We planned on a 1½ -day drive down and the same on the return. That would give us time to charge the car and also see some sights, stopping about every three hours to top off the Leaf’s battery.
We were feeling pretty good when we finally headed south in early April. The first 150 miles were uneventful, and we arrived at our first charging stop at a Nissan dealership just south of Richmond. We still had an 80-mile range showing on our gauge and everything was going according to plan.
But the situation would change quickly.
The dealership’s charger was free to use, but it was not in the best shape. An hour’s charge only provided 35 miles, not the 150-plus we expected. That would not be enough to get us to our next planned charging stop in North Carolina, about 180 miles away.
This meant all the planning we had done for the spacing and timing of our subsequent charging stops was out the window. It was time for Plan B. And as the trip progressed, there would be a Plan C, D, E, F and several Hail Marys.
Along our week-long trip we learned about CHAdeMO, ICEing, kilowatt hours, regenerative braking and something called range anxiety. These aren’t terms you usually associate with road trips. However, once you join the EV world, they become part of the required lexicon. If you’re driving on a trip of any length, your success and happiness depend on how well you deal with these and other new variables.
If you’re about to take your EV out on the road, here are some tips, gained from hard experience, to help you avoid the worst pitfalls:
Know your car. EVs are like people. They have strengths and weaknesses and their own character. For example, most EVs have a highway speed “sweet spot” that ensures the most efficient battery usage. For our Leaf, it’s around 65 mph. We learned this the hard way one night when we “lost” over 100 miles of valuable range by cruising at 80 mph through North Carolina. Things like heating and air conditioning can also affect battery life. In addition, today’s EVs are as much computer as they are car, and they can be just as complicated. Spend time with your car’s user manual and make sure you have at least a basic understanding of the functions and features. And don’t forget the best teacher: experience. Before heading out on a multiday road trip, try some midrange jaunts to help debug your process and systems.
Expect the unexpected. At one key point on our trip I had to deal with ICEing (when an Internal Combustion Engine car parks in a way that blocks a charging station). ICEing might be accidental, or it might be a purposeful demonstration of the driver’s attitude toward EVs. In my case, two cars were parked almost completely blocking the charger (the rest of the parking lot was empty). Luckily, I could just squeeze between them with an inch to spare on either side. But then I had to climb into the back seat and crawl out the back hatch. Our charging was successful in this case, but it’s best to always have additional options when it comes to potential charging stations.
Leverage technology (but don’t forget old school). On our trip, Davina and I used an app called PlugShare, which let us plot our battery range, possible routes and available charging stations along the way. It even let us filter results by supplier/company, plug type and speed (fast or slow charge). It also has a Yelp-style user review feature that tells you about the condition of the charger and any issues (frequent ICEing for example). Were the chargers working? How busy were they? Were they accurate? What sites and activities were in the area? This additional information helped greatly with planning. But on several occasions our Internet connection was spotty or nonexistent, and we had to rely on paper notes and maps. So I recommend always having a traditional road atlas in the car . . . just in case.
This ain’t your Daddy’s gas station. EV charging stations are not like gas stations. They aren’t at every exit along a route. Several times we found ourselves circling a building or parking lot, looking for an elusive charger, only to find it almost hidden in some remote corner. Add to that the issue that there is no universal connector for EV charging (the three main options are Tesla, CCS and CHAdeMO). It’s like the old VHS vs. Betamax video recording format wars of the 1980s. If your technology doesn’t match the system, you’re out of luck. And Tesla’s system is the Apple of the EV world (literally “my way or the highway”) and has its own proprietary system. Our Leaf uses CHAdeMo.
The times, they are a-changin’. We would happily pay extra for a room at a motel chain that had a system we could plug into and start out the next day fully charged. But EV-friendly accommodations are few and far between. The same goes for restaurants. However, Walmart has full banks of charging stations at many of its “Super” centers. As more stations become available, EV travel will become easier — and less stressful.
Be open to new experiences. Our lunchtime stop in the college town of Greenville, S.C., brought a pleasant surprise. The charging station was across the street from a restaurant called Willy Taco. It was this kind of “reward” we were hoping for during our charging stops. Something new. Something different. Something enjoyable. This is what we had envisioned . . . sleeping, eating, shopping or sightseeing while the car charged. The availability and location of charging stations doesn’t make this a given, but when the stars align, it’s great.
Don’t forget to breathe. After a week on the road, we were accumulating experiences and a feel for the tricks of travel needed to get around a petroleum-centric world in an electric car. But on the return trip, a fatal accident on I-95 created a multi-mile backup. For the next two hours we crawled along. We were only 10 miles from our day’s final charging station and had 25 miles on the battery. This is where we learned the meaning of the phrase “range anxiety.” Every mile counts. And if you run out of power in an electric car you can’t just have a tow truck jump the engine and add additional miles. You have to be towed somewhere and figure out a charging option.
But the stop-and-go traffic turned out to be a benefit. The Nissan Leaf has a regenerative one-pedal braking option that uses stopping (the slowing of the electric motors) to generate additional power. So we actually ended up with more power after the traffic jam and we worried for nothing. As a result,“It is what it is” became our mantra. We decided as much as possible to not get stressed, but to just try to roll with the EV-oriented punches.
As with any new technology, it takes time to learn and become skilled at using an electric vehicle, especially for long hauls. The nature of travel by electric cars requires the driver to adapt, plan and plan again. By the end of our journey, we had established a Zen approach to EV road travel that helped us reduce stress and enjoy traveling the electric highway. After all the trip put us through, we still love our EV and really, really like EV road trips.
And, probably the bigger question: Would we do it again? Probably not such a long journey, but certainly Philadelphia or New York City would be doable. Maybe later this summer.
Smith is a writer based in Rockville, Md.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
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