In September, my wife and I took an 11,000 mile trip in our all-electric vehicle. It was my 11th all-electric road trip; and while I’ve enjoyed them all, past trips have had some compromises – mostly involving planning and waiting for the car to charge. This was the first trip that was clearly better than taking a gas car. This was enabled by simple, reliable, quick DC charging - and it really has me excited for the future. I’ll get to more details on how things worked for us and what aspects of DC charging I think are important in a minute, but first I want to put all-electric road trips in context.
The past: Plug-in owners have never been unable to get where they want to go
I bought my first three plug-in vehicles not only before DC charging was available, but before there were any public charging stations of any type in my state or in any neighboring state. While fear of having to wait for a charge may be a major reason why many ICE drivers have resisted buying a plug-in vehicle, we plug-in vehicle owners have never been stuck at home or even “forced” to wait for a charge. Plug-in hybrids, for example, can do road trips exactly like gas cars; a simple and obvious point that somehow seems to be frequently overlooked.
All-electric owners typically still have a gas car in the family (a “hybrid garage”) so they are in a similar situation - you don’t HAVE to take your all-electric on a road trip just like you don’t have to drive the kids to soccer practice in your Miata – anybody worried about fitting the kids in would of course take their minivan. Even if an all-electric is their only car, they can fly/bus/train/rent/swap/carshare. Nobody has been “forced” to take slower trips and wait for a charge by their choice of a plug-in, although some of us have chosen to wait for a charge because we prefer driving electric – a subtle but critical distinction. Electricity is everywhere if you are willing to wait, and gasoline is common if not – so DC charging has never been a requirement for people to buy and love plug-in vehicles.
The Present: Road trips are uncommon even for gas cars, and easy to avoid with all-electrics
Road trips are where most gas cars spend the least amount of their time; and that’s even more the case for fully-electric vehicles. There are a lot of imaginary downsides to plug-ins, but an all-electric taking longer to refuel on a road trip is an honest downside (in fact, the only one I can think of). Focusing on a strong product’s weakest and least-used aspect is not the best way to gain converts.
But I think electric road trips are worth improving for three reasons: 1. Once you get a plug-in vehicle, you WANT to take road trips in it, even if you don’t have to; 2. A disproportionate amount of petroleum is used on road trips, and if we want to reduce that we should make sure the electric road trip experience is good, and 3. Road trips are what gas drivers worried about plug-ins focus on precisely because it is a BEV’s weak spot. Even though the extra time for a road trip is largely irrelevant (given that they are rare and there are so many easy ways to avoid it as noted above – a disadvantage does not matter if you never experience it!), if we can improve it we can remove one of the biggest psychological obstacles to greater adoption.
The Future: We are not there yet
I have already taken a great DC-enabled all-electric road trip, so it may be possible now, but we have not arrived in the future just yet. Most all-electrics don’t yet have sufficient range; while you could build out a DC network to make really long trips possible with them, it would be inconvenient to stop so often, expensive to have so many stations, and to-date network buildout seems aimed at in-city or at best between-cities travel, not road trips. The Tesla Model S combined with Superchargers is the only all-electric combination that is “usable” (in a convenience sense, not a possible sense) for road trips now, but of course a single large, expensive vehicle with a proprietary network is not going to work for everybody. The Supercharger network is nowhere near fully built-out; and even where it is built out, not all of the siting and usage details are ideal. Plug-in hybrids are still the best option for most single-car owners that plan to take road trips.
But if we want to get to a better future, we should periodically assess where we are and make sure we are on the right track. There are adjustments to be made, and maybe not all of them will be fast or smooth, but I am optimistic that we can get there.
EV Road Trip Advantages
While the DC chargers did a great job of making our EV near-parity on trip duration (and far ahead on costs – we did not pay extra for electricity on this trip), there are other aspects of driving an EV that are decidedly better than taking a gas car on a long trip.
Gas engines work by explosions. They make noises and vibrations and emit exhaust. They have a narrow power band, and so require gears. Increasing the rate of explosions involves a physical delay. I am sure gasoline drivers are reading this and rolling their eyes, but it is only because they are used to these things and don’t consciously notice them. Drive an electric car for a few weeks, and then go back to a gas car – you will notice them then. Noises, vibrations, jerking and smells are tiring on a long trip. Driving a smooth, quiet, clean, instantly-responsive electric car really is far more relaxing. That made a huge difference to us over 11,000 miles.
Not to mention an EV’s more flexible packaging makes for more space for passengers and cargo in a similar footprint; we couldn’t have taken all of our stuff including camping gear in most of our past gas cars. I’m not just relieved to have an alternative to taking a gas car on a trip; I am excited that I have something that is more enjoyable. Improve the DC charging networks, build more and cheaper cars that can use them, and eventually the masses will want to switch over.
We bought a Model S just over two years ago; we already had two EVs that we enjoyed at the time, but we bought it largely for the promise of better road trips. We’ve taken it to various spots in California (from our home near Seattle) a few times, and have been very happy to see the Supercharger network grow – they have really made the trips easier as they were put in.
We have always enjoyed visiting national parks, especially ones that we haven’t seen before. We’ve visited some in Washington, California and Florida, not to mention Alaska and Hawaii. We’ve long wanted to visit Acadia National Park in Maine just to “complete the set”. We weren’t sure exactly when to make the trip, especially since we thought perhaps we should take a trip to visit my wife’s aging aunt in Phoenix first. As we discussed which trip to take when, and other places and people we wanted to visit, the trip grew. We finally decided to try to hit a large number of them in one trip.
We started down the Western states, visiting Crater Lake in Oregon and Yosemite in California (two old favorites) on the way. We visited Red Rock Canyon (new to us) in Nevada. We visited friends and relatives in Phoenix, and then went NE to see Mesa Verde and Arches. Then it was East for visits in Colorado Springs and a climb up Pikes Peak, North for small-town Wyoming, and finally a long shot East. We drove through the Badlands, but didn’t make a significant stop until we got to New Jersey. We visited a friend in Montclair, and attended a National Drive Electric Week event in Madison. Finally we went on to Maine to visit Acadia; and on our way back we stopped in Portland Maine for another National Drive Electric Week event. Then it was mostly heading West towards home; but we took a kind of meandering route to drive through some off-the-beaten path places. We visited Gettysburg, a friend in Chicago, and a friend in Bozeman.
DC Charging on the trip
We used the Supercharger network for this trip – a Tesla-proprietary, 135kW network of DC charging stations that are usually placed along major interstate routes. A fee for network buildout and electricity was bundled in with the cost of our car, so there was no additional fee to use the Superchargers. They are typically placed no more than 150 miles apart, and any site could have from 4 to 12 charging stalls (though each stall shares a charger; so there were 2 to 6 135kW chargers at each site). Note that our Model S is an early car, so it only Supercharges at 90kW – it doesn’t use the extra capacity of newer Superchargers that charge at 120 or 135kW, so our charge times were a little longer than new owners can expect.
The Superchargers all worked as designed – we pulled up, plugged in, and a short while later (anywhere from 10 to 70 minutes, depending on where we had come from and where we were going; Tesla claims the average charge should take 22 minutes) we were ready to go. We were always able to get a charge right away; we never encountered a fully blocked or non-functioning charger. We never even had reduced charge rates due to a shared charger. While stopped, we would typically check email, stretch our legs, use the restrooms, get something to eat/drink…the car was usually ready to go before we were. Even with Supercharging, somebody trying to set a coast-to-coast speed record would be better off with a PHEV, but for the way my wife and I travel (which I think is closer to how most people travel) using Superchargers was really not an inconvenience at all.
While the Superchargers worked great, our biggest problem was hopefully temporary: they weren’t everywhere. We took non-optimal routes to get a few places; we may have missed a few spots we wanted to visit (though we had enough spots we did visit that the trip was already longer than we wanted); but worst of all we had to drive through the Great Montana Supercharger Desert. Between Rapid City SD and Ritzville WA, a distance of 916 miles, there was only a single Supercharger in Billings MT. (There are now two other sites in Montana under construction, another with a permit, and at least a couple of other sites being investigated, so this situation is definitely temporary).
Despite being less than 10% of our trip miles, the non-Supercharger miles took over 90% of our planning time, as well as our waiting-around-for-a-charge time. The difference was really night-and-day. I’m willing to take trips on L2 to avoid using gas, but the planning and waiting does get tiring. Supercharger trips are dead-simple, fast and fun; I look forward to taking many more of them.
Critical Aspects for Owners
Plug In America has been dispensing advice on charger installation for years; for some examples of our past recommendations, see HERE and HERE. While we had plenty of experience using L2 charging – and even installed some on our own – it’s nice to finally be able to make significant use of a DC network and verify some of the basic principles. After 11 all-electric road trips using a mix of campgrounds, EV owner outlets, L2 and DC infrastructure, here are my thoughts on what DC charging aspects are important to owners in decreasing order of importance:
- Reliability. There is no way around this one; it is key – the charger has to work when you get there. In fact, unreliable chargers are WORSE than no chargers – without chargers, the owner will have made other plans for the trip; but with an unreliable charger, they may encounter a long unexpected delay. To reduce the chances of an owner not getting the DC charge they expect:
- Make sure there are enough chargers at each location; usage should be monitored so that more are added when all chargers being in use becomes more than an occasional event
- The location should be available 24/7. Showing up at midnight to find a locked gate in front of an otherwise usable charger is
highly unpleasant. If unavoidable, usage restrictions should be made VERY clear when charging station information is distributed to owners (ideally both online and in the car’s navigation system)
- Put in signage that makes it clear that the spots are for charging, not parking. Gas cars should not park there, and electric cars should move when charging is done. The best combination seems to be green striping on the ground, a “NO PARKING Except for Electric Vehicle Charging” sign, and a sign indicating a fine or better yet towing for violators. It helps to put the chargers in a location that does not typically have a parking supply problem
- There should also be good signage (or detailed in-car navigation) leading TO the charging station. Not being able to find it is just as bad as not being able to use it
- Monitor the stations for problems. Have a way for customers to check status online and in the car’s navigation system. Many reliability problems seem to come from the billing mechanisms; while I don’t think free charging is required (and in fact can cause overuse and “camping”, which can reduce availability for others; and also discourages further buildout) schemes to separate payment from the charging event are helpful
- Reduce vandalism and accidental disabling. Shorter cables, better lighting and visibility, fewer screens and buttons that can be broken, strong connectors with clear usage
- Have a simple reporting mechanism. Generally a phone number is fine; but it should be answered 24/7 by somebody that is familiar with the charging stations (as opposed to the main number for a very large corporation)
- Location. Only the first two aspects of this are really critical; but the rest can help transform an acceptable experience in to an excellent one.
- On routes that people use. Obvious, but included for completeness
- Distance apart. Nobody should ever have to worry about reaching the next charger. Wind, speed, elevation gain, cold, rain/snow and battery degradation all make it a really bad idea to space chargers near the EPA range of the car; charge tapering as the battery fills makes it even worse. DC chargers should be no spaced at no more than half the EPA range of the cars they are designed for. (Longer-range vehicles greatly reduce the number of sites needed to enable road trips)
- Near restrooms. Ideally clean ones available 24/7. While not critical because you can always use rest stops separately, the fact that you are stopping to charge anyway makes this a really huge convenience
- Near coffee shops and restaurants for the same reasons as restrooms. A variety of food types is best if possible, but if nothing else just being next to a grocery store is better than nothing. (Note that hotels are not mentioned here; you won’t be at a DC charger long enough for that to matter, and in fact being at hotels can encourage over-long parking at DC stations. We did sometimes use nearby hotels simply because the charger location gave us a good spot to start looking, but the hotel being near the charger did not make our trip better. Restaurants near the charger did)
- Covered by Wifi or cellular data networks. We don’t want people using their computers while driving, and on a road trip the quick stops to charge may be the only chance to check messages and such
- Usability. None of this is really critical, and I’d rather see DC stations without this stuff if it will delay rollout. Still, these can improve the user experience, and long-term that is what we would all like to see:
- No club card/fob needed. I’m not opposed to charging cards and there are some advantages to them. However, I hate to see them required; I have heard from too many owners that didn’t know one was required until they got there, or left them in the other EV, or lost them on the trip, or bent them in their pocket, etc. Even if they are used and favored, there should be a quick and simple way to get a charge if you arrive without one (take a credit card at a premium, allow phone activations with a 24/7 dedicated line, etc)
- No kiosk interaction needed. In addition to adding to charger costs, being vandalism targets and common breakage points, screens are often hard to see and use when dark, in bad weather, etc. Plus it simply takes more time. Here is one way where club cards can help by identifying with a simple swipe; better yet, identify the car when it plugs in (though that is not always possible on public networks)
- Simple cable and connector. I’ve heard many stories of DC connectors breaking, people struggling with cables, or people leaving without a charge because they could not get them to work. Reading instructions on a cold, dark and rainy night is no fun, especially if you are tired. Owners may be elderly, disabled or injured. Plugging in should be simple and easy
- Under cover. Cooler in the summer, drier in the winter, and it makes some of the above scenarios easier
Owners are not the only piece of the puzzle
Some people in the industry may be reading this and really trying to figure out how to enable all of it for owners. However, owners will not get what they want unless it also works for the charging site hosts and for those involved in installing and maintaining the infrastructure.
And what of the multiple DC charging standards? Battery swapping? How will future longer-range cars affect how often and how fast people charge?
I am very confident that we can work through these issues, but alas I have already written too much for today. Perhaps a future blog will examine some of these aspects.
The future is coming, and I think we are going to like it.
Do you have ideas for how to make DC charging better, or how to get more DC charging installed? Let us know what you think.