Electric Road Trip

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America's charging network — a bumpy start

AUSTIN, Texas — After a long day on the road, we're happy to report we enjoy driving electric vehicles. We just wish the battery charging network were in the same league.

The second part is crucial, because the people we've talked to along the way agree that the perception of the car charging network is one factor keeping people tied to their internal-combustion cars.

Driving a battery-powered car requires a constant set of calculations, said Michael Osborne, chairman of the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance. How much range does the car have left? Do I have enough battery life for this detour? Where's the nearest charger? How long will it take to charge?

"It's an acquired skill right now, and we need to make it a lot easier than that," Osborne said.

We spent part of Sunday in a rented Tesla Model S. It handles like a super-car. When you punch it, the car will bounce the passenger's head off the headrest. (Ask Mike. Edward, the driver, says he has no idea what Mike's talking about.)

But the Tesla can feel too futuristic. The car is supposed to automatically unlock when the driver approaches with the key fob. That feature didn't work at least once during our tour. And when Edward picked up the car, he couldn't start it because a battery in the fob didn't work.

The Kia Niro felt like an everyday car, especially for a couple of dads who are used to small cars. It doesn't have the Tesla's tire-squealing acceleration, but it's a lot faster than a comparable gasoline-powered car. On the highway, the car's range indicator seemed pretty accurate. When we pulled away from Hermann Park in Houston, the battery was about 95% full and the Niro said it could travel about 240 miles.

That's good, because charging a car in public turned out to be tricky. Charging stations come in three types:

  • Level 1 is the equivalent of a 120-volt household outlet and can take a day or more to power up a car battery.
  • Level 2 is the equivalent of a 240-volt home outlet and can charge a battery overnight.
  • Level 3, or DC (direct-current) fast chargers, can have you on the road in an hour or two.

We went to a Blink charging station near Edward's house Sunday afternoon and found that one of the two chargers was out of order. The screen on the working charger was so faded by the sun, it was hard to read. After some fumbling with the Blink app on Mike's smartphone, we were able to juice up the battery for a few minutes.

After a barbecue lunch yesterday in Columbus, Texas, we pulled into an Electrify America station with what looked like four new-looking fast-charging stations. The first one was out of order. We moved to the second charger and plugged in with no problem, but we noticed that it had been vandalized.

Pulling into Austin, we were hoping to plug into the fast charger that the municipal utility had installed as part of a demonstration project. Heck, they renamed the street Electric Drive. But it was out of order — and had been for a few days — and another car was using the nearby Level 2 charger.

By this point, we had mild case of range anxiety. Mike had booked a hotel near Lady Bird Lake. We charged for two hours while we met with Osborne and a bunch of other electric-vehicle advocates, but we still needed a place to plug in for the night.

By the time our last meeting ended after 10 p.m. local time, it looked like we were going to have to find a station on the PlugShare app and hope it was within walking distance of the hotel.

At a nearby parking garage, there was no charging station, PlugShare told us, but there were three electrical outlets on the top floor.

Relieved, we plugged in the car and headed upstairs for a well-earned night of rest.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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