There's never been anything quite like our Electric Road Trip that starts next month. Until now, a squad of professional journalists haven't knocked around America for two months in an electric vehicle, investigating how electric transportation will change our lives.
Until now, doing such a thing would have been silly. Electric vehicles (EVs) have existed on the fringes and haven't been numerous enough to matter. But now that's changing: Every major automaker has several all-electric models in the pipeline. Just a year or two from now, they'll be a burgeoning reality in the showroom and on the road.
We have a hunch this once-in-a-century transformation of the automobile will have a big impact. But where?
One answer is "everywhere," since cars are in the business of moving around. That's why we resolved to go to tons of places and log thousands and thousands of miles. What's it like to drive an electric car? We'll try out lots of models. What's it like to make an electric stop instead of a gas stop? We'll test every scenario.
Looking deeper, we realized that certain places augur the future more than others. Switching from gas-powered to electric-powered cars is a really big deal. The more we researched, the more we realized that the switch is going to alter our economy, our environment, the patterns of daily life in ways that few have gamed out. We're seeking to visit these places and share them with you — in an electric car, of course.
So, after months of careful planning, dozens of interviews and some agonizing decisions, we can share where we’re going. Take a gander at the map at the top of this post.
Over two months, for most of September and October, we will drive 6,000 miles and report from 17 states. In teams of two, we reporters will pass the car like a baton from region to region. We will visit mayors' offices and city streets, the manufacturing plants and the labs. We'll interview executives at the power companies, drop in on auto dealers, talk to gas station owners and the restaurateurs who host charging stations. We'll learn about the hopes and fears of entrepreneurs and factory workers. We'll find out what in the electric revolution stands to be gained and lost.
Some of you will have questions, like: How did you decide where to go? Why are you starting in Houston, but going nowhere near Boston? Why are you skipping Denver but going to Des Moines? And why are you trekking across North Dakota?
An important thing to know is that we are professional journalists. We are staff writers and editors for an organization called E&E News, which provides objective coverage of the fast-changing world of energy and the environment for people across the political spectrum. That means that, when we head out on the Electric Road Trip, we aren't wearing rose-tinted goggles. We'll tell you the good stuff and the bad stuff — and figuring out the route for this trip revealed a lot of what's wrong with electric vehicles today.
As the organizer, I started mapping back in May. I got on the phone with dozens of activists and experts and consulted with colleagues who work all over the country. I spent hours on a site called PlugShare, which has the best beta on where to charge an electric car. I tried out different routes around the country, testing the EV's battery range against where we wanted to go.
Reporters gravitate toward places that are changing fast. And nowhere is the world of transportation and electrification changing faster than California — home to Tesla and Uber, home to the most stringent air regulators, and to Los Angeles, which invented the freeway but now is gridlocked in smog.
Just up north, in Portland, the Oregonians have had a love affair with EVs for years, dreaming up innovations that belie the city's small size. Keep going to Seattle, and you find bold civic experiments and the country's largest electric bus fleet.
So it's a no-brainer. Our Electric Road Trip would sweep the West Coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles.
Reporters don't seek out just change, but conflict. If clashes are coming, where rifts are opening, we want to be there, detecting the fault lines, canaries tweeting from the coal mine.
So obviously we have to go to Texas.
It isn't that Texans have a quarrel with electric cars. We have interviewed many Texans who love their EVs. It's that demand for oil — the cornerstone of the state's economy — ebbs a bit with every new electric vehicle that rolls off an assembly line. That's a paradox that will one day deliver to Texas an economic and cultural earthquake. We will report on the early tremors.
While in the neighborhood, it made sense to steer our electric steed east to Tennessee. A slew of cars are made in the Southeastern states, though they get less attention than Detroit. Just outside Nashville is where the oldest production electric vehicle in the country is made — no, not Tesla, but the Nissan Leaf. Does the EV revolution mean that autoworkers have to fear for their jobs?
We also couldn't miss Detroit. If EVs in Texas are upending the oil business, the upheaval in Motor City is about manufacturing. The auto industry is in the early days of a drastic reimagining of the vehicle as one that is autonomous, connected, shared — and electric.
An EV requires far fewer parts than its gas-powered sibling. What does this mean for the auto industry's vast network of suppliers? And what about the automakers themselves? Will a new kind of car send General Motors and Ford, two pillars of the U.S. economy, toward oblivion or a renaissance?
We also sniffed an opportunity to the west, in Iowa. We couldn't miss the opportunity to drive up to a rally, in the heat of the presidential primary season, and ask the candidates (and the voters) for their views on our curious machine.
... AND WHERE WE'RE NOT GOING
This is where I ought to mention that there are plenty of other intriguing places in America to visit in an electric car. But we aren't going there, and the reason is revealing.
For example, our wish list included Colorado, which has become an EV hotbed, and Orlando, Fla., the site of a grand but failed experiment to introduce electric rental cars. We also had many reasons to visit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, from Maryland to Maine. This arc is sometimes called the "the ZEV states" because the bulk of states that follow California's rules for zero-emissions vehicles are located there. We would have encountered an enjoyable buffet of Maryland blue crabs and Boston clam chowder and a passel of EV pioneers.
But we aren't visiting those places, for a very simple reason: In 2019, an electric car only takes you so far in one day.
The maximum range of a production electric car is Tesla's Model S, at 370 miles per charge; among non-Teslas, there are a clutch of other electrics (Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf Plus, Kia Niro EV, Audi e-tron) that surpass 200 miles. After that, the battery empties, and recharging it can take all night unless you find fast chargers that are rare in many parts of the country.
This means doling out a road trip in little 200-mile doses. Today's electric cars are not yet capable of the 500-mile, just-get-the-hell-across-it day that Americans are wont to do, powered by Chevron and a big bag of Cheetos. The Electric Road Trip would take time, and we — like everyone — have limited amounts of that.
I calculated that driving electric from Orlando to Washington, D.C., would take four days. Boston to Detroit, three days. Minneapolis to Seattle, an astonishing nine days. We could do some of these routes, but we couldn't do all of them. Some destinations would have to get the heave-ho.
So, with apologies to Colorado, Orlando and the ZEV states, you won't be seeing us this fall.
After those painful decisions, the route came into focus quickly. We will get you to the places where change and conflict of electric transportation are coming — the West, the oil country of Texas, the auto manufacturing hubs of the Southeast, and the Midwestern Rust Belt.
To connect them, we will link Tennessee to Detroit by wending through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio — which turn out to be rich in electric-vehicle stories, once you look for them. And we will connect Minneapolis to Seattle by a perilous nine-day trek across North Dakota and Montana, which have fewer places to charge an EV than anywhere else in the USA (the experts warned us against this).
So there you have it: Our two-month Electric Road Trip across America is a journey into into a electric future that is exciting and scary, that few understand and that no one has come to terms with. Honestly, we don't know what is going to happen to us out there. But we sure look forward to having you along for the ride.
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