hate-pickup-trucks crowd are complaining about the marketing of the proposed Ford F-150 all-electric pickup truck pulling a train, saying, "That's all we need, another over-powered monster pickup on the road." Ford says in its press release:

Watch as Linda Zhang, chief engineer of the Ford F-150, shows the capability of a prototype all-electric F-150 by towing 10 double-decker rail cars and 42 2019-model year F-150s, weighing more than 1 million pounds. 1

The tiny '1' at the end of the sentence refers to the small print at the bottom: The F-150 prototype is towing far beyond a production truck’s capacity in a one-time short event demonstration. Never tow beyond a vehicle’s towing capacities. Always consult the Owner’s Manual.

The Science Behind the Demonstration

This bothered me. My dad was in transportation, and I grew up around trains. Ten cars isn't very many and F-150s aren't very heavy, compared to a hopper car full of coal. Trains carry many millions of pounds and on a level track can be pulled by very small engines.

That's why trains are so incredibly fuel efficient; all you have to worry about is the friction force. According to Sciencing, "The coefficient of rolling friction for a wheel-rail interface is approximately 0.001." You multiply that by the weight of the train and you get the amount of weight being pulled. So 1,000,000 pounds x .0001 = a grand total of 1,000 pounds. I could probably hitch up my family and pull that train.

The Lessons From the Ad

Ford truck pulling a train

There are a couple of lessons here. The chief engineer of Ford certainly knows this math or she would not have tried this, but the marketing people know that most pickups aren't bought for the work they can do, but for their image, and this is certainly a powerful image. This pickup could be a wimpy little thing, but hey, it can pull a train!

The other lesson for everyone is that rail infrastructure, whether light rail in cities or high speed between them, whether for passengers or for freight, is incredibly energy efficient. A single train can take 280 transport trucks off the road. It is at least four times as fuel efficient as a truck and emits 75 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

So instead of complaining about the pickup truck, we should be thanking Ford for demonstrating how silly trucks are, that one pickup truck is so much less efficient at moving stuff than a train full of 42 pickup trucks. This is the magic of steel wheels on rails compared to rubber on asphalt. Ford can sell this fiction, but it is all about friction.

UPDATE: Wired has a much more elaborate explanation, but comes to the same conclusion. "So, what would it take to pull a giant train in the case of zero friction? The answer is that any tiny force would move the train. Even an ant could move it."