In recent years, a new type of article has appeared in the popular press – the EV Road trip. Journalists grab an EV, scope out a longer road trip, and blog about what happens. Even I have succumbed to the trend, describing our trip to Indiana (PA) last summer. These articles can be useful. The biggest fear from the public regarding electric vehicles is the ability to make an EV work on longer trips. This is critical to solve if a family is to make an EV its only vehicle. Bundled up in this question are questions about range, and charging on the road.
Most of these articles allow a future EV user a way to envision longer trips. The more honest of these point out weaknesses in taking these kind of trips, but offer some work arounds. Then there’s the recent blog by Rachel Wolfe that appeared in the Wall Street Journal (June 4-5,2022), titled, “2,013 Miles. No Gas. Many Hassles.” A friend of mine shared the print version of it with me. It can be found at the WSJ. If you aren’t currently a subscriber or don’t want to buy your way past the pay wall, I’ve scanned and posted the article here. (I usually read my articles on line, but here it was handy to have the actual paper copy to work with.)
Ms. Wolfe made many mistakes on this trip, both in planning and in choices on the road. The subtitle for the article is, “Our reporter drove from New Orleans to Chicago and back to test the feasibility of taking a road trip in an electric vehicle. She spent more time charging it than she did sleeping.” I would like to take this blog to deconstruct her trip. It should have gone better, but I am satisfied that her suffering was deserved. As a traveler, she made mistakes of commission. However, as a journalist, she made mistakes of omission. Her piece could have been instructive and useful to explain how managing an EV on a road trip is different from managing a fossil-fueled vehicle. Instead, it reads like a silly road trip gone bad, a cross between Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. (Sorry. My old brain doesn’t work like it used to.) A cross between Amy Schumer and Bob and Ted.
Mistake #1 – Not knowing what vehicle I am driving.
Early on, Ms. Wolfe proudly announces she snagged a brand-new Kia EV6 that she rented. The Kia EV6 was to provide a range of 310 miles. Knowing the range of your EV is critical basic information. All, I repeat all of your trip planning is based on the range of the vehicle. It sets your stops, your charging, etc.
Later on in the article, Ms. Wolfe demurs that her Kia EV6 model might have had a 250 mile range instead of 310. The information on Turo might have been unclear. It just lists the vehicle as a Kia EV6. However, there are 3 different ranges depending on the trim choice. The basic Kia Light with RWD has a stated range of up to 232 miles. The All-Wheel Drive Wind has a range of up to 274 miles. The Rear Wheel Drive Wind has a range of up to 310 miles. All EV owners can state the listed range of their vehicles from memory. They also have it tattooed on their arms. They can also tell you the actual range of the vehicle under any condition you would name, whether it be winter or summer, dry or raining, highway or local driving, etc.
Given the troubles Ms. Wolfe had with range issues, I find it startling that she, a journalist, never nails down which model she had and why it mattered. Her only response to Turo and the vehicle’s owner was ”The car is super reliable, efficient and beautiful. (The photos don’t do it justice!) Christian is wonderful and available to answer any questions”
To put this matter in some perspective, Ms. Wolfe currently owns a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta. Ask her if it would matter to her if she had a 2009 Jetta but didn’t know if it was a Model S, Model GTI, or Model TDI? The first takes regular gas, the second premium, the third diesel.
Mistake #2 – Not starting my trip with a full charge.
Her first day’s final destination was Nashville, and she had a dinner appointment. Let’s say 7:00 PM. She’s going through Meridian, MS. Google says this is an 8 hour trip with 532 miles on the road. If you were 100% committed to making tracks, you would likely need to leave NOLA no later than 9 AM. If you wanted a more leisurely trip, you would need to leave earlier. Regardless of the fuel source, you would not want to be burdened with a partially filled tank to begin.
If you owned an EV, you would always start any lengthy trip with a full charge if you could. Meridian MS is 198 miles away. Even if you had the Light trim Kia, you should be able to make it without recharging. Instead, Ms. Wolfe adds a wasted 40-minute stop in Slidell.
Mistake #3 – Not knowing how my driving habits affect range.
All EV owners know that the advertised range for any EV is aspirational. JUST LIKE THE ADVERTISED RANGE FOR GAS-POWERED CARS! Why would anyone assume that EV manufacturers are more virtuous in their advertising than regular manufacturers?
Driving in April, it is unlikely that Ms. Wolfe needed much in the way of climate control, so the primary determinant of her range would be highway driving. Yes, driving at 80 mph will hammer range down, compared with driving the speed limit. This is also true for gasoline powered vehicles. I’m not saying the Ms. Wolfe drove over the speed limit. It’s just that most of us do. As a rule of thumb, you should probably presume that your actual range will be 40-50 miles less than the advertised range, especially on highway driving. This is where the particular model of Kia comes into play. If she had the base model, she would likely have expended most of her practical range. If she had the Wind RWD version, she would have about 60 miles range left.
Mistake #4 – Not knowing the implications of the charging locations selected.
All EV owners thoroughly research their charging stops before the trip, making sure the station has the format you need (CHADEMO, CCS, TESLA), how fast the charger operates, and most importantly, is it still in service today? Because there is no single standard of performance for a high speed (Level 3) charger, you do get situations like Ms. Wolfe’s in Meridian where the High Speed Charger at the Kia Dealership leaves much to be desired.
EV owners also look for a Plan B charger in case the planned charger has issues. Unfortunately, it looks like Meridian has only one acceptable high speed charger. Specs on that charger can be found at Plugshare as well as other apps. It clearly lists the charger as only putting out 19-20 kw which is not really the high speed Level 3 performance you need.
To simplify the discussion, we will presume Ms. Wolfe had the Wind RWD trim level with the 310 rated range. She has used 198 miles already and would need that remaining buffer. Her next stop is Birmingham, which is 145 miles away. Multiply by .359, carry the 1. This translates to needing 49 kWh added to get to Birmingham. Note: If you cannot or will not do math nor can find someone to do it for you, then taking an EV on trips is not for you.
All of these questions should be answered before getting into the car. That is why planning is so important for EV trips. The requirement for good planning is driven by the general lack of suitable charging stations outside of major metropolitan areas.
Back in Meridian, Ms. Wolfe needs enough range to get to Birmingham. The 49 kWh she needs to get to Birmingham will take 2 hours. A good time to have lunch. There are a couple of eateries 10-12 minute walks from the Dealership, all nested in the interchange area. Functional but not destination quality. If it was important to get to the center of town for lunch, then you would need an Uber or Lyft.
The Kia dealership is logically where almost all dealerships are located, off the interstate in the soulless wasteland of a miracle mile or interstate interchange. Google maps will tell you this without getting out of your chair. So, Ms. Wolfe’s 30-minute walk into town would have easily been predicted and known. Rather than complain about the industrial landscape she had to navigate, maybe she should have taken a slightly deeper dive into why there aren’t more high level charging stations in downtown Meridian?
If she had left at 8 AM, she should have been back on the road at 1 PM.
Meridian to Birmingham is 145 miles away. Estimated travel is 2 hours 12 minutes. She could expect to pull into the Birmingham Mercedes Benz dealership around 3:30 PM. Nashville will be the next stop, which is 200 miles and 3 hours away. The DC charger at Mercedes Benz is faster, rated at 62.5 kW but demonstrated at 60 kW recently. The Kia will take up to 1-1/2 hours to charge. Following Ms. Wolfe’s lead, one would be headed to Nashville by 5:00 PM and arrive in Nashville by 8:00 PM. A bit late for dinner. Maybe she should have left by 7 AM? I haven’t made the trip. I am still sitting in my chair, but I know this. Why don’t she?
Mistake #5 – Not taking full advantage of the hotel charger
Long distance EV travel of more than 1 day leans on the availability of an overnight charger. This way, every morning you can start the trip with a full charge. Generally, at least for now, there is no additional cost for the Level 2 plug as long as you are a guest. Ms. Wolfe appears to have defeated her charging regimen by not having the Kia plugged in for enough hours overnight to fully charge. According to the manual, you need about 8-9 hours. Pulling into Nashville after midnight certainly didn’t help.
Mistake #6 – Not making realistic plans.
Ms. Wolfe noted that she expected to get from Nashville to Chicago in 7.5 hours. The Google trip planner has the fastest route at 7 hours 8 minutes for the 474 miles. Google trip times do not account for any stops or for lunch, or for weather or traffic. Why would Ms. Wolfe expect to get from Nashville to Chicago in 7.5 hours?
On Day 2, she lists 3 stops to charge. Clarkesville IN is 2 hours 48 minutes away in 179 miles. Add 25 minutes for charging in Clarkesville, then back on the road. Clarkesville to Indianapolis is an hour and 41 minutes for 110 miles. Again, she can charge in 25 minutes at the Walmart, but since it’s after 1 PM she can put the car in the charger and grab a bite. If she had left at 8 AM, she could have been back on the road at 2 PM, on toward Chicago, 3 hours and 183 miles away. In principle one should be able to pull in to the Windy City around 5 PM, making the trip in 9 hours. This is a bit more than filling at a station, but only if you don’t make rest stops. It would not be 12 hours as stated.
Mistake #7 – Handling contingencies poorly added to poor planning.
There is no logical explanation for why she had only 180 miles range coming out of Chicago on Day 3. I doubt an explanation is forthcoming, but she surely could have reached the Effingham IL station. Effingham is 210 miles away. Well before Effingham, the Kia will spurt out data in real time regarding remaining range, efficiency, etc. It is highly unlikely that blowing through range and being unawares should happen. Again, every EV owner keeps on eye on those numbers and will use one of several apps to make sure they don’t get stranded or in a jam. When push comes to shove, EV owners will alter their driving habits (drive slower).
The Firefly Grill in Effingham provided the juice and a hot meal. Noted in the Plugshare report, but not the article. Ms. Wolfe, at least could have given a shout out to the restaurant.
Effingham to Minor MO is 185 miles. No explanation why Ms. Wolfe could not make it there. (Although she actually did.) There is literally nothing in the literature linking tornados with EV range. Ms. Wolfe’s narrative breaks down here as on one hand, she didn’t have the range to get to Minor, but doesn’t show the alternative charging station on the map. It seems a bit jumbled. I presume she got Memphis and then on to NOLA. A telling comment is near the end of the article.
“I’ve failed to map out the last 400 miles of our route.”
No wonder Mack is upset.
One gets the feeling the tone of the article is that the Gods and electric vehicles are out to get Ms. Wolfe. Many bad things happen to her. Some good things, too, but these are underreported. Much of the bad things that happen to her and her riding companion are due to her bad planning, lack of research and frankly lack of thinking this out in advance. She apparently had a miserable trip, which was deserved.
As a journalist, Ms. Wolfe has an obligation to WSJ, her readers, and even to Mack, to not only lay out what went wrong, but what could be done about it. I do not wish to diminish the current shortcomings in the charging network as they are numerous. I do not wish to diminish the shortcomings in the current selection of EV’s on the road, nor the charging standards they use, nor the range, as they are also numerous. However, driving an EV on trips is not the hell-scape that Ms. Wolfe makes it out to be and as a journalist she should know better. I would have preferred that she would have shared some teachable moments.
- You simply cannot treat an EV exactly like a gasoline powered vehicle. There are not charging stations at every corner and it still takes 30 minutes to an hour to fully charge an EV if you can find a high speed DC charger.
- Knowledge is power. Owning an EV vehicle for distance driving requires that you are a good trip planner. You have to take advantage of what is available to you. You might need to adjust your trips, your times, your stops to make it work. Eight times out of 10, you probably can.
- Part of this planning is always having a plan B in case things go wrong, i.e., you have miscalculated range. This is one of the differences between an EV and a gas powered car. If you run low on gas, you can find a convenient if pricey service station. If you run out of gas, AAA will come and put a splash in your tank, enough to get you to a nearby filling station. This happens many times a day across the USA. AAA reports something like 600,000 instances a year. With an EV, AAA won’t come by and give you a charge. They’ve discontinued that service some years ago. They will tow your car to the closest EV charger. Basically, if you run out of charge away from a charging station, you’re on your own.
- Things like hotels with chargers become very important and could be the main decider of where you stay overnight, rather than 2 double beds or a king, or a fitness center. Secondly, it is usually included in the hotel fee. An overnight charge for a 75 kWh battery is worth $10 at home and $20 on the road.
- You rely more on your apps, and not just one. No single app appears to cover all of the charging stations out there.
- Ultimately, more high speed charging stations are needed out on the highways. It is not all that much of a problem to drive 3 hours and take a 30 minute stop during which you charge your vehicle and go to the bathroom and get coffee. It is a problem when your route has no high speed charging stations that meet your car’s standard within 50 miles of the planned stop. The latter is the norm throughout most of the US.
- If you can make an EV work for your trip, take heart in knowing the cost per mile is going to be a third of that of a gas-powered car. Even if you are paying $0.25 per kWh at a station and discounting any savings from hotel charging, your 2,000 mile trip will cost you $142. Ms. Wolfe’s trip should have cost about $100, with 3 hotel stays. The same trip in her VW Jetta would cost her about $370 today.
Most of the articles mentioned take the perspective of someone who is in the gasoline-powered world trying out the electric-powered world. What if it were the reverse? Here is a thought experiment loosely based on Ms. Wolfe’s trip.