Back in 2016, I drove over 1,000 miles from the UK to Barcelona on electric power alone. It was an odyssey, with difficult-to-find chargers resulting in big delays, almost costing me my job. This year, with so many improvements to the EV infrastructure across Europe, I tried it again.
It wasn’t just easier this time. It was downright bliss.
My 2016 journey was supposed to be simple. I had taken a Tesla Model S — a car with 300 miles range per charge — to Barcelona to attend the Mobile World Congress tech show for CNET. I relied on Tesla’s Supercharger network that recharged the car in around 30 to 40 minutes. I had calculated the distances between the chargers and was confident I could make the journey in the allotted time.
I was naive.
Achieving the car’s maximum range was difficult at inefficient highway speeds. None of the superchargers were easily accessible, with most being in the back of business hotels on commercial estates far from the highways, resulting in long setbacks. I arrived in Barcelona almost 9 hours late. My boss wasn’t happy.
But all of this has changed. In 2016, France had around 15,000 public EV chargers, but as of December 2022, that number has ballooned to over 82,000. And a huge number are fast chargers situated at highway rest stops, meaning that taking your electric vehicle on a long-distance trip is quicker and more manageable.
I did this year’s long-distance journey in early March to attend the 2023 Mobile World Congress again. I drove the VW ID 5, an all-electric SUV with a range of up to 314 miles. Setting off with a full battery from North London at 4 a.m., I used Google Maps to go straight to the Eurotunnel departures on the UK’s South Coast, getting the car onto the train that would take me under the sea, and then emerging in Calais, France, around 40 minutes later.
Driving a non-Tesla EV, I had to rely on third-party public chargers, which I was able to find using the Shell Recharge app. Thankfully, there are plenty of options now, such as Ionity, Total, Shell and others offering fast 150kW charging (or higher, in many cases) that would take the car to 80% in around 30 minutes. The Shell Recharge app shows all brands and allows you to pay through the app. (Most chargers don’t accept contactless credit cards, and instead require ID cards specific to the service.)
With the app, I found my way to the first Ionity fast-charging station, situated at a rest stop on the highway southeast of Calais. This was already a big improvement over my last journey — I didn’t have to drive 20 minutes or more to find a charger behind an Ibis or Mercure hotel. And since it was a rest stop, I was able to get a coffee and a croissant while the car charged. By the time I’d finished my breakfast and stretched my legs, the car was ready to go.
The massive increase in charging stations meant that brimming the EV battery wasn’t difficult. Seven years ago, I had to map out the exact route to maximize efficiency and avoid getting stuck without power. This time, I just pointed the car down the highway direct to Barcelona, hopping between fast chargers as needed.
Before hitting the South Coast en route to my destination, I made an overnight stop just North of Lyon. I’m glossing over about 15 hours of travel because it was totally unremarkable — which in and of itself is remarkable. There was no shortage of chargers, no problems or long waits at the chargers and, as a result, no range anxiety. It was an easy drive, just like it would be in a gas-powered (petrol) car. I was impressed. Even in 2021 in Scotland, I had problems with entire banks of chargers being out of order for weeks at a time.
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The VW ID 5 made it an extremely comfortable journey — smooth to drive, with adaptive cruise control and steering assistance to maintain lane position — and the highway miles simply flew by. Even the seats felt supportive for the long stints between breaks, and the sound system made my Periphery-heavy playlist boom.
I reached Barcelona early on my third day and stowed the car in a downtown parking lot for the duration of the conference. Before leaving, I plotted a route to a fast charger just outside the city, where I gave it a full top-off while having breakfast. My return route was a bit rural, snaking my way up through the French Dordogne region, where charging was certain to be difficult.
There are far fewer chargers away from the main intercity highways and even fewer fast chargers. In the historic village of La Roque-Gageac, there was a charging station for just one vehicle, but it was out of order. Fortunately, the generous range of the ID 5 gave me enough power to get 30 minutes north to a fast charger outside the town of Montignac.
Throughout my entire journey, totaling over 2,000 miles, it was the only instance I had to make an adjustment to my charging route. And given how taxing I’ve found other long-distance EV road trips, that was wonderful.
Instead of having to keep one eye constantly on the range, I could enjoy the beautiful journey through the South of France countryside. The ID 5’s range combined with the number of public chargers in France meant I didn’t need to overly plan my route and could instead go charging when I needed to.
It was exactly what a road trip should be — genuinely experiencing the pleasure of the drive and not having to worry about the logistics of refueling. I’m encouraged that the huge investment in EV infrastructure across Europe has made long-distance travel more feasible, not just for business trips, but for families trying to avoid spending hours at slow chargers with impatient children.
Had I done the 2,100-mile journey in a gas-powered car, I would have spent around £409 ($510), based on burning fuel at 35 mpg and refueling at 150 pence per liter. With an EV, I spent only around £308 ($384) on electricity — big savings. And that’s despite the energy crisis in Europe hiking up the cost of electricity, and also despite my pay-as-you-go charging method being more expensive than using a charging provider’s subscription plans. Plus, the Shell Recharge app tells me I saved around 450 kg of CO2 on my electric-only journey.
Sure, there’s still room for improvement. Rural driving is trickier than it is on major highways, and I don’t know why all chargers don’t accept contactless credit cards (a common problem with charging stations in the US, too). There are a wide number of charging operators, and while most can use the Shell app (or a similar app called Bonnet), others didn’t allow any app payments. Relying on the app also means you need cellular service to authorize the payment, something that may not be available in rural areas (although I had no reception problems on my trip).
Overall, I’m pleased that my fresh attempt at this journey was a success. And I’m extremely pleased at how easy it’s become to drive zero-emission EVs in Europe.