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I drove 6,000 miles in an EV. Here’s what I learned. » Yale Climate Connections

When I set out from Montana on a cross-continent, 6,000-mile journey in my electric car, I had two goals. I wanted to visit family and friends in Wisconsin, Maine, Illinois, and Iowa. And I wanted to prove, to myself and others, the possibility of making such a journey by electric vehicle.

Before my trip, I absorbed plenty of warnings about EV travel and charging. I read stories of drivers navigating successfully along charger alleys — Chicago to Atlanta, for example — but rarely found reports of successful travel across the so-called charging deserts of Montana or Wyoming, which I hoped to cross in a vehicle with a nominal range of 250 miles.

Worse, I read plaudits for Tesla charging networks, but because I drive a Volkswagen ID.4, I depended instead on Combined Charging System, or CCS, chargers; I found few positive accounts of long-distance travel using CCS sites. I also heard complaints about the reliability of charging services. A recent Wall Street Journal report carried the headline, “Why Are Public EV Chargers So Unreliable?”

But the price of fuel for such a long trip via gas-powered vehicle seemed too high. I determined not to discard my EV travel aspirations.

How I planned a cross-country EV road trip

I used the EV travel apps PlugShare and A Better Routeplanner to plan my trip. I immediately ran into a problem: The apps showed no EV routes across Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota or across western Ontario from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa.

By applying slightly different filters and making slight route adjustments, including accepting slower Level 2 charging services where necessary, I eventually identified a plausible three-day trip to northern Wisconsin followed by an additional three days to coastal Maine.

PlugShare allowed me to easily check drivers’ reports of recent successful charging activity at any site. That information proved extremely helpful in selecting routes and sites. (I tried to always post my own ‘check-in’ reports following positive charging experiences; you could probably reconstruct my route from those records.)

What I learned from driving cross-country in an EV

I set out in late October 2023, driving alone and heading east. My journey would take more than two weeks, spanning 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces and requiring 54 vehicle charging sessions.

On a typical travel day, covering 400 to 450 miles, I needed successful connections at three or four different charging stations. Each day, I started with at least an 80% charge. I would calculate the distance to the next charging location in advance. Because the PlugShare app showed likely charging vendors at each location, I preloaded Electrify America, ChargePoint, EVconnect, FLO, and Ivy apps with credit card information and money. Once I connected at a charging station, I repeated the process, charging to 80% or greater and calculating how far to the next charging stop of the journey.

As expected, the western states of the U.S. and western stretches of Ontario had few charging options. Sheridan, Wyoming, and Blind River, Ontario, for example, offered only a single DC fast-charging, or DCFC, station each. As I approached the Mississippi River, charging stations grew common enough that I could often choose my preferred vendor.

I learned as I moved. I tried to keep moving eastward (later, westward) while also recognizing ever-present uncertainties about where to charge next. I found I could rely on Electrify America stops for ease of connection, reliability, and prominent locations. A westbound EV driver filled me in on new services available in Chamberlain, South Dakota. And I dealt with an unexpected problem in Quebec: Despite the apparent abundance of charging options, very few worked with U.S. credit cards, even though those same cards worked in motels, restaurants, and grocery stores.

As I drove, I monitored my car’s vehicle travel efficiency, displayed in units of miles per kilowatt-hour used. On average, the vehicle’s efficiency was better than three miles per kWh. But when I faced literal headwinds — westbound across southern Minnesota, for example, or traveling from Billings uphill toward Bozeman Pass in Montana — the efficiency sometimes dropped below 3 miles per kWh. When that happened, I as a driver (and the vehicle itself) recognized the possible need for additional charging to reach my intended destination.

In retrospect, by slowing somewhat, I could have crossed Bozeman Pass and returned home without stopping for a supplemental charge in Livingston, Montana. But I enjoyed the short stop and didn’t regret finishing at a battery charge of 18% rather than 8%.

What it was like to charge an EV on a road trip

At most charging stops, I encountered nearly empty sites hosting four to eight charging units. From connect to disconnect, it typically took 39 minutes to charge my car, though the total time varied from a low of 25 minutes to a high of 69 minutes.

Occasionally, I would accept longer wait times to charge to “safer” levels of 90% or even 100%. I proceeded cautiously, knowing that the range or efficiencies on my dashboard display might prove overly optimistic.

What did I do during 39 minutes of charging? I used bathrooms, dumped trash, and perused local stores. If I had extra time, I might take a picture, go for an exploratory walk, eat a snack, or read a few pages of my book. When possible, I compared notes with other EV drivers. Although I often visited charging stations at odd hours, I rarely felt hurried or unsafe.

Occasional problems connecting to chargers

Three times during this trip, I confronted situations in which I could not get the charging connection to work.

One short, promptly answered call, to Electrify America, related to failure by the app to close the prior charging session, so the app would not initiate the next charge. An agent fixed the problem quickly and effectively.

I called ChargePoint when their app would not recognize the DCFC station in Sheridan, Wyoming. The customer service agent initiated charging remotely while promising to address the particular barrier — and when I returned to the same station 18 days later, everything worked perfectly.

At another stop in Sioux Falls, charging wouldn’t start, but again, an agent solved the problem.

How much it cost to drive an EV cross-country compared to gas

Occasionally, during an EV drive, you encounter free charging. That happened to me when my accommodations or family members provided charging at no cost. When I did have to pay, I spent an average of $15 per charge, though the price varied widely: a low of $5 to a high of $24. In all, I estimate I would have spent $675 in charging costs for the trip. But thanks to a discount for VW owners at Electrify America charging sites, I actually spent only about $300 for 6,000 miles of travel.

The same trip in an internal combustion engine SUV getting 30 mpg at fuel costs of $4 per gallon might have cost about $800.

For this trip, driving an EV proved less expensive than driving a gas-fueled vehicle. In August 2023, the Washington Post published state-by-state modeled estimates of EVs vs. gas, with this conclusion: “For the everyday driver in the United States, it’s already cheaper to refuel an EV most of the time, and it’s expected to get cheaper as renewable capacity expands and vehicle efficiency improves.”

Reflections on the journey: Caution pays off

I, and those I visited, considered the trip a success: I traveled from Montana to Maine and back using an electric vehicle.

I had done above-average pre-trip homework to select favorable routes and set up charging apps. I never strayed far from major highways or major cities. That meant that in the event of a problem, I could stop somewhere overnight and resume problem-solving the next morning. I carried VW’s standard 110V charging cord so I could have arranged at least a slow charge in any situation.

Only in Quebec did I face significant obstacles — and, not incidentally, depleted the vehicle’s battery to its lowest-of-the-trip value. Even there, though, my cautious approach paid off. I tried to always reserve sufficient miles and know where to find a backup charging location if a stop failed.

Most people noticed no difference between my white VW EV and any other white SUV-sized vehicle. Those who knew about my EV seemed amazed at my successful arrival if somewhat confused about the effort required.

Several people regarded the charge port with curiosity but bewilderment. “You mean it doesn’t use gas?” “You charge it through that port?”

Would I recommend others to consider a similar trip? Yes. Charging my vehicle, largely an unknown factor before the trip, proved — for the most part — routine and easy.

That said, charging infrastructure for EVs remains under development in most places. EV drivers need better charging stations at more locations. And charging systems need stability, reliability, and better data products.

At the moment, many EV owners tolerate the chaos. We anticipate that improvements will emerge, soon.

David Carlson trained in oceanography, spent a decade supporting atmospheric science, and led large efforts in the tropics and polar regions. He finished his career as the director of the World Climate Research Programme. Now retired, he resides in Bozeman, Montana.   

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