The Fear Of Road Trips
Often discussion of short-range electric cars raises a terrifying specter: The Road TripTM. According to the internet, this is a pastime that the entire world engages in, at least bi-weekly. Furthermore, these road trips cover distances of thousands of miles. As such, short-range electric cars are derided in favor of the much more convenient Tesla. Now, don’t get me wrong: Teslas are awesome, and if you are considering buying one, you totally should. They’re awesome. However, until the Model 3 gets released, they are unfortunately relegated to those of means. Or, at least, those with more means than me.
But is it really true that a road trip is impossible in other electric cars? One weekend I decided to find out.
A friend of mine was helping move his grandmother into a retirement community. He was shorthanded and could really use some help. It was pretty far away, nearly 70 km. Seeing as my car has a real-world range of 110 km, this is well outside of my range. Furthermore, my car doesn’t support fast-charging. Not that that would help, as there is little to no fast-charging infrastructure in my area. There is, however, an awesome network of Sun Country Highway chargers. In fact, there was a large charger out in the middle of a field equidistant between my home and my destination. The plan was clear. Drive from my home to the charger, charge back up, and continue to my destination. Then stop at the charger on my way back, and charge until I had enough time to get home, with some safety margin. Depending on how efficiently I drove, I might be able to only stop for about 30 minutes, to make it back home
The Road Trip
I awoke early on the designated day. I had a fully charged vehicle, and a desire to complete my first ever all-electric road trip. I set off for the charger. It was early in the morning and traffic was favorable. I stopped for breakfast at a drive-through just before I reached the charger, then stopped to fuel up as the car charged. However, before I’d even had a chance to take a second bite of my breakfast burrito, low and behold, a motorcycle comes roaring up beside me at the charger. Turns out the driver was a nice guy named Mike. He swore to himself that if he ever saw anyone charging in middle of the field, that he’d stop and see what it was all about. He was shocked to learn the charge was free (as are all Sun Country Highway chargers). We talked shop for about 20 minutes before he roared away on his motorcycle again. It was pretty cool to talk to him! I finished my breakfast quickly and pulled away. Thus far, I’d driven 35 km, burned 25% charge, but charged back up to 90%.
I set off again and reached my destination about 40 minutes later. I’d already been told that destination charging wouldn’t really be an option, so I wasn’t counting on it. We started loading up the furniture to be moved into the rented U-Haul trailer.
Suddenly: Disaster struck. Apparently, we didn’t have enough cars to carry everyone to and from the move. The truck held 3 people, with some of the room taken up by especially fragile goods on the move, but we had four people helping.
They correctly determined as well that the little Smart ForTwo was the best vehicle to go and run errands. So my friend’s mother took the Smart and went off to grab pizza and drinks for lunch, a new phone box, and a few other odds and ends as well. This ended up adding 15–20 km of overall driving to my trip.
Rats. All my careful planning, destroyed by an oversight. I decided not to worry too much. My trip had budgeted about 20% reserve charge.
After everything was moved in, we were about to grab lunch, but I went looking to see if I could find a plug to charge my car up a little bit. I found not just one, but three plugs, and one sitting at the end of the building, quite conveniently. I went and asked the nurse at the desk to see if it would be alright to plug in. She said, “Sure!” Sweet. So I took my car to the end of the building to charge. Turns out this was also near the smokers’ area for the nurses, who all had to come over to check out the car. I fielded all the usual questions: Is it fully electric? How far can you go? What did it cost? What does it cost to charge? Etc. Overall, a lot of interest. I even drew curiosity from the residents!
So the car charged while I refueled on delicious pizza. After lunch, with all the heavy lifting done, it was time for me to head home. In my brief period charging, I managed to replace all the charge used to run errands, so I was back on track and would have no problem getting to the big charger in the field. The way back was slightly uphill and I had a bit of a headwind, so I burned a bit more charge than planned and arrived with 20% charge remaining. This was technically enough to get me home, but with zero margin for error. So, once again I plugged in. I pulled out my phone and began browsing the internet. I started to catch up on some articles I hadn’t read yet here on CleanTechnica. But, before I could even get started, once again someone pulled in off the highway! This time, it was a man named Devin! We once again talked electric cars, and I think I seriously talked him into buying a Nissan Leaf. He used his car to deliver pizzas, and the gas was killing him, financially. However, with an electric he could charge at work in between runs and would have no difficulty completing his deliveries, even under a worst-case scenario.
After a pretty long talk with Devin, nearly 40 minutes, I set off for home, with lots of charge to spare! Of course, I arrived home, safe and sound. In the end, I ended up driving nearly 170 km, a lot of it rural, so it was about 3 hours driving all together.
Road tripping the Smart ForTwo Electric (aka Smart Electric Drive) was a lot of fun. Pretty much my only complaint would be the slow charging provided by the small 3.3 kW onboard charger. The EVSE that I was using was capable of providing nearly 90 amps of current, but my car could only use a measly 16 amps of that. A 6.6 kW onboard charger like the Leaf has would be a welcome addition, even as a paid option. The European Smart ForTwo has a 22 kW charger, but that isn’t available here. It also apparently uses 400v 3-phase, which isn’t really available on this side of the ocean.
Overall, the experience was very enjoyable. I loved that people were curious enough both to drive in off the road to see me charging and to come and talk to me at the retirement home. I liked that I was able to go and help out my friend even though it was technically outside the range of my car. I think as fast-charging becomes more ubiquitous, and more powerful, it’ll make all electric road trips as easy and convenient as their smelly long-chain-hydrocarbon cousins.
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