What it’s really like to take an electric car on a road trip.
I’m one trip behind on hike reports, but I thought I should do this first. We’ve just returned from a week in McMinnville, Oregon – a small town near Portland, 250 miles from our home in Medford. That is a “maybe” distance for an electric car: maybe we could make it all the way if we start with a full battery, but maybe not. So prudence dictated a refueling stop each way, as well as at the destination. And because the process of refueling an electric car on the road is broadly misunderstood, it seems useful to try to clear up some misconceptions by describing exactly how it worked on this particular trip.
One caveat: it is still necessary to plan carefully. This has nothing to do with the actual recharging process, and everything to do with the state of the charging network. There are gas stations just about everywhere, but charging stations are still few and far between. I dream of the day when there are charging stations on every corner and it’s the drivers of gasoline vehicles who have to plan, but we have to deal with reality. I had to choose in advance where to stop along the way, and I made reservations far ahead in the single reasonably-priced motel in McMinnville that has a charger in its parking lot.
Once that part is out of the way, though, the rest is easy. It is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. Let me repeat that: it is actually simpler to charge an electric car’s battery than it is to fill a gas tank, and it takes less time out of your trip. The horror stories you hear about how dreadfully long it takes to charge are probably true for the people who experience them, but they result from failure to understand that charging a battery is not like filling a fuel tank. It’s a different process, and requires a different way of thinking.
With a gasoline car, the usual procedure is to run the car until the tank is nearly empty, then pull into a gas station and fill all the way up. While it’s filling, you stay with the car. If the gas station is also a convenience store, you may run in to buy a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee to go; otherwise, you just wait for the ten or fifteen minutes it takes the tank to fill. With an electric car, that model simply doesn’t work. You’re rarely going to fill the battery all the way up – that’s not even a good idea (doing it regularly can shorten the battery’s life). And you don’t need to stay with the car. While the charger is doing its thing, you can be off doing something else. Here’s how that works – actual experience, on our trip that ended yesterday.
PLANNING: I started by trying to find out whether we would be able to charge the car in McMinnville. The best tool for this is the Plugshare website (plugshare.com), a crowdsourced site that attempts to map and describe every public charger in the country. We would be spending the first two nights in a motel before moving to a dorm on the Linfield College campus, so I looked for motels with “destination chargers” – level 2 (220-240 volt) chargers located at places where you expect to stay a long time, such as overnight. McMinnville’s Best Western had such a charger. I called to see if we could reserve it; the answer was “no”, but the woman I spoke with said it was rarely used. That seemed satisfactory. I booked a room.
Next, I visited A Better Route Planner (abetterrouteplanner.com), a routing site designed specifically to help electric-car drivers find the most efficient routes for long-distance travel. It suggested a charging stop in Sutherlin, a small town just north of Roseburg, to boost the battery up to 71%. That, it said, would be enough to reach McMinnville with about twenty miles to spare. Estimated time on the charger would be 13 minutes. I checked out the Sutherlin charger on Plugshare and found it had a 10-star rating (out of 10) and four charging stations, which meant we could probably count on getting the charge started immediately. It was also next to a Dairy Queen and near a Starbucks. I penciled it in. Planning was complete.
THE TRIP NORTH: The night before our departure, I reset the top charge on the Bolt from 95%, where we usually keep it, to 100%. That would be insurance against broken or full chargers. As I backed the fully-packed and fully-charged car out of the garage the next morning, I noticed that the range indicator said we had 307 miles, which would get us to McMinnville with more than 50 miles to spare. That, of course, was based on running around Medford, rather than dashing a couple of hundred miles at freeway speeds with the air conditioner on. We decided to stop at Sutherlin anyway.
The drive went smoothly. At Sutherlin I plugged in, inserted my credit card, and had electricity flowing into the car in about a minute and a half. We had nearly 60% of the battery left, so we decided 10 minutes of charge would probably do. We slipped into the Starbucks, and those 10 minutes stretched to nearly half an hour, giving the car an 83% charge. I unplugged – about a 30-second procedure – and we headed for McMinnville, taking the shorter but slower Territorial Highway instead of the freeway route that A Better Route Planner had suggested. That got us to the McMinnville Best Western with 100 miles of range left. The charger’s parking slot was empty and the charger was a SemaConnect, for which we carry a charge card. Plugging in and starting the juice flowing took all of about 45 seconds. We would wake up the next morning with a full battery. It would take about 5 seconds to unplug.
THE TRIP SOUTH: We didn’t use the car much for the five and a half days we spent in McMinnville, so we didn’t bother charging again. Pulling out of town in the early afternoon, I noticed that we had a 95% charge – plenty to get back to Sutherlin, where we stopped and plugged in again. The charger told us it could get the car back up to an 80% charge in 40 minutes. It was just before 5:00 PM, so we went to the Dairy Queen and grabbed a meal. We finished eating with about ten minutes left of the estimated 40. The battery was up to 74% – more than enough to get to Medford – so I stopped the charge and unplugged. We changed drivers and Melody drove us the 110 miles home, at freeway speeds, with the A/C on and the outside temperature hovering above 90°F. We pulled into the driveway with 77 miles of range left.
ANALYSIS: Adding up the various plugging and unplugging times, you’ll find that we spent under five minutes charging the car. The car actually charged much longer than that, of course, but it’s really our time that counts, and while the car was charging, our time was spent doing things we would have done anyway. I wanted to stop for coffee, anyway; we would have slept in the motel all night, anyway; we would have made a dinner stop someplace on the way home, anyway. By combining those stops with charging, we had actually saved time over what it would have taken us to fill a gas tank twice. Or even once.
So that’s what it’s really like to make a 500-mile round trip in an electric car – a car that is as capable as any vehicle I’ve ever driven, and more fun than most. And it’s probably worth adding that the Bolt’s small appearance is deceptive. We got all we needed for a week – including our clothes and toiletries, a guitar, a laptop, a box of papers for the conference we were attending, and the car’s wall charger (just in case) – into the covered space behind the back seat, and we carted three extra people around McMinnville for part of the time we were there. Aside from the planning time needed, there was literally no downside to taking the Bolt instead of taking a gasoline-powered car. Ignore the naysayers. Welcome to the real future of driving.