This month, I launched a series of essays in which I explore obstacles and pathways to getting more people into EVs. This week, inspired by the learning journeys shared by my friends here at GreenBiz, I offer up my own experience of being a new EV owner. It’s an experience I wish I could rave about, but unfortunately, I cannot. The story itself might be better called "the trials and tribulations of an average (non-Tesla) EV-driving Californian family of (soon-to-be) four."
By the 2021 definition, we are a middle-class family. Both my husband and I work in climate tech, and our family lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Thanks to a number of incredible public programs provided by the city, all the energy we consume in our house is from renewable sources, and all our waste is either composted or recycled. The last change we needed to make to become a carbon-neutral household was to trade in our gasoline-powered car for an EV. So when maybe-too-good-to-be-true lease deals popped up during the 2020 pandemic, coupled with new state and federal EV incentives, the moment finally arrived.
After weeks of researching cars and crunching numbers to see what we could afford, we sold our Mitsubishi Mirage and drove halfway to Sacramento to get an exceptional two-year lease deal on a 2020 Nissan Leaf. The S Plus model we drive has a 60-kilowatt-hour battery providing 226 miles of range, as well as a 214-horsepower electric motor (the base model has a 147-hp motor). Having had firsthand experience with the struggles of driving an EV with a family, I can say most of the concerns I’ve heard aired about making the switch to an EV are incredibly valid.
Having now had firsthand experience with the struggles of driving an EV with a family, I can say most of the concerns I’ve heard aired about making the switch to an EV are incredibly valid.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on one argument: California highways are not ready for EV road trips, contrary to the opinion of this article published by ChargePoint — at least for cars that use a CHAdeMO charger. To give credit where it is due, we have found ChargePoint to be the most consistently reliable charging network of them all. But despite hours of trip-planning via PlugShare, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles that usually takes 5.5 hours in a gas-powered vehicle now takes at least 10 hours in our EV.
The culprits for this 80 percent increase in travel time? Three incredible obstacles: lack of charger availability; poor maintenance and placement of chargers; and battery overheating.
On our family trips, we have found a disproportionately low number of functional CHAdeMO chargers, as compared to the Combined Charging System (CCS) or the Tesla Supercharger. This problem is sure to be exacerbated by the phaseout of this type of charger altogether, as the CCS races ahead in the competition to become the industry standard. When looking at purchasing an EV, people new to EVs, such as us, probably don’t take into account the type of charger the car uses, nor would they research if it’s in the process of being phased out. It’s not like we chose an obscure car, either — the Nissan Leaf was the top selling used EV in most states in 2020.
This begs the question: How many new EV owners, burned by making an investment in a car using technology that will become obsolete within a year, will abstain from purchasing another EV in the future or recommending it to their friends?
Our first (and only, due to the issues we encountered) trip outside of the Bay Area in our Leaf as a family was a "short" 205-mile drive to Paso Robles. With a battery that claims to get 226 miles of range, we thought we’d make it down without stopping, no problem. Between traffic and a fully loaded car, the range ended up being much less.
Three incredible obstacles: lack of charger availability; poor maintenance and placement of chargers; and battery overheating.
We stopped at an Electrify America charging station in a grocery store parking lot to find that only one of the eight available plugs was CHAdeMO-compatible. To make matters worse, it was broken. After spending 30 minutes on the phone with a customer service representative who offered no explanation or ability to help, we had to drive to the next city (with only a few miles left to spare and one very unhappy child in the backseat). We found a ChargePoint station hidden behind a strip mall with what looked like a bullet hole in its screen. Luckily, it still worked, and the reliability and distribution of the ChargePoint network saved our mini-vacation. We knew that an event such as this would be a disaster if we had our toddler in the car for any longer than we did, so on our next trip to Los Angeles, she and I took a plane while my husband drove the car (for anyone wondering why we didn’t just rent while there, see "Tales from the car rental apocalypse").
One of the sub-prime charging locations we came across in our journey through California's Central Valley
Prior to driving to LA, my husband planned the trip on PlugShare, reviewing changes in elevation in order to anticipate how much range he would need between charges, and accounting for other factors such as stopping for a bathroom break and food. He even simulated alternate routes where he could stop to charge twice at shorter intervals instead of once but surmised it would most likely take longer.
The day of the trip, after hitting traffic, he was forced to charge about 50 miles earlier than anticipated, with a flashing 6 percent charge remaining in the battery. It was a ChargePoint fast-charging station behind a Chevron gas station with no shade from the 102-degree afternoon heat. The machine wouldn’t read his phone’s NFC sensor at first, but a quick call to customer service got it running in just a few minutes. But as the battery charged, he noticed the input power dropping from 48 kW all the way down to 19 kW and his estimated charge time getting longer and longer. The reason: extremely elevated battery temperature.
We knew from reading the manual that temperature could affect battery charge time, but we couldn’t have anticipated it would be so severe. After 1.5 hours of charging, gaining barely over 80 percent charge, he had to drive. But external heat also cuts down on battery capacity in addition to increasing charge time, so he only made it 100 miles before it became clear he wouldn’t make it to LA without having to stop again for another long, slow charge. It says in the car’s manual to avoid fast-charging multiple times on extended trips. It does not say that once a battery is hot it will not cool down until the car is powered off and left to rest overnight. Ten hours after leaving San Francisco, he arrived in LA.
In order for average Americans to adopt EVs, a lot needs to change — and fast. We need safe, shaded areas to charge and chargers that are well-maintained, perhaps tied to a system that knows when it is out of service and sends someone to fix it. We need on-board range estimation tools that account for weather, elevation and car weight. We need better batteries. And we need fair and reliable access to chargers for all types of vehicles, not just those in the luxury market.