When it comes to integrating electric vehicles into your life, it doesn’t get any more difficult than a long-distance journey. Electric cars bring new variables to driving and can have a pretty major impact on what seems like a simple task: getting from point A to point B. But I’m here to tell you that a little planning will go a long way. .
The biggest mistake anyone can make on an EV road trip is to assume it will feel as “normal” as long drives in gas cars. As an EV owner planning a road trip, you’re more or less on the cutting edge of this technology. The infrastructure is still being built and the range is constantly increasing with each new generation of cars. It probably wasn’t easy even for the first gas-powered cars to drive interstate.
Think ahead, then think further ahead
We’ve all seen how driving on the road with an electric vehicle can go wrong, but while it all seems new and fancy, a little old-school thinking helps. If your parents or grandparents were planning a road trip back in the pre-Mapquest days, they’d hit up the old Rand McNally gas station and plot the course by hand. But now that we’re all carrying perma-connected computers in our pockets, and since modern cars aren’t exactly technological slobs, we can modernize this step with way greater granularity.
Here I concede an advantage as far as the car is concerned. The 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS580 I used for this test offers an EPA-estimated range of 340 miles and is equipped with an extremely capable infotainment system with EV-specific navigation. Not only will the system factor move and charge on any route, but it also allows me to set the desired state of charge at the destination (up to 50%) and choose whether the charging plan includes off-grid infrastructure. And because it’s built into the car, the system always knows the vehicle’s battery level and can adjust routing if I’m being too generous with the gas.
While not every automaker offers this robust technology, some third-party options come close. My personal favorite is A Better Route Planner (ABRP). This free app offers all the same capabilities as Mercedes’ own telematics, except that the initial state of charge of the car needs to be communicated. It knows the location of large and small chargers in almost every network. It works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but you can also send a waypoint-based map to Google Maps if you want to use that.
With the navigation lined up, you’ll want to line up the payments. America’s EV infrastructure is divided among several major players; ChargePoint, Electrify America and EVgo are the biggest kids on the field. Some chargers are able to accept card payments at the point of sale, but it’s easier to plan ahead. Since I know in advance what chargers I’ll be coming across—it’s smart to plan for backup chargers in case your intended chargers don’t work—I download their respective apps, sign up for free accounts, and enter my payment methods in advance. Electrify America and ChargePoint can use my iPhone’s Apple Wallet cards, so when I show up for juice, I just hold my phone up to the charger screen and I’m good to go. Some car manufacturers (including Mercedes) integrate the payment into the vehicle itself, so you just plug in and charge.
The 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS is the future of electric luxury today
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Just as it’s smart to fill up on gas the night before a big drive, it’s smart to top up your battery in the same way. If you’re one of those lucky ducks with a spare 240-volt dryer plug within easy reach of a parking spot, congratulations: You can juice at home overnight and skip this step. Like most people, I don’t yet have a charging infrastructure at home, and my 1930s Colonial offers a single 120-volt exterior plug nowhere near the driveway (and you should never charge using an extension cable); and my neighborhood in Detroit is served by a single 50 kilowatt EVgo charger that is often broken. So I need to travel about 8 miles to the grocery store with a 350kW EVgo charger. Also, don’t forget that EV batteries slow down their charging rate dramatically once they reach 80% capacity, so bring a book if you’re trying to top it up.
Planning ahead paid off early as I hadn’t even left the city and the inconveniences started to appear. The EVgo charger 8 miles from my house had one working 350kW charger (out of four) that was occupied by a GMC Hummer EV development vehicle with an extremely large battery. Instead of traveling another 10 miles down the road to next to the nearest charger, which may also have been broken, I ended up sitting and waiting for about an hour for the Hummer EV to finish.
Calling EVgo didn’t help as their customer service representative simply told me that the offline chargers were “down for maintenance” and couldn’t explain why or when they were expected to be back online. Unfortunately, this is how most calls to customer service lines with recharging electric cars end.
The Audi Charging Hub allows you to relax while charging your E-Tron
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Hit the road, Jack
On my drive from Detroit to Chicago, my first charge was about halfway through Michigan, along I-94 just outside of Kalamazoo at an Electrify America charger. Mercedes’ EQS infotainment system estimated I’d arrive with around 60% battery left, but a fast enough flow of traffic was draining the electrons a bit faster than expected, leaving me nearing 50%.
This is an important thing for EV road trippers to keep in mind: Your car’s telematics probably only offers range data at best. It is in your best interest to top up more often than these estimates, especially if ABRP or your turn-by-turn system estimates a low (below 20%) state of charge upon arrival.
The Electrify America charger outside of Kalamazoo did a commendable job, giving the EQS a charging rate of around 150 kW. The charger was actually rated at 350kW, but the EQS isn’t (200kW at most) so 150 is quite comfortable. In about 20 minutes I was back to 88%.
I could reach my goal without an additional charge, but that would leave me desperate for juice. Adding a waypoint in ABRP is simple, and it’s just as easy in the EQS infotainment system, so a quick search pulled up the 350kW EVgo at Chicago Ridge Mall. Since I had no firm plans on the day of arrival (one of those “just in case” decisions), I lingered here a bit longer before heading out, reaching 90%, giving me enough scope for the next two days of activities.
That little extra investment of time made it nice to roll around Chicago and not have to think about charging and range every few minutes. Chicago is also much better equipped with EV infrastructure than Detroit, so if I was paranoid and wanted a topper, the 150kW+ chargers were never more than 10 miles away. One evening I had half an hour to kill between schedules, so I spent 20 minutes at the Electrify America charger to make sure and picked up another 15%. It would have been faster, but one of the chargers in this particular bank kept throwing errors, so I had to shuffle to another one.
This is where I let my overconfidence get the best of me, which almost doomed me to a really annoying ride home. As I left Chicago I thought, “Battery pretty much full, I’ll just skip the Chicago Ridge Mall charger and make one stop in Kalamazoo. The Electrify America chargers worked great two days ago, I’m sure.” Today will be fine.”
The Hyundai Ioniq 6 EV is a slippery sedan with strange details
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When I went back to the same chargers outside of Sam’s Club, I saw that half of the charging stations were showing a screen saying they weren’t working. I pulled up to the only working 350kW charger with 18% charge, which was just enough range to reach one of my nearby backup options if things got worse. My arrogance weighed heavily on my head when I connected and saw a maximum charging speed of 35kW, which would get me to 80% in almost two hours. I tried one of the other working chargers, a 150kW unit, and saw the same speeds. Again, I’m glad I didn’t have any plans on the return day, but it was still frustrating.
So I called Electrify America and within 2 minutes I was on the phone with a human being. A human being who, after I explained the problem, told me there was nothing he could do and then explained all the reasons why my vehicle was probably causing problems. (It wasn’t.) The rep didn’t even offer to restart the charger, which probably wouldn’t fix it, but at least it would give me some false comfort that EA tried something.
As a last ditch effort before resigning myself to fate – after lunch, which I was glad to have picked up on the way to the charger – I tried the only remaining station in the group. By the grace of whoever, I immediately used up the 150kW charging rate and thanked my lucky stars that I would only be there for another 30 minutes. If that charger was crap too, I’d be sitting for another two hours… or considering the decision to head to Grand Rapids to find faster plugs (or more lag).
A home charger makes life easier with our long-lasting mini EV
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what did i learn
One of the biggest issues anyone will face with an EV is the expectation that working chargers are not a guarantee. In fact, this is one of the biggest pain points of current EV adoption. If you come across a charger with problems, call the company and tell them so they can change its status in the app and schedule a maintenance team. Seeing a broken charger in your app can be frustrating, but it’s a lot better than not noticing until you arrive.
The single biggest benefit of this EV trip was planning for contingencies and not overdoing my time. In my driving days, I had no missed duties, no co-pilot who had to return on X date for Y reason. Not everyone can plan a trip this way, but if you can, your experience shouldn’t be too far from mine: mostly pleasant a few days with a few minor hiccups that could take a few hours.
Chances are EV buyers already know these things. At this point, buying an electric car is a conscious decision to accept compromises in the performance of these cars, which can have an immediate impact on things like planning long weekends. We’re not yet at the point where someone can grab a random EV from Hertz, pick a major, and just start driving for nothing.
My journey had certain privileges, such as the amazing range of EQS and the fact that my journey was not exactly coast to coast. But think of this trip as a modular thing: If your trip is similar but longer, allow for a few more stops (and contingencies) and adjust your expected completion time to accommodate. I ended up adding a few hours of slow charging, traffic and other minor frustrations over the course of 800 miles, so for longer trips it’s as easy as you’d expect, plus a few extra hours of flex time.
It pays to consider all of these things when preparing for an EV trip, whether it’s because the chargers are malfunctioning or because your right leg isn’t as efficient as the on-board computer thinks it is. One day we’ll be able to ride out our amber waves of grain with less worry, but now that we spend a little more time planning, execution will be much, much easier.