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Road Tripping in an Electric Car – Planning, Patience Required; More Infrastructure Needed

by Edward Sanchez | Oct 30, 2019

**NOTE – Author personally owns a 2019 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus

The automotive industry is going through a disruptive transitional period in which the dawn of electrification is becoming increasingly apparent each day. However, the early adopters still find themselves in a world just beginning to catch up to the change. The days of EVs being purely urban runabouts have been largely banished, with 200 miles of range being the new minimal expectation for full-fledged “long-range” EVs. While this makes EVs’ practicality as commuters and daily drivers much more feasible for many, the larger batteries that enable the higher range bring with them more demanding charging requirements.

Two major lessons learned from my first truly long-distance road trip in my Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus is not to be overly confident in the displayed range estimate, and to charge to a level well above what you think you’ll need to reach the next destination.

In the 5 months I have owned my Model 3, most of the time its use has been around-town errands and short jaunts to see friends and family. The longest trips up until this point have been to San Diego and Los Angeles from my home base in South Orange County. This trip was a comparatively ambitious trek from Orange County to Silicon Valley in Northern California with my mother as a travel companion, and a solo drive back home. Despite a relative paucity of public Level 2 stations in my immediate area, charging close to home has not been a major issue so far, with the exception of the first week and a half of ownership, when I did not yet have Level 2 charging installed at home. Although that experience was thankfully brief, it gave me a newfound sympathy for EV owners in apartment or condominium complexes that do not have on-site L2 or higher charging provisions.

This trip also highlighted the general public’s relative ignorance, or sadly, even hostility toward EVs and EV owners. At my first planned stop to supercharge in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, all the available and operational Supercharger stalls were occupied, and approximately six were blocked by a pickup and a trailer parked horizontally across the spots. The range estimator showed we’d barely have enough charge to make it to the next Supercharger in Buellton, just outside of Santa Barbara. However, as I’ve come to find out, indicated range is a; dynamic, and b; based on maintaining a conservative speed of 60-65 miles per hour (97-105 km/h). About halfway between Oxnard and Buellton, it was clear we wouldn’t make it to the next destination on the available charge, and the car started flashing “lower speed to reach next destination” warnings.

ChargePoint Level 2 Charging Station, Goleta, CA

We pulled into a Tesla service center hoping to find at least Level 2 charging stations. Since it was a Saturday, the center appeared to be closed, and there were no publicly available chargers on the premises. Looking on PlugShare (a crowdsourced EV charging location app) I found a ChargePoint Level 2 station only a few miles away at a local municipal water district office. Thankfully, there was no cost to charge at that location. Charging at a modest 20 miles-per-hour (charge rate, not speed), we were able to gain enough incremental charge that it appeared we would have enough range to make it to the next supercharger. However, the route had multiple elevation changes which ended up affecting our range.

Almost immediately upon pulling onto the freeway, we got the dreaded “lower speed to reach next destination” warning. I lowered the speed to 60 mph, and used my hazard flashers several times to warn drivers approaching from behind to go around me. I was even passed by a tractor-trailer (lorry) at one point. Along that leg, it appeared several times we would not have enough range to get us to our next destination. I successively lowered my speed, down to 55 mph at one point, and saw that we were about to crest a hill about a half-mile ahead. I was hoping that the small amount of regenerative power going downhill would be enough to get us there. Thankfully, we arrived at our destination with 3 miles of indicated range to spare. With a full charge in Buellton, we were able to make it to our final destination of a hotel in Monterey, which thankfully had complimentary on-site Level 2 charging available.

The return trip was planned more methodically, and with the experience from the first leg, I charged 25-30 percent for each leg beyond what I thought I might need, or what the navigation system suggested. As the photos of the energy consumption show, elevation and grade can have a significant impact on actual and estimated range. The orange peaks indicate uphill inclines, and the valleys indicate downhill grades. Interestingly, during the drive from Kettleman City to Santa Clarita, there were times where the immediate and average estimated range was less than the distance to the next destination, however the car did not flash any speed or range warning signs. This can only be attributed to Tesla’s cumulative billions of miles of route mapping from its vehicle fleet, accounting for elevation and grade changes.

Tesla Supercharger - Kettleman City, CA

On the return trip, I also visited Tesla’s Kettleman City, California supercharger station and lounge. As opposed to the typical supercharger location near already-established destinations such as restaurants or shopping venues, this location is a standalone parking area and lounge featuring a coffee bar, snack vending machines, gift shop, sitting area, and restrooms. Although Kettleman City is not near any major metropolitan area, it is strategically located near the exact halfway point between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles on U.S. Interstate 5. After an initial charge to around 90 percent, the navigation system showed an estimated 8 percent charge left before the next scheduled stop at the Santa Clarita Supercharger north of Los Angeles. Based on my previous experience, I plugged the Supercharger cord back in to get up to an estimated 16 percent range remaining by the time I arrived in Santa Clarita. I arrived in Santa Clarita with an estimated 35 miles of range remaining. My final destination in Orange County was an estimated 90 miles away. Not wanting to take any chances, I charged up to 190 miles of range. I arrived at home with 80 miles range remaining.

Tesla Model 3 Energy Consumption Display

The big-picture takeaway from this experience is that yes, EVs are suitable for longer-distance road trips, albeit with a major caveat. Even in California, which has the highest number of electric cars in the U.S., and a relatively extensive charging infrastructure, the ubiquity and availability of public charging cannot be taken for granted, especially Level 3 charging. Although competitors such as Electrify America and others are going full-speed-ahead to build out their charging networks, Tesla is still well ahead of nearly every other charging network in the U.S., as well as in some other markets.

EV road-trippers are still not yet at liberty to cavalierly skip available Level 3 charging with the easy confidence that there will be another “just a few miles down the road.” EV road trippers would be well-advised to charge to at least 25-30 percent more range/state-of-charge than they think they’ll need to reach their next destination, and even if there is a wait for Level 3 fast charging, have patience and wait to charge. Finally, EV road trippers would be well advised to give themselves ample time on the trip before their next appointment. Compared to a traditional internal-combustion car, plan on a trip in an EV adding at least another 1-2 hours of travel time for charging for a journey of 300 miles (482 km) or more.

This experience highlights the current Catch-22 situation of EVs. Despite the growing popularity of EVs globally and Teslas in particular, we’re still in the relatively early days of EVs being considered even remotely mainstream. The general public’s concern about EV charging infrastructure being inadequate is not wholly unwarranted.  However, some of that concern is rooted in the ICE mindset of quick, ubiquitous fueling. We are likely at least 10 years away from EVs being remotely able to compete with internal-combustion cars in terms of refueling time, and further still from those ultra-fast chargers being as commonly available as fuel pumps.

Destination charging makes the most sense for EVs with chargers located at hotels, restaurants and other logical rest stops and waypoints. Level 3 charging typically takes 30 minutes to 1 hour, and Level 2 charging generally takes 2-4 hours for a top-off.

Another issue is harmonization of charging standards. This is no longer an issue with Teslas in Europe, as beginning in early 2019 all new European-spec Teslas adopted the industry-standard CCS Level 2. This effectively gives Tesla models universal charging in Europe. Although North America-spec Teslas are sold with a J1772 adapter included to facilitate universal Level 2 charging, using a fast charger other than Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger requires an expensive auxiliary adapter. Currently, only a CHAdeMO Level 3 adapter is available. A J1772 CCS adapter is reportedly in development, but no timeline for its release has been announced.

Being an early adopter has its tradeoffs, and in the case of EVs, that tradeoff is in the convenience of charging. It is undeniably a pain point in the EV ownership experience. For those going into EV ownership with a full knowledge of the sacrifices inherent therein, it’s a small price to pay for the smoothness, instantaneous torque and throttle response, and lower operational costs. But for those accustomed to the conventional ownership experience of an internal-combustion vehicle, it can be a source of frustration, and potentially an obstacle to a repeat purchase of an EV.

If OEMs are truly serious in their commitment to electrification, a commitment, either unilaterally, or in partnership with a third-party partner toward the buildout of a more robust and ubiquitous public charging infrastructure is an unavoidable component of that equation. So far, the most serious public commitment to this effort has come from Volkswagen with Electrify America, and more recently with Ford, which is also partnering with Electrify America as part of its initiative. 

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