Planning for an electric vehicle road trip takes more time

The 1,200-mile route between Littleton, Colo. and Goleta, Calif. that I plan to cover in my 2020 Chevy Bolt in mid-August, though the route might change some due to the Glenwood Canyon mudslides/rockslides which have closed I-70 in Colorado for now and which Google has compensated for in this now 69-mile longer route.

editors-blog-entry3No matter what some EV advocates might claim, two major disadvantages vis-a-vis gas cars still dog the electric vehicle, at least in large parts of the United States:

  1. A patchy and sometimes unreliable long-distance EV fueling infrastructure, which, outside of the Tesla Supercharger Network, is not where it should be, especially not in plains and mountain states of the United States.
  2. Considerably longer refueling times.

Both of these EV disadvantages converge through the long-distance road trip.

I know. Here I am planning another long-distance road trip, my second between Denver and Santa Barbara, Calif.  In the Summer of 2018, I drove my leased 2017 Chevy Bolt on a 2,400-mile round-trip long-distance road trip between the same two places — Littleton, Colo. and Goleta, Calif. — that I am now planning to drive my 2020 Chevy Bolt, starting in two weeks.

My two teen daughters and I successfully completed our 100% EV — and non-Tesla — 2,400-mile trip three years ago. But not without some bumps — and considerable added extra time.

We faced repeated problems with DCFC stations that did not work. And the trip, which is about 1,200 miles in each direction and is easily do-able in two days in a gas car, took us three days in each direction. This, primarily due to a HUGE gap between DCFC stations along Interstate highways in Utah. We “covered” that gap by staying overnight at a KOA Campground in Green River, Utah and filling up overnight there in both directions.

Me in front of my 2017 Chevy Bolt in Santa Barbara, Calif. after successfully completing a 1,200-mile journey there from Littleton, Colo. in Summer of 2018. [Photo by Amanda Heinrich]
Three years later, there are more non-Tesla DCFC stations along the route — but, not a whole lot more across that one patch of I-70 in Eastern Utah. This means that, in theory, I can try to cover the trip in two days in each direction, albeit two VERY LONG days in my 2020 Bolt, probably 14 to 16 hour days.

But the continued comparative sparseness of DCFC chargers across certain stretches of this trip also means that I could be, as they say, SOL, if I encounter non-functioning DCFC stations. I also face uncertainty in terms of wait times — how many other EVs will be cueing up at the same time at a DCFC location when I get there. Finally, I also face the risk of being ICE-ed at the hotels that I will be staying at, hopefully for only one night in each direction.

More broadly, the continued lack of reasonably dense and reasonably reliable fast-charging infrastructure across a good portion of my Denver to Santa Barbara route means that I — in contrast to my ICE brethren — must be prepared for the (un)expected — I put the “(un)” there because, frankly, I still have little faith in the DCFC infrastructure reliability and I essentially DO expect problems — and know that along the way I might discover that I must  give up my “dream” of, cough, “trying” to make it 1,200 miles in two days in my all-electric Chevy Bolt, something that would be no problem at all in an ICE.

In addition, I must be prepared to take, and will have to take, a bunch of measures that further underscore the continued DIS-advantage of EVs vis-a-vis ICEs in terms of perhaps that most American of all driving benchmarks: The long-distance road trip.

These extra actions include, but are not limited to:

  • Sparingly and strategically using my AC, which draws down range;
  • Driving more slowly in certain places and across certain stretches, in particular up mountain passes AND driving under the speed limit in many places, especially in Utah, where the interstate speed limit is 80 miles per hour in many spots;
  • Watching, with an eagle eye, the lower-end range estimates (the Bolt offers a moving best-case, middle-case, and, most important, WORST case range estimate) for my Bolt and trying to calibrate these estimates with my driving speed and (lack of) use of the AC.
  • Perhaps most important — and aggravating — of all, I have to meticulously and painstakingly plan out my route in both directions. I can’t just jump in my car and go and see what happens, as I easily could in an ICE; well, maybe I could do that, but that would be just plain stupid, and almost certainly leave me stranded somewhere in my Bolt.

So, three years after completing a 2,400-mile round-trip road trip in a 2017 Chevy Bolt with my two teen daughters between Denver and Santa Barbara, here I go for a second trip along a similar route — due to climate change, which helped stoked major fires along I-70 in Glenwood Canyon last summer and now, predictable mudslides and rock slides that have followed this summer, I am likely going to have to plan another route as I-70 may be closed still in two weeks; interestingly, and vexingly, I cannot use I-80 in Wyoming as an alternative because there is only ONE, yes, just one non-Tesla DCFC station along the entire 402-mile stretch of I-80 that runs through that state!

Ready to take off with a full battery from the Green River Utah KOA in my 2017 Chevy Bolt in Summer of 2018.

The pluses as compared to doing Denver-Santa Barbara and back in a Bolt in 2021 as compared to 2018 are that, in theory, I can now do this 1,200-mile trip in each direction in two days, rather than take three days in each direction, as I was forced to do in the Summer of 2018 and that my 2020 Chevy Bolt has nominally more range: 259 miles of range vs. 239 miles of range, something that might come in handy at some point and/or allow for a little less sweaty palms, both figuratively, and literally, as I MIGHT be able to run my AC a little more often and for longer stretches.

The minuses are that THREE years after my first successful stab at this trip, I still face many of the same challenges and drawbacks faced by non-Tesla EV drivers that I faced more than 1,000 days ago, in particular, the extra burden of extra planning and extra worrying, the extra refueling time vs. an ICE, something that is, I concede, especially pronounced in a Bolt, which has only a 50 kW charging capacity, the fear of being ICE-ed at exactly the wrong time (is there ANY “right” time to be ICE-ed?), and, finally, the inconvenience of having to make sacrifices on driving speed and on comfort because of a fear of running out of charge.

ALL of these disadvantages except for one — longer refueling times for EVs — could easily be eliminated by a wide, deep, robust everywhere-you-go-there’s-a-DCFC-station-when-you-need-one refueling infrastructure, a fact clearly underscored by the ubiquitous presence of gas stations throughout America, Canada, Europe, and pretty much all of the so-called “developed” world and by the fact that I could, if I wanted to do a long-distance road trip in an ICE here in the United States, simply leap into my car right now, without any planning or worry at all and pretty much head to anywhere I wanted to go.

The PlugShare mapped route that I might follow in driving my 2020 Chevy Bolt from Littleton, Colo. to Goleta, Calif. in two weeks.

Some day, perhaps, we will reach the point where I, if I wanted to, could simply leap into my Chevy Bolt and drive pretty much anywhere in the developed world without having to do any planning at all. But very clearly, we are not anywhere near that point and, frankly, we are further away from it, especially here in the prairie and mountain states of the United States, than I would have thought we would be three years ago when I first attempted, and successfully completed — albeit with snags such as hitting five DCFC stations that were not functioning along the way — the 2,400-mile round trip journey between my Littleton, Colo. home and the home of my sister’s family in Goleta, Calif.

May The Force Be With Me/Us this time around — and may I make it in two days in each direction without having to suffer too much anxiety or, worse, having to amend the trip and lengthen it because it turns out, once again, that this trip cannot be done in two days in a non-Tesla EV, something that simply should not be, and hopefully will not turn out to be, the case!

My daughters hanging out in the Bolt while we charge at the third DCFC station we tried in Las Vegas on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. The third time was “the charm” as this Greenlots DCFC station did work, in contrast to the first two EVGo DCFC stations which did NOT function 😖.