Shopping For An EV? How To Be Sure It Will Get You There On Trips

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If you’re considering buying an EV, or you’ve recently purchased one, things can look a little intimidating. For local driving, you’ve probably figured out that the EV has plenty of extra range and that you can charge it while you sleep. That part of things (which is about 90% of your driving for most people), is actually easier than owning a gas-powered car. But, most people don’t want to buy a car that can only cover 90% of their trips. We want to at least cover most of that last 10%, too.

A Big Mistake I Made (That You Can Avoid)

My first two EVs weren’t good enough to even consider an electric road trip. The 2011 Nissan LEAF I owned was for local driving only. Things were the same for my 2013 Chevy Volt, but that car went into hybrid mode out of town so it didn’t matter. But, when I bought my 2018 LEAF, with a rated 151 miles of EPA range, I figured I was ready to go play road warrior.

My plan at the time was this:

  • Figure out where the charging stations were
  • Use Google Maps to see how many miles it was between stations
  • If there were no gaps bigger than 150 miles, I was good to go!

I figured out pretty quick that it didn’t work that way. At all. I didn’t know that there are a variety of things that can make your car get less than the EPA-rated range:

  • Driving highway speeds (this is kind of important for most road trips)
  • Cold weather makes batteries less efficient
  • Hot or cold weather means the heat or AC will diminish your range (heat is generally worse than AC)
  • Driving up steep hills burns through your range faster (driving back down steep hills gives you only a portion of that range back)
  • Driving into the wind
  • Rain, bad roads, or non-paved roads eat more range

So, given all of that information, my experience with my original plan was doomed to fail, and badly. On three occasions, I had to push the EV when I fell a few hundred yards short of the next charging stop. On two others, I called for a tow truck. Neither of those things is pleasant.

Some Cars Make This Fate Super Easy To Avoid

The good news? Some cars have built-in software and/or software on the manufacturer’s smart phone app that solves this problem. All of those range-sapping factors I list above suck, but they are at least mathematically predictable. This means that good software can do the math for you and give you an itinerary to follow. For example, a Tesla vehicle’s trip planner gives you charging stops, tells you how long the trip will take (including charging), etc.

When it comes to software, though, there’s one pitfall you could run into: the limitations. While the Tesla software considers many factors, the other manufacturer’s apps often fall short. For example, my Chevrolet Bolt EUV’s myChevrolet app doesn’t account for speed or terrain (per the app itself). This means that driving through mountain ranges could give you a lot less range than the app predicts, leading to getting stranded in some cases.

Trip Planning Without Manufacturer Software

If you haven’t bought a car yet, your car doesn’t have great trip planning software, or if you’re just a power user and want to control more aspects of the planning, there are great alternatives. I’ll cover a few of them in this section.

If you’re considering buying a Tesla, the easiest thing you can do is use their online trip planner. If you’re considering other vehicles or want more control over the trip planning process, continue reading.

There are two important apps every EV owner should install on their phones or use on their computers: Plugshare and A Better Routeplanner (ABRP). Plugshare gives you a very good map of charging stations you can go to, while A Better Routeplanner plans trips for nearly any EV out there. I’ve tested a number of apps for these two things, and these are the best I’ve tried. ABRP in particular is helpful because it considers so many variables (and lets you customize them as needed).

If you haven’t bought an EV yet, be sure to go in the Plugshare settings and see the “coming soon” charging locations. Plugshare volunteers are very good at figuring out where there will be charging stations in the next year or two based on company announcements, public records, and more. You can’t count on those locations today, but knowing that there’s going to be more chargers in the near future can help you make a better EV buying decision.

I can’t go into great detail about how to use ABRP, but they have a great introduction and manual you can read here. For most trips, setting your vehicle and destination leads to a great trip plan from the get go. But, there are myriad ways to customize your trips. I’ve found that adding charging stops not planned for in the software, adding hotels with L2 charging manually, setting departure times, and changing speed settings have been very useful both for writing articles and for trips.

It’s important to make an informed decision and not assume that an EV will never be able to make certain trips.

Some Other Important Things To Keep In Mind

There are a few other things you might not know about EV charging, and they can make a big difference on road trips.

First off, you’ll almost never charge your EV up to 100% at DC fast charging stations (Tesla Superchargers, Electrify America, EVgo, etc.). The most important reason for this is “tapering.” EVs charge at their rated max speeds only from around 5% to 60%. If your battery is really low or the battery is getting full, it charges slow to prevent battery damage. As the car gets beyond 80%, it really slows down. For the last few percent, from around 95-98%, DC fast charging can be slower than home charging.

So, it’s good practice to plan to arrive at a charging station with only 10% and then charge up only as much as needed to get to the next stop. This means most of your charging will happen at maximum speed instead of tapered speeds.

You’ll want to charge up to 100% if possible at hotels and other slower charging stops, though. There’s really no tapering on L2 charging (except perhaps the last 1% on some vehicles), so it makes sense to start the day with a full charge.

It’s also a really good idea to have a backup plan in case DC fast charging stations go down. I recommend always carrying a L2 (240-volt) cable with you on road trips. Some cars come with this, and for others, you’ll need to buy one. If you get one with a NEMA 14-50 plug, you can take your EV to most RV parks and they’ll let you charge for a fee. This isn’t ideal, but it keeps you from being stranded in some small town. For rural road trips, you might even plan on stopping at an RV park.

Portable L2 charging cord sets can be used with adapters for other types of 24o-volt plugs, too. Dryer plugs, stove plugs, welding outlets, and many other things can be used to charge your car up 4-10 times faster than a normal wall plug if you have the right adapters.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

Another important thing to do is not be afraid to ask for help. There are many EV enthusiasts who would love to help a new EV owner or someone shopping EVs out. They might even be able to help you find a decent deal on one, too.

Featured image: a screenshot from A Better Routeplanner showing a trip I’ve been planning.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1947 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba