What Happens When a Rivian Runs Out of Battery Charge?


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Jul 09, 2023

What Happens When a Rivian Runs Out of Battery Charge?

More than any other concern they may have about EVs, most folks want to know what'll happen when one runs out of battery. The simple answer is that it will stop moving. What people really want to know

More than any other concern they may have about EVs, most folks want to know what'll happen when one runs out of battery. The simple answer is that it will stop moving. What people really want to know though is, what happens after that? We decided to find out.

If you read nothing else, read this: Don't do it. If you have the range to reach a charger, no matter how slow, go there. If you do not have the range to reach a charger, pull over while you still have some battery left. Running an EV until it's completely dead will only make your day worse and the recovery take longer. We'll get to why, exactly, deeper in the story.

This will be the first in a new series of articles on our all-electric long-term test vehicles answering the specific question of what happens when different makes and models of EVs run out of juice. The guinea pig is our 2022 Rivian R1T, the first electric pickup truck to make it into mass production and a Truck of the Year winner. Its 135-kWh battery is officially good for 314 miles of range, though a recent over-the-air (OTA) software update has unofficially increased that to 328 miles. For the purpose of this test, that was a problem, but a more recent OTA update also gave us the ability to set the charging limit as low as 50 percent, so keeping the battery drained before the big day was no hassle.

Running out of battery is as easy as running out of gas. The trick here would be to run out in a safe location. We planned to keep driving until the truck stopped moving, but we didn't know exactly where that would be. Like gas-powered cars, some EVs have a little extra emergency range left after the gauge reaches zero.

That in mind, we struck out for the Santa Clarita River Valley north of Los Angeles, an agricultural community with only a pair of slow Level 2 wall chargers available for EV drivers and no Level 3 DC Fast chargers for 25 miles in any direction. Once we'd worn out the battery, we'd call Rivian Roadside Assistance and see what happened. Where would they tow us? How much would it cost? How long would it take to charge up enough to get home? We were going to find out.

Running out of battery sounds easy, but it's harder than you think. First off, the R1T does not want you to run out of battery. It will do everything it can to keep you from running out. Warnings on the screen, audio warnings, suggested navigation routes to the nearest charger, and reroutes if you do use the navigation as suggested but miss a turn. The truck wants you to make it to power, not get stranded.

The first warning popped up on both the instrument cluster screen and the infotainment screen at 50 miles of range remaining in cautionary orange. It reminded us the battery was getting low and to charge soon. The second popped up at 30 miles of range, in bright red this time so we couldn't miss it: the battery was getting dangerously low and we needed to charge as soon as possible. It was around this time we noticed the bar graph on the right side of the instrument cluster that indicates how much power you're giving it and how much regenerative braking you're getting started to show a blocked off section at the top of the power bar. Acceleration was being limited by the lack of juice. At 10 miles of range, we got an orange turtle light on the dash and a warning that acceleration was being limited due to low battery power.

Though that blocked off section would continue to grow as we continued to drive, the truck was able to maintain freeway speeds all the way until the battery meter reached zero. Our ability to accelerate either from a stop or while moving continually got worse, but the truck could still be safely driven right down to zero battery.

We reached zero range and zero battery in the city of Fillmore, California, but the truck wasn't done yet. We could still accelerate slowly, the truck topping out at 26 mph on flat ground—just enough to safely move with city traffic and more than enough to safely pull over. We wanted to know just how far it would go like this, though.

At the edge of town, a slight rise in the road caused us to lose speed to the point we were becoming a hazard and a final bright red warning popped up telling us the vehicle was coming to an emergency stop and we needed to pull over immediately. We turned off the highway into a new housing development where we wouldn't be blocking traffic when the battery finally quit.

But then it still didn't quit. Top speed was down to 9 mph, but we were still driving circles around the neighborhood. At one point, we even made a three-point turn at the end of an unfinished road. The truck just kept going, until finally our speed dropped to less than 5 mph. At 2 mph we decided to stop where we knew we wouldn't be blocking the lane or a driveway. At that point, the truck refused to move again and after a minute or so threw a brief "system fault" warning and put itself in park.

In all, we traveled 3.5 miles after the range and battery meters read 0. According to the truck's onboard data, we used 1.5 kWh of battery and averaged 10 mph after we hit 0. The whole ordeal lasted 22 minutes. All the while, it really felt like the truck was giving us every last electron in the battery to allow us to pull over in the safest location possible. The average person would likely have found a safe spot to pull over long before we did, and unlike a combustion-powered car running out of gas, it didn't just quit suddenly.

Once the truck stopped moving, we pushed the SOS button on the ceiling to summon help. That button is really meant for emergencies, so we got passed around to four different operators (including a Subaru Roadside Assistance operator accidentally) as they realized we weren't in a crash and weren't suffering a medical emergency and just needed a tow.

Once connected to Rivian Roadside Assistance, the friendly operator first asked if it was possible to bum a charge off a sympathetic household in the neighborhood, but our truck was way too dead for that. A tow truck would be dispatched, but in the meantime, we were advised to turn off the radio, seat heaters and coolers, and avoid using any other power accessories to preserve the power left in the 12-volt batteries. (EVs still have 12-volt batteries like gas-powered cars. They run all the systems aside from propulsion and are charged by the big powertrain battery with an inverter. With the big battery dead, there was nothing to charge the 12-volt batteries, of which the Rivian has two.)

About a minute after the truck had put itself in park, the climate control turned itself off, as did the wireless phone charger (though the phone would still charge from the USB port). The seat coolers still worked, as did the screens and windows. We also opened the tailgate and hood, both of which have electronic releases, to access our lunches and drinks before the power ran out.

If we were smart, we would've turned all those things off much sooner to save power. Instead, the screens went black just short of an hour after the truck came to a halt. This was a problem, because the parking brake is electronic and releasing it for the tow truck can only be done through the infotainment screen. As it turns out, this first oopsie would compound through the rest of the day.

With the truck truly and completely dead and no sign of the tow truck yet, we decided to take action. It was then we discovered the jumper cables were missing from the recovery kit we brought with us, leaving us no way to jump the 12-volt batteries.

We had a backup plan: the portable charger. Our support vehicle had a 110-volt outlet in the back, so we figured it couldn't hurt to try plugging in the portable charger to get enough juice in the 12-volt batteries to turn the screens back on and release the parking brake. We were wrong. It did hurt.

With no power, we couldn't open the charge port door. Unable to access the owner's manual on the dead infotainment screen, we took to the internet for answers (forgetting the manual can also be found on the Rivian phone app). The top article we read said to pull the manual release cable hidden under some plastic trim under the hood. This article was wrong. The manual release cable is for when the truck won't release a charging cable. It does not release the charging port door.

Not knowing any better, we pulled the manual release unnecessarily and carefully pried the charging port door open. Unfortunately, it was all for naught as the portable charger refused to work with the outlet in the back of our support vehicle. We didn't know it then, but we'd actually made things much, much worse.

Just over an hour and a half after the truck died, Louie Cejo pulled up in the AB Exotic Towing flatbed to save the day. Unfortunately, our 12-volt batteries were so dead that his jump box couldn't get the truck to power up reliably (screens kept starting up then going blank again and starting over), but not to worry, Cejo said he tows at least two EVs a week. He had a plan.

First, he lowered and extended his ramp as far as possible, then backed up the tow truck until the ramp pushed itself under the R1T's front tires. He kept going as the R1T rolled up the ramp until the edge of the ramp reached the back tires. Then, he used a sledge to hammer plastic skids under the rear tires and dragged the truck the rest of the way up with the winch.

Rivian's roadside assistance had already picked our destination, an EVGo fast charger 21 miles away and had also dispatched a mobile service technician to meet us there. On the ride over, we e-signed a work order from Rivian authorizing the work and agreeing to pay $130 for the tow.

The charger, of course, was busy and the truck was inoperable, which meant pleading with people already charging and others waiting in line to all move out of the way for a minute so we could drop the R1T close enough to the charger for the cable to reach while also convincing them we weren't trying to cut the line.

While we waited our turn, the Rivian tech got to work diagnosing the truck. Turns out, we'd drained the 12-volt batteries bad, all the way down to 7 volts. Instead of taking hours to bring them back up safely, the tech simply replaced them, a common job he told us.

With everything powered back up, we were ready to charge when our turn came. Or, we would have been, had the charger we dropped the truck next to been working reliably. It conked out on the person before us and refused to start a charge at all for the R1T. We tried calling EVGo customer service, but they couldn't fix it remotely. Luckily, the other charger had opened up at that point, so we pushed the truck 30 feet to that one. Naturally, it wouldn't connect, either. We even tried it on the technician's truck, and no dice.

Throughout this ordeal, Rivian roadside assistance had been checking in regularly, and upon being informed they'd sent us to a bum charger, they sent the tow truck back. At first, the plan had been to go to another charger, but given our troubles, roadside elected to have us towed to the Rivian Service Center 62 miles away, just in case.

Turns out, it was the right call. At the service center, the techs on duty used the equivalent of a giant pallet jack to pick up the rear end of the truck and maneuver it to one of their Level 2 wall chargers. Starting with a slower, low-power charger they explained, would be better for the main battery. Before it could charge, though, they replaced the 12-volt batteries a second time as we'd drained them again messing with the broken charger.

Slowly, the R1T came back to life. After 30 minutes of charging, the battery meter still read 0, but we decided it was good enough to move over to the on-site fast charger, where nothing happened. Back on the slow charger it went. Another 24 minutes later, we saw 1 mile of range indicated, though the battery was still at 0 percent. About 10 minutes later the battery was up to 1 percent and we tried the fast charger again. Still nothing.

It was at this point a Rivian tech thought to ask if we'd pulled the emergency release cable under the hood. We had, and suddenly, everything was clear. As we mentioned earlier, that cable is meant to release a stuck charging cable, not open the charge port door. Pulling the cable manually releases the locking mechanism in the charging port so you can unplug. Turns out, if you pull on the cable too hard, especially when the truck isn't plugged in, you can break the locking mechanism, which is exactly what happened.

The locking mechanism is essential to fast charging. Without it, the truck won't initiate a fast charge, it'll only accept a slow Level 2 charge. Even if that public charger we went to was working properly, we still wouldn't have been able to charge because we inadvertently broke the truck.

Back on the slow charger it went as we figured out our next steps. A technician who'd dealt with this problem in the past told us it was a 22-hour job that required replacing the entire front wiring harness, which involved dropping the front motors out of the truck. Rivian set about finding room in the service center schedule for the repair while we waited for the truck to charge. After another 10 minutes, the battery was up to 2 percent, and 28 minutes later we were at 4 percent with 13 miles of range, enough to get me home to my own charger where it could slowly juice up overnight. Just shy of 9 hours after the truck came to a halt in that neighborhood I was finally on my way home.

That was Friday, and by 8 a.m. Saturday, Rivian roadside assistance was on the phone again to schedule the repair. They'd found time the following Tuesday, and when we arrived at the service center we were told to wait in the lobby. The team believed they could fix just the charging port lock rather than replacing all sorts of other things, and they were right. An hour and a half later, we were back on the road and our ability to use fast chargers was restored.

In the end, Rivian decided to cover all the costs of the towing and repairs as "a one-time goodwill gesture." The company later confirmed in an email that the repairs would normally be covered under warranty, though the tow would not. We never saw a price for the second tow, but it was likely several hundred dollars based on the price of the first one and the three-times-greater distance.

Rivian has also told us it's working on adding a warning label near the emergency release cable clarifying its purpose and advising users to pull gently. Wording in the owner's manual is being updated as well.

Like we said right up front, don't do this. Don't put yourself in a situation where you've completely drained the main battery, and if you do, don't drain the 12-volt batteries, too. Go to a charger, no matter how slow or how out of the way, and if you can't reach one, pull over somewhere safe and call for a tow. You'll save yourself a major headache.

The good news is, this whole ordeal was avoidable. The truck did everything it could to warn us and get us to a charger. When that was no longer a possibility, it kept driving until every last electron was gone, 3.5 miles past 0 range and 0 battery, allowing us to choose exactly when and where we wanted to park. Rivian roadside service was highly attentive and got us a tow to a charger where a mobile technician met us and got right to work on the truck. All in all, had we not tried to solve the problem ourselves, we might've been on our way home six hours earlier.

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