Electric cars don’t need better batteries. America needs better charging networks | CNN Business


With electric cars, people often talk about “range anxiety” and how cars with bigger batteries and longer ranges will alleviate that. I just drove an electric car from New York to Atlanta, a distance of about 950 miles, and it taught me something important. The problem isn’t really range anxiety. It’s the anxiety of finding practical and functional chargers on the still difficult American charging networks.

In 2019, I drove a Tesla Model S Long Range from New York to Atlanta. It was a generally uneventful trip, thanks to Tesla’s well-organized and well-maintained network of fast chargers that can fill batteries to 80% charge in half an hour or less. Since then, I’ve wanted to attempt that trip again with an electric car that wasn’t a Tesla, a car that didn’t have Tesla’s unified charging network to rely on.

I had my luck with a Mercedes-Benz EQS 450+, the closest car to a direct competitor to the Tesla Model S. And while driving through Atlanta without major incident, I ran into some faulty chargers, I called charging network customer service twice and experienced severe charging anxiety for a long time from the Carolinas.

The EPA-estimated range for the Tesla I drove in 2019 was 370 miles, and Tesla’s latest models can go even further.

The EQS 450+ is officially rated at 350 miles on a charge, but I beat it easily without even trying. When I got in the car, its internal screens showed an estimated range of 446 miles. On my trip the car couldn’t stretch my legs that far as I was driving almost entirely on freeways at fairly high speeds but by my calculations I could have done between 370 and 390 miles with a charge.

I was going to cross the George Washington Bridge, then cross New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, then North Carolina and South Carolina. I figured three charging stops would be needed and, strictly speaking, that was okay. The driving route mapped out by the car’s navigation system included three charging stops, but the on-board computers tended to push things to the limit. At each shutdown, the battery would discharge to just over about 10%. (I learned later that this was a setting I could tweak to be more conservative if I wanted to.)

But I’ve driven enough electric cars to have concerns. I use public chargers quite often and know that they are imperfect. Sometimes they don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes they are simply broken. And even if the car’s navigation system tells you that a charger is “available”, that can change at any time. Someone else may park at the charging point seconds before you get there.

I learned to be flexible and not push things to the limit.

On the first day, when I planned to drive from New York to Richmond, VA, there was no scheduled charging stop until Spotsylvania, VA, a distance of nearly 300 miles. At that point I had 16% charge left in the car batteries, which by the car’s own calculations would have taken me another 60 miles.

As I sat and worked inside downtown Spotsylvania mall, I realized I had been stupid. I had already stopped twice, at rest stops in New Jersey and Delaware. The Delaware stop, at the Biden Welcome Center, had EV fast chargers. I could have used one even though the car navigation didn’t suggest it.

Stopping without reloading was a missed opportunity and it cost me time. If I have to stop to recharge, why not recharge the car too?

But that’s the thing, though. A car can be designed to travel 350 miles or more before having to park while human beings are not. Elementary school math will tell you that at highway speeds, that’s nearly six hours of driving in one go. We need toilets, drinks, food and to go out and move around once in a while. Sure, it’s physically possible to sit in a car longer than that at one go, but most people in need of speed will get on a plane, and a driver an EQS, with a starting price right at the north of $100,000, can almost certainly afford the ticket.

I stopped for a load in Virginia, but realized I could have stopped sooner.  I met many other electric cars during the trip, including this Hyundai Ioniq 5 charging next to the Mercedes.

I swore never to make that strategic mistake again. I was going to regain control. On the second day, I decided to choose when I needed to stop and look for conveniently located fast chargers so that the EQS and I could cool off at the same time. The EQS’s navigation screen identified available charging slots and their maximum charging speeds. So if I saw an available charger, I could tap the icon with my finger and add it to my route.

For my first stop after leaving Richmond, I stopped at a rest stop in Hillsborough, NC. It was only about 160 miles south of my hotel and I still had half a full charge.

I sipped coffee and answered a few emails while I waited at the counter. I figured I’d take whatever time I wanted and drive off when I was ready with the extra power the car had gained during that time. All in all, I was there for about 45 minutes, but at least 15 minutes was spent trying to get the charger to work. One of the chargers just didn’t work at all, and on another a call to customer service from Electrify America – the Volkswagen-owned electric vehicle charging company that coincidentally operated all of the chargers I have used while traveling – I got a successful charging session finally going. (We didn’t know what the problem was.)

I recharged on a barbecue in North Carolina.

It was the last and only time I managed to match my own stopping need with the car’s. I left with my battery 91% charged and 358 miles of range displayed on screen. I would just have to stop once more on the way to Atlanta and not for long.

Then I started noticing something. As I drove through North Carolina and then South Carolina, the little markers on the map screen indicating available chargers became fewer and fewer. For a few fairly long stretches, there was nothing at all.

It wasn’t an immediate concern, however. The EQS navigation didn’t call me a load again until I almost reached the Georgian border. At this point, I would have about 11% of my battery charge left. But I was getting nervous. Given the distance between the chargers, my whole plan to “charge the car when I charge myself” had already fallen apart. I had to turn off the freeway once to find a gas station to use the restroom and buy an iced tea. A little later I stopped for lunch, a large plate of “Lexington Style BBQ” with black-eyed peas and collard greens in Lexington, NC. None of this involved charging as there were no chargers around.

So I got back on the freeway and got worried. What if there was something wrong with that charger near the border?

Luckily, a charger appeared on my map when I still had 31% charge left. I decided to protect myself by stopping early. After another call to Electrify America customer service, I was able to get a nice high power charging session on the second charger I tried. After about an hour, I came away with an almost full battery.

To play it safe, I stopped for my last charge a little early.  Actual charging time, after a call to customer service, took 21 minutes.

I drove the last 150 miles to Atlanta, crossing the state line through beautiful wetlands and stopping at the Georgia Welcome Center, not thinking about batteries, charging, or range.

But I was driving a $105,000 Mercedes. What if I had driven something that costs less and, while going farther than a human would want to drive all at once, wouldn’t go far enough to make that trip as easily. Of course people do. One thing that surprised me on this trip, compared to the 2019 trip, was the variety of all-electric vehicles I saw on the same highways. There were Chevrolet Bolts, Audi E-Trons, Porsche Taycans, Hyundai Ioniqs, Kia EV6s and at least one other Mercedes EQS.

Americans are taking their electric cars out on the highways. But it’s still not as easy as it should be.

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