The Electric Car Driving Experience: Part 2. Overnight Road Trip

Updated June 21, 2021

With apologies to E. S. Bach and the Library of Congress, 1923.

A week ago, we took the LEAF Plus on a long delayed trip to Indiana, PA.  The reason for the trip was to visit an Indiana University of PA summer archaeological field school near Blairsville.  Their team is chasing down the lost town of Newport, which was established over 200 years ago and had pretensions to being not only a thriving port town on the Conemaugh, but the county seat.   The town included several businesses, a hotel, a post office, and a wharf. By the mid-19th century, it had been largely abandoned.  The other reason for the trip was to figure out how to get an electric car with a 200 mile range to complete a 375 mile trip.  That and getting a sense of how the LEAF would perform on the interstate for an extended period of time.

The town of Newport, 1817. Courtesy of the PA State Archives, RG-17.

We are pleased to report that we made it out and back in a very undramatic fashion.  Nor were we shot at while in driving in Bedford County, even though we passed within 10 miles of Schellsburg and had a Biden/Harris sticker on the rear bumper of our foreign-badged electric car.

The Drive

We threw our suitcases into the trunk on a Monday morning and headed out on the PA Turnpike with a fully charged battery.  Throughout the trip, we maintained the posted speed limit, although the LEAF had sufficient power to operate at any realistic speed.  It was steamy and hot on that day and we had the A/C and the radio running throughout.  The A/C does draw on the battery, but not very much, only about 10 miles per charge.  What did draw on the battery was the 70 mph speed limit on the Turnpike.  Overall, we maintained an average efficiency of 3.7 miles per Kw hour.  By reference, the week before driving locally at 25-40 mph, we were getting 4.2 miles per Kw hour.  The LEAF Plus is rated at 216 mile range for its 62 kWh battery, but a 3.7 mile per kWh efficiency should yield a range of 229 miles.

As an electric, the LEAF is incredibly quiet on the road, even at 70 mph.  All of the safety features were turned on, so we had not only cruise control, but sensors that slowed the car if you got behind another one.  If you drifted out of your lane, the steering wheel would vibrate.  Intelligent Lane Intervention (I-LI) also uses selective braking to pull the car back to the center of the lane, but it is not a full-blown self-steering system.  (Remember, this is a LEAF, not a Tesla.)  The I-LI is a bit creepy and took some getting used to, kind of like having an orangutan as a back-seat driver, who rests both of his arms on your forearms and pulls you left or right, depending on the mood or circumstance.

Even at high speeds, the LEAF sits on the road.  Lord knows, the 3,900 pound curb weight enabled by the large battery, gives it a low center of gravity.  This might be the biggest surprise of a car like the LEAF.  It may look like an SUV from the outside, but rides lower.  All of the systems performed well – braking, steering, A/C, what have you.  It more or less drives like a car.

Charging on the Road

Sheetz Charging Area, Bedford, PA

After the first 100 miles, we took a break at the Sheetz in Bedford, right off the Turnpike exit.  In the back there is a charging area and exactly one CHAdeMO port, which fortunately was free and working.  Sheetz has a partnership with the Electrify America system which provides CCS and CHAdeMO stations across the country.  You flip the charging lid on the LEAF, plug in the charger, and follow the screen instructions, which also allows you to insert a charge card. For non-members, it is 16 cents a minute for a Level 3 charge rated at 50 kW throughput.

A bathroom break and snacks brought us back to the charger in 20 minutes, but we stayed around for another 10 minutes to get 21 kWh added into the “tank” for a cost of $4.81.  If you want the math, we added 78 miles of range for about 6 cents a mile.  As gas is over $3.00 a gallon, we got over 50 miles per gallon equivalency.  And this with a premium price for electricity at the stop.

We returned to the same Sheetz on Tuesday, the 8th and 13 put in kWh for $3.21.  This gave us plenty of range to drive the remaining 98 miles home.  With another round of bathroom breaks and a snack, we did not linger and were on the road in 20 minutes, the time of the charge.

The Right Hotel

The two charging ports at the Hilton Garden Inn.

In 2019, we were at Indiana for a conference and stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn, just off campus.  At the time we noted that it had two chargers in the parking lot, one for a Tesla and one Level 2 charger running on a generic J1772 plug.  The Level 2 charger is equivalent to the one we have in our garage, so we knew that we could get a full overnight charge from the hotel, if it was available.  Fortunately, it was.  We’re still at the point where Level 2 (public) chargers are usually available.

When we checked in, we plugged in the LEAF and went to our rooms. For dinner, we drove into town and returned to the charger and re-plugged it in for the night.  By morning, we were fully charged and ready for our trip home.  For reference, a Level 2 charger takes about 10-11 hours to fully charge the LEAF Plus’ 62 kWh battery.

As a plug for the Hilton, it is a nice hotel and better than what we normally use, but having the chargers made all the difference.  One point of concern, though.  When we pulled in, there was a large Toyota SUV sitting in the Tesla spot, in spite of the sign there stating it was for Tesla EV’s only.  We mentioned it to the clerk at the desk.

Planning, Planning, Planning

We were able to make the 375 mile roundtrip to Indiana, PA through careful planning and just a pinch of luck.  We located a fast Level 3 charger en route in Bedford.  We selected a hotel that had an overnight Level 2 charger.  We were fortunate that both were available when we needed them.  Electrify America does take some precautions to ensure its ports are accessible.  If you leave your EV too long at one of their chargers, it will tell you on the app and then charge you (not the car) after 10 minutes.

We know the range of the LEAF is circa 200 miles on the open road.  We tried to make sure we had a 20-30 mile range at all times.  This meant we needed to make sure that we were never further than 170 miles from a charger, whether it be Level 2 or Level 3.  One thing more.  Most Level 3 chargers are designed to get you quickly to an 80% charge, but move more slowly after that.  Part of this is to ensure your battery is protected.  On paper, and 80% charge gives the LEAF an 180 mile range, leaving you with less buffer but a faster trip.

That a non-EV was taking up one of the parking spots for the limited number of EV chargers was disconcerting.  I would like the hotel and other hotels to treat these spots like Handicapped  Parking spots.  If you are not supposed to be there, you get a citation.

Final Thoughts

Planning is clearly the key to making a longer road trip in an EV.  However, all of the planning would have been for naught if the charger in Bedford wasn’t working, or the one at the Hilton.  We did check a backup Sheetz in Altoona, which also has a Level 3 Charger, but did not physically visit the place.  There are 3 other J1772 Level 2 chargers in downtown Indiana, one at the Nissan Dealership and two at the Borough Building.  If push came to shove, we might have parked the LEAF downtown and take a Lyft or Uber back to the Hotel, or walked. It’s about 1.2 miles each way.

One would think the PA Turnpike would have Level 3 Chargers for Tesla, CCS, and CHAdeMO at every rest area.  They do not.  Once you head west on the Turnpike out of Harrisburg, the first charging station west bound is at New Stanton.  You can get to Indiana, PA via New Stanton, but it’s 55 miles further and an hour longer.  New Stanton is 175 miles from New Cumberland and about the limit of range for the LEAF, considering buffer. Since it is a west bound rest area, on the return trip, you would have to drive west-bound to get on the Turnpike, then turn around to get home.  It’s do-able, but will add another 15 miles to the trip, which is already 55 miles longer.  The nearest east-bound rest area with a  Level 3 Charger is Oakmont Plum, just out of Pittsburgh, and too far to make part of the trip.

This is a long way of saying to the PA Turnpike, “GET MORE CHARGING STATIONS, GUYS!!!!”

Addendum – June 21, 2021

Interestingly, in the June 20, 2021 Sunday New York Times, Elaine Glusac rented a 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus for a road trip in the mountains of Colorado.  Compare her experience with ours.