Tips and tricks for EV road trips

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No matter what time of year it is, it is always time to begin planning a weekend getaway or even a longer road trip.  Even in winter, there are places to go and things to be seen. If you have one of the newer all-electric vehicle models with at least 120 miles of range it may be time to give it a try rather than taking a fossilized fuelmobile.

Today’s ideal electric road trip vehicle is any car made by Tesla because of its faster charging capability and the wide coverage and reliability of its DC Supercharger network. But even Tesla cars can sometimes face challenges in offbeat rural areas like smaller national parks and forest area trails.

A Chevrolet Bolt EV can be a good choice because of it’s long range battery and its surprisingly good highway efficiency given its non-ideal aerodynamics. The Hyundai Kona EV,  and Jaguar I-PACE will soon join it with similar or slightly longer range but also somewhat faster charging by the end of 2018.

The 2018 Nissan LEAF is just becoming available with around 150 miles of range however it reportedly has problems with excess battery pack heat on long drives that require multiple fast DC charging sessions. After a couple of charging sessions the passively cooled battery forces the car to slow down “fast” charging to about half of the normal rate. The previous model year LEAFs do not have this slow charging problem but they have even less driving range.

The Volkswagen e-Golf at 125 miles of range and the Hyundai Ioniq Electric at 124 miles of range may also be good choices although the e-Golf may charge somewhat slower because of its battery design. At new ultra-fast DC charging stations, coming over the next year, the Ioniq can charge unusually fast compared to its peers. The BMW i3 doesn’t quite count as a ~120 miles but if you get it with the gasoline range extender it might be workable to drive it almost entirely on electricity. However, the i3’s motorcycle engine range extender is next to useless on extended uphill mountain roads unless you use semi-secret “codes” to unlock the ability to start the engine much earlier than usual. Of course, it is possible to do longer trips in EVs with even shorter range capabilities but its usually more challenging and most folks don’t bother.

If do you have a Tesla you probably have already driven it on a longer trip away from home. But even in a Tesla there are still some traditional destinations like national parks and forest trails that can sometimes be challenging today. Because Tesla has a relatively complete DC Supercharging station network most of the discussion about DC charging below will focus on CHAdeMO and CCS, the 2 standardized multi-brand DC charging systems. Generally speaking, CHAdeMO is used on Asian brands (although this increasingly means just Nissan) and CCS is used on all other brands (European, American, Hyundai, and soon Kia).

Route planning

PlugShare is the most popular tool for finding charging stations either on the web (PlugShare.com) or by using their Apple iOS or Google Android phone apps. If you sign up for an account you can also use their route planning tool and even authorize payment at some charging stations.

Remember to set the filter rules to only look for charging locations that you can use. For example, if you have a Hyundai Ioniq Electric then CHAdeMO-only fast DC chargers aren’t usable and likewise for a Nissan LEAF driver with CCS-only stations. Most newer DC charging stations now support both types of plugs (although the ones located at auto dealerships often only support the system used by their brand of car).

One good strategy for planning is to decide what your preferred destination is for the day’s driving and then use PlugShare to explore the highways leading to there and the charging that is available along the way.

Tesla cars have route planning built-in to their navigation system. Just tell it where your destination is and it will automatically plot a route through the company’s Supercharger stations and tell you how long you need to charge at each stop along the way. Be aware that Tesla owners have sometimes found the suggested charging times to be a bit overly optimistic. On the other hand, it is sometimes overly paranoid and tells you to turn back and charge more when you don’t really need to. Just as with its “AutoPilot” assisted driving system, you need to stay aware of what is happening and ultimately use your own best judgement.

One thing to keep in mind is elevation change along your route. EVs are pretty good about recapturing most of the energy going downhill so traveling though hilly areas or mountain roads is not much of a problem unless you run out of battery before you get a chance to recapture the energy on the downhill side. Be careful about uphill elevation during stretches of road when your battery will be nearing empty.

A major rule to keep in mind is that electric cars are most efficient at around 10 to 20 mph. At that speed they can often drive twice as far than if they were going 75 mph. Driving just 5 mph slower can increase your efficiency per mile by 8 to 10 percent. So, if you notice that you are using too much energy and may not reach your next charging destination within your targeted range buffer then SLOW DOWN (and remember to drive in a speed-appropriate lane). You can also save energy by minimizing the cabin heater use (electric seat warmers alone are very efficient) but just driving slower can often be more effective and more comfortable.

Charging on the go

During a long-distance drive you should be focusing on just using DC fast (50 kW, 100-125 amp) or ultra-fast (100+ kW, 200+ amp) charging.

Slower 240V AC charging is fine when stopping for longer meals at favorite restaurants or extended side-trips but it is otherwise far too slow when you are on the go.

Learn how to recognize slower DC chargers that only supply 24 kW (60A) and avoid them whenever possible.

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Avoid these 24 kW (60 amp) DC chargers whenever possible even though they are still about 3 times faster than AC chargers.

Avoid fast DC charging at large shopping malls as they are frequently being used by shoppers. You will likely have better luck finding available charging spaces at neighborhood grocery store strip malls. When possible, stop at locations where there are multiple DC chargers since you will be more likely to find an available working charging space. If you are in a non-windy area, consider parking a shopping cart in the charging space in order to discourage ICE drivers from parking there. When an EV arrives the driver might be annoyed at having to first move the shopping cart but that’s better than arriving to see a gasoline power SUV blocking the charger.

If you own a Nissan LEAF or other CHAdeMO car you should use any CHAdeMO-only chargers first. Likewise for CCS cars and CCS-only chargers.

When you have a choice it’s also better to avoid 100A chargers although they may be fine if you must charge when your battery is already over half full since many vehicles at that point begin to ramp down their current intake to 100A or less.

Try to plan your trip so you arrive with your battery at least 20 percent full or with 30 to 40 miles of remaining range. Batteries don’t like to be regularly run down below 20 percent but its okay if it occasionally works out that way. Having some mileage in reserve is useful if your intended charging location is not working for some reason and you have to fallback to an alternate charger or if you just miscalculate and use more energy than planned. The reason for arriving with  relatively empty battery is because that is when your battery will happily accept the fastest charge rate for the longest period of time.

Guides to route planning in the U.S. and Canada

Volkswagen’s multifaceted “Dieselgate” emission scandal settlement in the U.S. includes $2.9 billion in funds for an Environmental Trust Fund. A national trustee appointed by the EPA oversees final approval of grant applications managed by Native American, state or local governments. Up to 15 percent of those funds can be used for EV charging infrastructure. Much of this work may not begin until 2019.

Volkswagen is also directly investing a separate $2 billion pot of money over the next 10 years under a recently formed Electrify America subsidiary. A map of their near-term plans is described in this article although the stations are unlikely to be available for use until 2019.

Because there is no multi-provider account roaming supported in the U.S. today you should consider signing up for multiple accounts with relevant charging providers online several weeks in advance of your trip. Common providers include ChargePoint and EVgo. Greenlots is expanding into many new areas. SemaConnect and EVConnect are common in some select areas. Blink network is an older provider that is still important in some areas.

See also: What happened to ROEV?

Sometimes you can get by without DC charging on a barren stretch of highway if there happens to be a strategically located hotel with 240V charging in an area where you might normally stay overnight anyway.

In the coming weeks additional regional route planning overviews will be added below.

Western coastal U.S.

When driving south of Sacramento, California your best bet is CA-99 . Interstate-5 has almost no CCS DC fast charging but there is some for CHAdeMO. Taking US-101 is possible but there are large gaps without 100+ amp DC charging. There is no CHAdeMO charging for a stretch of 130 miles between Salinas and San Luis Obispo on US-101.

North of Sacramento you are mostly stuck with slow 24 kW CCS stations on I-5 until you get to Oregon — there is almost no CHAdeMO. On east-west routes, there is now good coverage between San Francisco and Reno. The popular drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas will be a lot easier when EVgo’s new station opens imminently in Baker, California. It is possible already to drive this route in a Bolt EV if you charge near full in Victorville and drive at modest speeds on the highway.

California’s Energy Commission has funded 4 different charging providers to put in about 100 DC fast charging locations around the state by around the end of 2019. These chargers will help fill in the existing DC charging gaps.

Oregon was one of the first states to get highway charging at a time when the LEAF was the most common electric car so there tends to be more widely deployed CHAdeMO coverage there. Much of the CCS support in areas along I-5 consists of 24 kW DC ChargePoint units near Fred Meyer stores. There is almost no CCS coverage in central Oregon. There is no DC coverage at all in eastern Oregon. CHAdeMO has good coverage of US-101 right along the Pacific coast.

Washington state is similar to Oregon but with somewhat better 100+ amp DC EVgo coverage and a handful of CCS locations in the eastern part of the state leading towards Spokane. As in Oregon, CHAdeMO has good coverage of US-101 right along the coast.

Western U.S.

Non-coastal western states have largely been EV charging deserts, even in some regional cities, but this is beginning to improve. Multiple states have joined together to coordinate the planning for EV charging on major highways. A number of states are beginning to announce that they will use funding from Volkswagen’s Environmental Trust Fund to improve their DC highway charging. Right now, Montana and Wyoming have essentially no DC charging and only limited public 240V charging.

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Gratuitous photo of a Planters PeanutMobile taken on California’s CA-99 while on a road trip in the author’s 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV.

Hotels

Many hotels and hotel chains remain remarkably clueless about the unmet needs of EV driving customers but capitalism being what it is, they will doubtless get this figured out in the near future.

Relatively few hotels have any 240V charging stations and most that do have less than 3 stations. Often some of them use the Tesla-style plug which is why it’s handy to get an adapter if you don’t have a Tesla car. Tesla has a program for giving away free 240V charging station equipment to hotels and restaurants (and sometimes also a free standard J1772 station).

It helps to arrive at hotels that have charging stations earlier than usual in order to increase the chances of finding an available charging station. Non-EVs frequently park in these spaces later in the evening.

There ultimately should be a way to reserve a 240V charging space as an optional component of reserving a room for the night on Internet websites much like you can reserve a roll-away bed to accommodate children or other additional travelers. It may be worth calling ahead to see if the hotel can reserve a charging space for you or help keep non-EVs from parking there until you arrive but keep your expectations on this area low.

It can be difficult to search for hotel’s with EV charging since PlugShare, for unknown reasons, does not include “hotel” as an optional search filter on their smartphone app even though they have included it as a filter option on their website designed for viewing via the web browser built-in to Tesla’s center infotainment display.

 

Just in case

It’s useful to have a few tools for the job at hand. In the case of EV charging that means adapters and charge cords usable at RV parks until DC charging stations become as common as gas stations.

One good backup to bring along is a portable 240V charge cord rated for 24, 32 or 40 amps with a NEMA 14-50 plug on it. This can be used with the electrical hookups at most RV parks. Such parks tend to be around in many areas that are otherwise unlikely to have regular public charging facilities. If you wish, you can get adapters to this that will allow you to plug into other socket types such as those used for electric dryers or welding equipment. Amazon or Clipper Creek’s website are good places to look.

Another good thing to have is an adapter that allows a non-Tesla car to use a Tesla 240V charging station. You can find these “TeslaTap” or “JDapter” adapters on eBay.com or at QuickChargePower.com. Tesla-specific 240V stations are often found at hotels and sometimes restaurant parking lots. The advice to use these adapters is controversial to some Tesla drivers on the theory that Tesla gives away or subsidizes this charging hardware so that it is available for Tesla vehicles to use. Definitely a non-Tesla car should try to use standard (J1772) charging stations if reasonable but sometimes the only charging available has a Tesla plug on it. The local installation owners pay to install the Tesla-provided hardware and they pay the ongoing electricity bill. It is ultimately their choice as to who gets to charge at their installed 240V chargers.

It’s useful to bring along a heavy duty 10 or 12 gauge 120V extension cord either with a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) built-in or a separate GFCI unit that sits between the extension cord and the outlet you plug into.

The portable charging cord itself that came with your car already has a GFCI inside it so why do you need another one? The purpose of the extension cord GFCI is to protect against insulation failures in the extension cord itself (think of pets biting into it) when plugged into sockets which don’t already have GFCI protection.

Go for it

Even when destinations are a bit challenging it can be adventurous and fun to push the boundaries — just make sure you have backup plans and, ideally, backup plans for the backup plans.

For example, if you are depending on the only DC fast charger within 100 miles then what happens if it’s broken when you get there? Is there a 240V charging station within 15 miles or so of that DC charger? Are there RV parks nearby that you can use with the 240V charge cord you brought along? Worst case, is there a motel nearby where you could stay for a day while charging on 120V in order to add about 100 miles of range? Really worst case…. you can always get a tow truck and it will make for a good story some day at a party.

This author made it out to Arches National Park near Moab, Utah from San Francisco in the summer of 2017 in a Chevrolet Bolt EV after some careful planning. Although backup plans and additional charging equipment was brought along, only public DC fast charging, hotel 240V charging and the semi-public 240V charger of the local Moab Chevy dealer was used and a good time was had by all.

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Categories: Road Trips

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3 replies

  1. from the article: “North of Sacramento you are mostly stuck with slow 24 kW CCS stations on I-5 until you get to Oregon — there is almost no CHAdeMO.”

    update: There is now a 50 kW oasis in the north state DC charging desert. Here in Redding we now have a 50 kW dual-head CCS/Chademo charge station at the Target shopping center just off I-5. It also has two L2 AC J-1772 charge stations. Chargepoint installed it as the 1st installment of the California Energy Commission-funded project to upgrade charge stations between the Mexican border and Oregon. Good reviews and lots of action at it so far. It also is pre-wired for future upgrade to at least 100 kW,

    Here is the plugshare link to this site.

    https://www.plugshare.com/location/13482

    If you are thinking of a N-S trip through California, check in to plugshare regularly as contracts are already let to install similar chargers about every 30-40 miles the entire length of I-5 and 101, plus fill in some holes on 99.

    East-west BEV travel on the north state highways, though, will continue to be a challenge for the next few years. The popular 150-mile drive on Hwy 299 from Redding-to-Eureka currently only has one 7.2 kW L2 charger on the way – in Willow Creek, about 100 miles west of Redding. It is a very mountainous route the entire 150 miles, with numerous dead cell spots and four summits to cross. If you leave Redding with less than 200 miles range, you are SOL. Other E-W highways between the coast and Nevada have similar mountainous driving challenges and essentially no charging opportunities other than NEMA plugs at RV parks. There are no programs in-place that I am aware of to fill in these sizable gaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Keeping your route off the freeways as much as possible, in order to drive slower, is another way to extend range. Unfortunately, PlugShare doesn’t seem to allow for this option either.

    Drafting behind big rigs is another option for increasing range. In addition to reducing the wind resistance, they also often travel at slower speeds on the freeways.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A shopping cart in a charging stall would be an interesting deterrent for removing the convenience of parking close to the mall or store entrance (since many charging stalls are close to store entrances) for non-EV drivers. But we should not have to do that. For those who rely on public quick charging, having to wait for the driver parked in charging stall to return to their vehicle is annoying and a delay if one is driving to a scheduled appointment. Better public education and awareness about charging station etiquette and even citation and fines for violators are needed. I respect that some drivers with different mobility levels need and use blue striped parking stalls clearly signed with wheelchair symbols. I find other parking stalls. I don’t equate driving an EV to being a person with a disability, but access to public charging is vital.

    Helpful piece and comments on EV pre-trip planning. I look forward to my own San Francisco to Moab type adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

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