Shopping for an electric vehicle? How to be sure it will take you there on a trip

If you are considering buying an electric vehicle or have recently purchased one, things can seem a little daunting. For local driving, you’ve probably figured out that the EV has a lot of extra range and you can charge it while you sleep. This part of things (which accounts for about 90% of your driving for most people) is actually easier than owning a gas-powered car. But, most people don’t want to buy a car that can only cover 90% of their trips. We also want to cover at least most of that remaining 10%.

A big mistake I made (that you can avoid)

My first two EVs weren’t good enough to even consider an EV trip. The 2011 Nissan LEAF I owned was for local driving only. Things were the same for my 2013 Chevy Volt, but that car went into hybrid mode out of town, so it didn’t matter. But, when I bought my 2018 LEAF, rated at 151 EPA miles, I figured I was ready to play road warrior.

My project at the time was this:

  • Find out where the charging stations were
  • Use Google Maps to see how many kilometers there were between stations
  • If there were no gaps greater than 150 miles, I was good to go!

I quickly realized that it didn’t work that way. At all. Little did I know that there are a variety of things that can cause your car to get less than the EPA rated range:

  • Drive at highway speeds (this is pretty important for most car trips)
  • Cold weather makes batteries less efficient
  • Hot or cold weather means heat or AC power will decrease your range (heat is usually worse than AC power)
  • Driving up steep hills burns your range faster (returning up steep hills only gives you part of that range)
  • Driving into the wind
  • Rain, bad roads or unpaved roads consume more range

So given all of this information, my experience with my original plan was doomed, and badly. Three times I had to push the electric vehicle when I fell a few hundred meters from the next charging stop. On two others, I called a tow truck. None of these things are pleasant.

Some cars make this fate super easy to avoid

The good news? Some cars have built-in software and/or software on the manufacturer’s smartphone app that resolves this issue. All of those range reduction factors I list above are zero, but they are at least mathematically predictable. This means good software can do the math for you and give you a route to follow. For example, the trip planner of a Tesla vehicle tells you charging stops, tells you the duration of the trip (including charging), etc.

When it comes to software, however, there is one pitfall you might run into: limitations. While Tesla’s software takes many factors into account, apps from other manufacturers often fall short. For example, the myChevrolet app for my Chevrolet Bolt EUV doesn’t take speed or terrain into account (depending on the app itself). This means that driving through mountain ranges could give you much less range than the app predicts, which can lead to lock-ups in some cases.

Trip planning without manufacturer software

If you haven’t bought a car yet, your car doesn’t have great trip planning software, or you’re just an advanced user and want to control more aspects of planning, there are great alternatives. I will cover a few of them in this section.

If you’re considering buying a Tesla, the easiest thing you can do is use their online trip planner. If you’re considering other vehicles or want more control over the trip planning process, keep reading.

There are two important apps that every EV owner should install on their phone or use on their computer: Plugshare and A Better Routeplanner (ABRP). Plugshare gives you a great map of charging stations you can go to, while A Better Routeplanner plans routes for almost any electric vehicle. I’ve tested a number of apps for both of these things, and these are the best ones I’ve tried. ABRP in particular is useful because it takes into account many variables (and allows you to customize them to your needs).

If you haven’t purchased an EV yet, be sure to go to Plugshare’s settings and see “coming soon” charging locations. Plugshare volunteers are very good at determining where there will be charging stations in the next two years based on company announcements, public records, etc. You can’t rely on these locations today, but knowing that there will be more chargers in the near future can help you make a better EV buying decision.

I can’t go into detail on using ABRP, but they have a great primer and manual that you can read here. For most journeys, configuring your vehicle and your destination helps establish a great route plan from the start. But, there are myriad ways to customize your trips. I have found that adding unscheduled charging stops in the software, manually adding hotels with L2 charging, setting departure times and changing speed settings has been very helpful both for writing articles and for travelling.

It is important to make an informed decision and not to assume that an EV will never be able to make certain trips.

A few other important things to keep in mind

There are a few other things you might not know about electric vehicle charging, and they can make a big difference on your road trips.

First of all, you will almost never charge your EV up to 100% at DC fast charging stations (Tesla Superchargers, Electrify America, EVgo, etc.). The most important reason for this is “diminishment”. Electric vehicles only charge at their rated maximum speed by about 5% to 60%. If your battery is really low or the battery is full, it will charge slowly to avoid battery damage. When the car goes over 80%, it really slows down. For the last few percent, around 95-98%, DC fast charging may be slower than home charging.

It is therefore recommended to plan to arrive at a charging station with only 10%, then to recharge only the amount necessary to get to the next stop. This means that most of your charging will be done at maximum speeds instead of reduced speeds.

However, you will want to charge up to 100% if possible at hotels and other slower charging stops. There really is no L2 charge drop (except maybe the last 1% on some vehicles), so it makes sense to start the day with a full charge.

It is also a very good idea to have a backup plan in case the DC fast chargers fail. I recommend always carrying an L2 (240 volt) cable with you when traveling. Some cars come with this, and for others you will need to purchase one. If you get one with a NEMA 14-50 plug, you can take your EV to most RV parks and they’ll let you charge for a fee. It’s not ideal, but it saves you from being stuck in a small town. For rural road trips, you might even plan to stop at an RV park.

L2 portable charging cord sets can also be used with adapters for other types of 24 volt outlets. Dryer outlets, stove outlets, welding outlets and more can be used to charge your car 4-10 times faster than a normal wall outlet if you have the right adapters.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Another important thing to do is to not be afraid to ask for help. Many EV enthusiasts would like to help a new EV owner or someone buying EVs. They might even be able to help you find a decent deal on one, too.

Featured Image: A screenshot from A Better Routeplanner showing a trip I planned.

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