EV Charging & Road Trips — It’s Complicated

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When my wife and I bought Wylie, our Tesla Model Y, nearly two years ago, charging while away from home was not a major concern. We do the usual driving — groceries, doctors appointments, trips into town — on a regular basis, but seldom travel more than 20 miles from home. We have a 20 amp 240 volt outlet in our carport, which is adequate for our needs. EV charging just hasn’t been that much of a concern.

When we went to visit friends a few hours away, we bought an adapter for our charging cable that let us plug in to the dryer outlet in their garage. Since we bought the car, we have used Tesla Superchargers a total of four times. They are simple to operate and always located where there are restrooms and fresh food available.

Best of all, the touchscreen in the our car shows where to charge along the way, how much battery charge we will have when we arrive, how long we need to charge, what our battery charge will be when we depart, and how much charge we will have when we arrive home. Nothing could be simpler. Why are people so stressed out about EV charging?

EV Charging A Non-Tesla

Then this summer, we purchased a used Chevy Bolt as our summer car. It’s a great car and we like it a lot but we do more long distance driving in the summer than we do the rest of the year. Suddenly what was simple and convenient is not so simple and convenient any more. We need to find EV charging locations ourselves using any one of multiple apps. We see the comments on PlugShare about how this charger isn’t working or that charger is broken. Charging is no longer the stress free experience it is with the Tesla.

There’s a certain part of the EV experience that harks back to the early days of the automobile. There’s a bit of a pioneering spirit to it all, like we are blazing a trail that leads to a brave new electrified world, but there’s also a lingering sense of dread. We visit friends and friends have homes and those homes have wall outlets, so we always know we can plug in and sip electrons when we arrive.

But what if we choose a different destination — a hotel, B&B, or resort? Will we be able to get there without stopping to charge and where will we charge when we arrive so we can get back home? Now the EV charging equation has changed and our comfort level when we leave home on an adventure is not quite the same as it is with our Tesla.

EV Charging With Janet Granholm

SCH BlueB EV charging
Photo by Steve Hanley for CleanTechnica. All rights reserved.

Recently, concerns about EV charging on the road were brought home rather dramatically to Energy Secretary Janet Granholm. She was traveling in an all electric motorcade made up of a Cadillac Lyriq, a Ford F-150 Lightning, and a Chevy Bolt on its way to tout new investments in electric car production funded in part by the Inflation Reduction Act. NPR reporter Camila Domonoske got to ride along on the journey from Charlotte, NC, to Memphis, TN, a distance of 650 miles that takes about 10½ hours if you go through Atlanta.

At various stops along the way, Granholm shared two photos with her audiences. The first was of New York City in 1900, which showed the streets filled with horses and carriages. The second, taken in 1913, showed exactly one horse.

“Thirteen years later, same street. All these cars. Can you spot the horse?” she asked. “Things are happening fast. You are in the center of it. Imagine how big clean energy industries will be in 13 years,” she told one audience in South Carolina. “How much stronger our economy is going to grow. How many good paying jobs we’re going to create and where we are going to lead the world.”

Riding With The Energy Secretary

Domonoske says she was eager to be part of the journey to see firsthand how the White House intends to promote this transformative initiative to the public and what kind of issues it would encounter on the road.

The first glitch arose when the Cadillac Lyriq Granholm was riding in was unable to charge due to an “isolated hardware issue.” This is a car that is already more than a year late getting into the hands of customers. What is an isolated hardware issue to the manufacturer is a half a day spent riding in the cab of a tilt truck hoping to find a dealer who can make the problem go away for an owner.

Granholm is the perfect person to promote electric vehicles. A former two-term governor of Michigan, she was deeply involved in rescuing the auto industry during the financial crisis of 2008. Until recently, her personal car was a Chevy Bolt until she switched to a Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Call The Cops!

A typical challenge arose along the route when the entourage stopped to charge the electric vehicles at a fast charging facility in Grovetown, a suburb of Augusta, Georgia. That’s when the advance team realized there weren’t enough plugs to go around. One of the station’s four chargers was broken, and others were occupied.

Trying to do the right thing, an Energy Department employee parked a conventional vehicle by one of those working chargers to reserve a spot for Granholm. That prevented a family in an electric car — with a baby on board on a hot day — from accessing the charger. The driver called the police. There is no law in Georgia against a regular car blocking a charging station, but still it was awkward as other staff members raced about trying to smooth the couple’s ruffled feathers.

Several cars were diverted to Level 2 chargers so there would be EV charging available when the Secretary arrived. A driver in an electric BMW arrived in the middle of all this defugalty and shrugged. “It’s just par for the course,” he said. “They’ll get it together at some point.”

Getting It Together

EV charging networks and the automakers are desperate to get it together. The auto industry has hundreds of billions of dollars of investments on the line. They are embracing Tesla’s North American Charging Standard technology and teaming up with rivals to address the EV charging problem. The federal government is pouring billions into a nationwide network of electric chargers in an attempt to fix the very problems Granholm was encountering on her journey.

Domonoske points out that she drives an electric vehicle herself and has test driven many others as part of her job of reporting on the auto industry for NPR. “I know how easy it can be to charge when everything goes well and how annoying it can be when things go poorly. Riding along with Granholm, I came away with a major takeaway — EVs that aren’t Teslas have a road trip problem, and the White House knows it’s urgent to solve this issue.”

We know that the typical automobile is driven less than 30 miles on a normal day. That means charging at home — where available — can easily meet the charging needs for daily driving. The problems start when the need or desire to travel takes people out of their comfort zone where they are familiar with the charging equipment available nearby.

According to J.D. Power, worries about public chargers are the number one reason why would-be EV buyers are reluctant to make the switch. It even outranks concerns about high prices. Driver satisfaction with public chargers is getting worse, not better.

Tesla is beginning to open its exclusive EV charging network to non-Tesla drivers, but that transition won’t be complete until 2025 and not all automakers have embraced Tesla’s technology. Although Tesla dominates the EV market, the Biden administration wants every automaker to go electric quickly and every driver to have access to fast, reliable charging.

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The Takeaway

That BMW driver is correct. When it comes to fast, reliable EV charging, we’ll get there eventually. A new biography of Elon Musk out this week reveals some rather unflattering aspects of his personality, but let’s give credit where credit is due. He did insist that Tesla push forward aggressively to build its Supercharger network, which is far and away the fastest, most reliable charging network in the world. Everyone else sat around waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Now there is a mad scramble to get functioning fast chargers installed all across America as quickly as possible. My wife and I are perhaps atypical (we write for CleanTechnica, after all). We get a secret thrill out of confronting the EV charging issue and conquering it. It makes us feel a little like pioneers.

But not everyone wants to be part of that pioneer experience. They want to know there will be a functioning fast charger available where they need it and when they need it if they travel outside their home area. Is that too much to ask? It might be today, but pretty soon it will be the difference between EV revolution gaining momentum or crashing. We need to get this right and pretty damn soon.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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