Wednesday, June 10, 2015

EVs: Not ready for the open road

I love a driving vacation. And I appreciate the many valuable attributes of electric vehicles (EVs). But, as many EV owners have no doubt discovered, the limited range of most of those vehicles makes most them unsuitable for their summer vacations.

Pure electric vehicles (EVs) like the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt and others are becoming increasingly common fixtures on the roads of many major North American cities. Concurrently, EV charging stations are showing up at major corporate headquarters, shopping malls, mom-and-pop grocery stores and parking garages, helping the EV make the transition from the vehicular vanguard to the mainstream motoring mélange.

Despite those advances, however, there are still certain situations in which EVs still have a very long way to go.

In an effort to encourage their use for more than the relatively short trips made in urban settings, the states of California, Oregon and Washington along with the Canadian province of British Columbia cooperated to build a network of charging stations that stretches from British Columbia to Baja California (BC to BC). Called the “West Coast Electric Highway,” it is being promoted as enabling, “Cleaner & smarter transportation from British Columbia to Baja California (BC to BC),” according to the facility’s website.

So does this network make traveling longer distances in an EV a practical option? I wanted to find out.

My intent was to experience driving the West Coast Electric Highway in an electric vehicle and to file daily reports along the way that detailed my findings, so I reached out to some of the manufacturers of EVs to propose the project. My requests were met with polite declines along the lines of, “Thank you for your interest but we receive requests such as yours on a daily basis.”

However, drilling down into the data suggests that the real reason for turning me down may have been that the manufacturers already knew what I am about to point out: Such a trip is still a practical impossibility for most electric vehicles.

Virtually driving the West Coast Electric Highway

Presume you are the proud owner of a Kia Soul EV, which “starts at $26,200 ($33,700 - $7,500 Federal tax credit, according to the Kia website).” The Soul has an EPA-estimated mileage range of 93 miles, the longest range of any pure EV other than the upmarket cars manufactured by Tesla Motors. After some careful planning, you start south.

Traveling south from Seattle along Interstate 5, a full charge could take you as far as Centralia where a fast charger is located.

Fast charger in Centralia, Wash.
Assuming a 9:00 a.m. departure from the Emerald City, you could reach it a bit before 10:30. Plug into the fast charger at the Wendy’s where the fast charger is located, order a cup of coffee or browse the nearby outlet shops. About 11 a.m., the car would be charged sufficiently to continue.

Back on the highway, continue south until just after noon when you can pull off I-5 and head west to the town of Ridgefield, Wash. The fast charger is conveniently located at the Country Café, a perfect place for a bite of lunch while the car recharges. At about 1 p.m., presuming you don’t rush through lunch, you continue your trip. As an added benefit, the extra time allowed your car to charge a bit beyond 80 percent capacity.

Assuming you’ll want to drive the shortest route rather than the fastest (because you’ve already realized you won’t be setting any speed records on this trip), you choose to continue on I-5 through Portland instead of choosing the faster, but longer, route following I-205 around the Rose City. Still, you won’t be able to get much beyond Woodburn before running low on juice. It’s about 2 p.m. when you arrive, about 2:30 when you’re back on the road.

From Woodburn you head in the direction of Springfield, 80 miles to the south. Even though it’s pushing at the car’s range limit, it seems doable. Just before 4 o’clock, you pull in to the Gateway Marketplace. Another chance to browse and perhaps empty your personal tank while the car’s is refilled. At about 4:30 you can continue south. Destination: Roseburg.

About 5:45, you pull in to the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and hook up to the fast charger before heading in. It’s dinner time and it’s not a fast-food restaurant, so you might as well enjoy a leisurely bite and take on a bit more than an 80 percent charge at the same time. Close to 7, with both you and the car recharged, it’s into the breach once again.

The destination of this next leg is Grants Pass, about 70 miles away. Pulling in about 8:10 p.m., you hook up to the charger which located, appropriately enough, at the Chamber of Commerce. However, it’s closed for the evening, so you stroll the area and maybe pop in to a local establishment to kill some time. But it hasn’t been that long since dinner so you’re not hungry and, though the local bar & grill has some appeal, you decide against an adult beverage until you’re settled in for the night.

At 8:45, with the summer sun slowly disappearing, you climb back into the car and press on toward what will be your last stop of the day: Ashland, 45 miles farther along I-5. Arriving at 9:30, you pull into the Texaco station to recharge the car and walk under the Interstate to check in at the Best Western, at which you hopefully made reservations with a late arrival noted.

Total elapsed time: 12 hours, 30 minutes from Seattle to Ashland, a 450-mile trip Google Maps says should have taken you 7 hours 20 minutes and which I have personally made in less time than that on several occasions.

Importantly, you are now as far south as you can go using the facilities of the West Coast Electric Highway. The next fast charge station identified on the website is in Chico, California, more than 200 miles away and more than double your car’s range. Of course, you could plug into a regular 120-volt wall outlet and wait the 24 hours for the car to recharge, but then you’d have to repeat the process in another 90 miles. It is also possible that other public or private charging facilities are available along the way, but taking that bet and heading south from Ashland would be rolling the dice.

Tackling it with a Tesla

Based on the data, a border-to-border trip in a Tesla would be possible, though not without its challenges.

Tesla Supercharge station in Centralia, Wash.
While Tesla's Model S cars come standard with the J1772 adapter and a CHAdeMO adapter is available, enabling them to be charged at any public charging station, Tesla has installed its own network of 445 “Supercharger stations” along many of the major highways in the U.S. and along Canada’s Highway 1 between Vancouver, B.C., and Banff, Alta.

These stations, according to Tesla’s website, are “[S]trategically placed to minimize stops during long distance travel and are conveniently located near restaurants, shopping centers, and WiFi hot spots.” They also represent the current state of the art when it comes to EV charging technology.

“No other auto manufacturer has produced a car that can handle the technology – it’s the most powerful EV charging system in the world,” a Tesla spokesperson told TheTravelPro in an email. According to the manufacturer's website, they are capable of delivering up to 120 kilowatts of direct current power directly to the battery, more than any other type of DC fast charger.

The Tesla Model S85D ($67,500 after incentives and gas savings, according to Tesla’s website) has an EPA-estimated range of 270 miles, the longest range of any EV on the market today. It would therefore be the most practical EV for tackling the longer distances of the open road.

A check of the mileages between those stations seems to bear out Tesla’s claims. For example, it is 150 miles from the Supercharger station in Burlington, Wash., to the station in Centralia, 121 miles to the next station in Woodburn, Ore., 82 miles down the road to the next at Springfield, and 136 more miles to Grants Pass. Tesla’s website notes that a Supercharger can deliver an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes, “typically enough to reach a neighboring Supercharger station.”

It is important to note that, while our example Kia reached the end of the electric road in Ashland, the Tesla could continue southward, 224 miles to Corning, Calif., bypassing a Supercharger station at Mt. Shasta without having to recharge, 174 miles to Manteca, 143 miles to Coalinga, then another 210 to 220 miles to Oxnard or Culver City, Redondo Beach or Hawthorne in metropolitan Los Angeles, and finally on to the southernmost Supercharger in San Juan Capistrano, some 85 miles north of the border with Mexico.

So a trip from BC (British Columbia) to BC (Baja California) by EV is possible, but practical for only a few of the many EVs on the market today. Even with an S85D, the pace of the trip could charitably be described as leisurely given the time needed for a minimum of eight stops to recharge, though Teslas using Superchargers can be recharged more quickly than other EVs using the chargers available along the West Coast Electric Highway.

“Charging stops at the Supercharger stations take on average 5-20 minutes, not 30 minutes, as the technology in Model S alerts the driver as to how long they need to charge in order to make it to their next destination,” the Tesla spokesperson said.

By comparison, it usually takes less than five minutes to fill the gas tank of my Toyota Camry when the tank in nearly empty. A full tank will comfortably take me about 375 miles, or about 150 miles farther than the range of an 80 percent charge in a Tesla. That means I would have to stop to fill the Camry only about six times during the 1,300 mile trip with total down time to fill my tank of about a half-hour.

Conclusion

While three U.S. states and one Canadian province have invested millions of dollars in the West Coast Electric Highway, its greatest worth at present is its public relations value, as most EVs on the market today lack sufficient range to make traveling longer distances practical, even with a network of charging stations available.

Undoubtedly, EVs have their place. But until technology advances, that place will be urban environments and relatively short trips rather than the long distances of the open road.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images

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