While the first electric vehicles were great for commuting, their limited range — about 100 miles on a charge — kept them close to home. Now a bumper crop of new electric cars, with bigger batteries and fast charging connectors, is headed for the market, allowing EV drivers to expand their horizons.
“Once you see the abundance of charging stations, it takes the anxiety out of taking a road trip in an EV,” says Dave Nichols, an editor at GreenCars.com, which provides information and shopping advice for hybrids and electric cars.
Feeling a bit of cabin fever after months of shelter in place, I decided to try driving my new 2021 Hyundai Kona EV to Buellton, California, about 160 miles away from my home in the Los Angeles area. I knew my car, with 258 miles of range, would need a charge to complete the round trip, and I wanted to see firsthand if broken or crowded chargers or any other unexpected problems would slow me down.
Pick a charged route
Nichols points out that most EVs have a charging station locator in their onboard infotainment systems. But he also recommends downloading a charging network app such as PlugShare that shows stations nationwide.
Using filters, you can search for several different types of chargers:
- Level 2 chargers. This is the most common type of publicly available charger, sometimes available for free at shopping malls and government buildings. However, they add only up to 20 miles of range for an hour of charging, according to the Department of Energy.
- DC fast chargers. If you want to quickly top up or extend your range, these 440-volt chargers are the fastest way to refuel, providing from 60 to 80 miles of range in one hour.
Bob Sykes, a retired video producer, says that finding fast chargers is “the key to taking a road trip in an electric car.” While driving his Chevrolet Bolt from the Los Angeles area to Monterey, California, about 370 miles, “We stopped for lunch or coffee, hooked up, and it would be 75% charged when we were done.”
On PlugShare, I saw that there were two chargers at a hotel in Buellton, so I booked a room there and hit the road.
Know your limits before you leave
The instrument panel in an EV clearly shows the estimated range, so you won’t be caught with a dead battery. However, the actual range varies depending on several factors, including whether you run the car’s heater or air conditioner and how fast you drive.
If you’re new to the electric car world, it’s a good idea to calibrate your car’s range. See what the estimated range is, drive a known distance, then measure how much range is remaining.
And it’s a great idea to get to know your car a little better anyway before venturing far afield. You may find you enjoy an EV even more than a gas car.
“They’re peppy,” Sykes notes. And quiet: The only sound at highway speed is the wind and tire noise. And with the heavy batteries typically located underneath or low in the vehicle, even a taller SUV hugs the road.
You found a charger, but can you connect?
The Department of Energy estimates that there are 43,000 public EV charging stations in the U.S., but President Joe Biden plans to build a national network of 500,000. Until that day, you’ll have to do some legwork.
That is, unless you drive a Tesla. The manufacturer has built a network of more than 2,500 fast-charging stations, but they’re available only to Tesla customers.
Drivers of other makes will find EV charging hit or miss, especially in rural areas.
While I checked in, the desk clerk confirmed that they had charging stations. “But they’re kind of spotty,” she said apologetically. Sure enough, I found them in a distant corner of the parking lot, covered with dust.
But after I scanned the QR code and downloaded the app, I successfully connected — for free, a value of about $30, saving me from paying $4.25 a gallon to drive the same distance. In the morning I had a full charge, more than enough to do some sightseeing on the drive home.
Those problems you’re so worried about
Here are a few problems you could run into and how to handle them.
- In-use chargers. Unfortunately, you can’t reserve a charger. To avoid arriving to find all the chargers busy, pick an area that has multiple charging stations. Use an app such as PlugShare to find out when the chargers are busy and see what other users have reported. If all the charging stations are taken, look for notes on windshields. Some EV owners will leave their cell phone numbers so you can call them and ask them to unplug.
- Connection hassles. Create an account ahead of time for the most popular paid charging services such as ChargePoint and EVgo, which provide fast chargers. Before a road trip, find a local charger and do a trial run to make sure you can quickly connect.
- Power outages. There is little you can do. However, if you have enough range left to drive out of the area, you might find something working a few miles down the road. And consider that a power outage would affect most gas stations, too.
- Running on empty. Unexpectedly running out of electricity is unlikely since there are multiple warning lights and messages before that point. Additionally, many EVs have a “limp home mode” that saves your battery’s reserves, allowing you to drive slowly to a charging station.