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EV Charging Troubles Road on a Long Road Trip

A friend of mine was kind enough to share a road trip where he ran into all kinds of adversity. I hope you find it entertaining and insightful.

the One thing that I do after buying a new car is to take it on a long road trip. So, having recently bought a new electric car (an Audi e-Tron and my first pure BEV), I looked forward to taking it on our annual trip from Southern California to Lake Tahoe, a journey of 470 miles. In preparation for this trip, I planned charging stops using the PlugShare site. To ensure that the trip would go without a hitch (as we would be traveling through sparsely populated areas), I planned for various scenarios several times and even installed the app on my phone. I especially looked forward to this trip as it would allow me to both tests the experience of using an EV for a long drive and the state of the charging infrastructure.

On a hot late-July summer evening my teenage son and I started this trip with about 70% charge. I drove the first leg and our planned first charging stop was about 70 miles away. It went almost as planned and we were able to use the Electrify America station without too much trouble (we did have to switch to a different charger after the first one didn’t work). Twenty minutes later we were on our way. Our next stop was about 2 hours away. My teenage son drove in typical impatient teenager fashion and we were making good time.

By the time we pulled into the Electrify America station, it was around 9 PM and dark already. The desolate station was on an abandoned gas station in the middle of nowhere and the dusty road was only partially paved. As we parked, the red “Charger Unavailable” text on all four chargers made my heart sink.  Using the PlugShare app, I was informed that CalTrans has installed a free charger in the adjacent rest stop (yes!). We drove a few hundred yards to use that high-speed (50 kWh) charger. As we plugged in, the charger would not start. Unplugging and retrying several times yielded the same result. At this point, my stress level was starting to rise.

“Ok, let me call the Electrify America customer service,” I thought to myself.  Luckily someone answered promptly, and a cheerful voice asked how my day was going. After initial pleasantries, I told her the problem with the Electrify America chargers not working, and she helpfully offered to reboot all the chargers. I nervously waited as the machines rebooted through the DOS-like blue screen with white text. A few breathless moments later, the familiar plug-in prompt appeared on the screens. With high hopes, I plugged in as I remained on the phone. Shortly thereafter, the dreaded error screen reappeared, and again and again as I tried all the chargers. After rebooting the machines again and retrying, the service rep told me she didn’t know what the issue was and asked me to look up the closest charger that I could get to with my PlugShare app. I told her that would be about 25 miles of backtrack.  Then she apologized that she couldn’t help me any further and offered a free charging session next time.

So we took the only option left at this point and drove 25 miles back the way we came. This charger belonged to the ChargePoint network and was located in a dimly lit gas station closed for the night, again practically in the middle of nowhere. With a deep sense of dread, I scanned my ChargePoint app, and it prompted me to plugin. Fingers crossed, I plugged in.  Nothing happened: no powering up noise, no charging in progress display. At this point, I was on the verge of panic and about to soil my pants. In one last desperate attempt to charge up, I tried the level 2 charger right next to the 50 kWh charger. After plugging in, I was ecstatic to see the charging in progress display.  That feeling soon dissipated as I realized at this rate, we would need about 8 hours to accumulate enough charge to get to the next planned Electrify America station 123 miles away. But at least we were charging, and stress turned to annoyance.

Let’s try to make the best of this time, we convinced ourselves. Since neither of us was sleepy, we decided to watch Netflix to pass the time (thankfully there was still a reasonable cell signal). After watching our favorite classic sci-fi (Terminator 2) in the arid 90-degree heat, we waxed philosophical and had discussions on different topics for hours (and cheering every time we noticed another 10 miles of range added). I grew drowsy and took a nap as my son watched another movie. Catching glimpses of the near-full moon illuminating thick clouds, I drifted in and out of consciousness as it uncharacteristically drizzled lightly in the high desert.

Slowly but gradually, the sky brightened ever so slightly. Eventually, the eastern expanse turned a drab orange shade, and we went outside to stretch and use the restroom. Two cars pulled into the parking lot, and we chatted with the families—they were on their way camping and decided to stop to let the dogs out for a walk. At a quarter to six, we left the charging station with about an estimated 110 miles of range for our next leg of the trip (I mentally added some miles to the range to compensate for the higher speed my son was driving at as I would be driving now at a slower speed).  Uneventfully we arrived at our next charging stop in exactly the time I thought we would (2 hours), with a 3% charge remaining as we pulled into the charging station.

The chargers didn’t work, but by now we were used to it: a phone call to customer service resolved the issue through a reboot, and we were compensated for our troubles with a free charging session (though the speed never reached the designed 150 kWh/hr rate but at a slower 50 kWh/hr rate).  As this was a bigger town, we went across the street to eat breakfast while the car charged. The next charging stop was also relatively uneventful, and everything just worked at the maximum rate.  Unfortunately, since this was summer fire season, a forest fire blocked our way, and we had to detour an extra 47 miles around. We finally arrived quite exhausted at our destination in the early afternoon. Over the course of our 4-day stay at the hotel, we enjoyed a great benefit of an EV—the free level 2 charging station at the hotel was able to fully replenish the battery every night, and our car was ready to go every morning for a full day of driving around the lake (saving us $120 worth of gas money).

As our vacation ended and on our way home, we did not experience the same traumatic experience with the charging stations. However, none of the charging stops was quite flawless. The first stop took a while to connect due to a volatile cell signal on my phone (which I can’t blame on the charging infrastructure and which could be overcome by using a credit card to pay instead of using the app). The second stop took two tries to find a working charger—but at least we got 150 kWh/hr (which shut off unceremoniously after two minutes, so we tried a second time without any further issues). The third stop was at the station that had given us grief the first night, but now the chargers were working, albeit only at a 30 kWh/hr rate. For the last stop, we also had to try several chargers (entailing moving and reparking the car in different stalls) before finding one that worked, though it said complimentary session (yes!) but only at a 50 kWh/hr rate.

While we were charging, a fellow EV owner came over to ask if everything was OK, and we started chatting about our ownership experience (he owned the same car and was on the first charging stop of his family vacation). He offered the very helpful tip of using the Electrify America app to check the last time someone had used a charger to quickly find a charger that was likely to be working. After that, we arrived home safe and sound.

Audi e-Tron back from long road trip

Reflecting on this experience, I am still a firm believer in EVs. I believe that my experience the first night was probably an outlier and that it was most likely caused by a transformer station somewhere being knocked out by the recent heatwave, therefore, cutting quick charging to chargers belonging to three different networks. Furthermore, we were traveling through a very rural part of the state (that there were no Tesla superchargers for hundreds of miles), and the experience would be different had we traveled through more populated urban centers.  I would still take my EV on another road trip and would not hesitate to buy another EV. The vacation saw a total of 1,600 miles driven, and we averaged 2.7 mi/kWh (or an energy equivalent of 90 mi/gal!) with a very heavy SUV (it weighs over 6,000 pounds with passengers and luggage) through hot California weather requiring the use of AC. The ride quality was exceptionally smooth (no shifting gears) and quiet (no engine noise).  More hotels are now installing free level 2 chargers for their guests, and this amenity really highlights one of EV’s greatest benefits. Ultimately, as with every new experience, driving an EV requires a bit of getting used to and some adaptability.  Additionally, this unique experience afforded me the opportunity to talk to more travelers than I usually would as I speed on my way to my destinations.  Someday far into the future, I hope that my son can look back on this unusual experience and appreciate the time that he got to spend with his dad at the dawn of the EV age and tell this story to his children and their children of how things used to be.