Recently, I did an EV road trip in a 230 mile range car across US 50 in Nevada “The Loneliest Road in America” followed by the backroads of southern Utah’s State Route 12. EV driving is very simple in your own hometown, where you charge while you sleep, and even along the major highways which have lots of fast chargers—at least if you drive a Tesla. This region of Utah, one of the most scenic places in the world, has few people and no fast charging, and thus represents pushing the limits of what an EV can to today.
My car, a mid-range Tesla model 3, came with 260 miles of official range, but over the years, like most EVs, has lost about 12% of that range — 10% is typical. The longer-range version of the car with over 300 miles would have fewer problems on these drives, and even the brand new car would do better, but this sort of range is pretty common for EV owners after a few years.
This trip demonstrated the current state of such travel, namely:
- Travel in remote areas is definitely possible, but requires planning, and mostly sticking to the plan, with a few other compromises
- The Tesla charging network continues to be head and shoulders above the CCS networks, so it’s good that the NACS connector has won the battle — but even so the competitors have to up their game. The Tesla experience was 100% reliable and fast, the CCS experience had many problems.
- A lot still needs to be done with charging at hotels, which is an important part of EV road trips
- It’s not going to take that much to make such travel much easier, and that should happen soon, perhaps by the time you take a trip like this in an EV
- The non-EV drivers need to learn a lot more about EV driving, or stay out of making decisions on how to do EV charging.
- There are only a few significant charging deserts left in the lower-48 states. Charging stations are under construction in most of them.
The Planning and Compromises
If there’s no fast charging where you are going, your main workable plan is to not travel more than your range in a day, and to charge at night while you sleep. You may be able to add a bit with slow charging at tourist stops. In some cases you can have a longer travel day if the middle of your route will pass through some fast charging territory.
What this means is such trips have to be planned. You need to know where you will sleep and go during the day. That’s not usually the way I travel, though for some it is normal. My usual approach is to drive around, exploring, and pick a hotel in the late afternoon. You can still do some of that, but must compromise a bit. You also need to pick hotels where you can charge while you sleep, and possibly restaurants for a small amount of charging while you eat. That’s getting easier and easier as more and more hotels are adding charging. By the time electric cars get very popular, finding such hotels will not be hard — though it may be hard to guarantee charging at them. By that time, fast chargers will also be available most places as a backup.
Of course, driving a gasoline car has compromises too, the biggest being the high price of gas. Most hotel charging is included “free” with the room, but even when it’s not you will save a lot of money. You also get a zippy, fun-to-drive car with a silent motor. On the negative, the Tesla Model 3 is not a good car for going off road — its clearance is fairly low. There are some electric vehicles like the F150 lightning and Rivian, with 4WD and excellent clearance. In the future, electric off-roaders will be the only serious choice of those who wish to off-road, as they come to feature 4 motor drive, immense road clearance, 4 wheel steering and other fancy features. Today, that’s not the case.
The trip began with its first charge in Folsom, at a new outdoor mall with a Tesla Supercharger. In the Sacramento area, the local utility sells power quite cheaply compared to others at 24 cents. You can easily pay double at most other stations and you will pay triple on…
The Loneliest Road (Now with CCS)
Some time ago, US-50 in Nevada got branded as the loneliest road in America, and it is indeed desolate, but beautiful. Just over a year ago, there was no fast charging on it, and barely any slow charging. That changed, and a series of DC Fast chargers has appeared along it, though typically at only 50kW speed, and non of them Tesla Superchargers. Tesla cars can get a CCS adapter (or an older CHAdeMO adapter) that lets them use the other stations.
Using these chargers quickly revealed the challenges of leaving the Superchargers behind. Something goes wrong with disturbing frequency, while Tesla sessions are almost always problem-free and fast.
Our first stop was Silver Springs, east of Reno. This station worked well, though the location — a small Casino with minimal food — is nowhere to hang out. A pack of wild horses passed by, though. This one bills 60 cents/minute, which is pretty pricey, particularly if you try to get fairly full and get a lower charge rate.
There was a station in Fallon, NV for many years but it’s been dead for a while. And the next station, in Middlegate has also not been working for months. I bypassed the Cold Springs station to take 772, the “old US 50” which is even lonelier, but recommended, to pull into Austin.
I don’t want to spend much time here, because the next town, Eureka, is better for wandering around as a tourist. My plan is to sleep in Ely, a larger town which has a fast charger which has been broken for at least a month (you may notice a pattern here.) While I could press on from Ely to Baker I want more flexibility so I hope to charge overnight with slower level 2 charging, which it turns out is much more of a hassle than I might like.
Poor charging apps
Eureka’s charger is run by Shell and is in a dead gas station. It’s actually nicely located right in the center of town, ideal for charging while you walk around touring the town. Unfortunately, Shell’s charging app is a royal pain to use even though I set it up in advance, and is one of the several apps that demand you maintain a balance and top up rather than simply pay for sessions. This universally hated approach makes you give more money than you want to, and does not scale when there are tons of apps.
Indeed, while each network feels it important they have their own app and rules, for drivers it a terrible experience. There have been some efforts to let there be just one app you can use, but nothing has materialized. A few machines will let you just swipe a credit card, but there are advantages to having an app (if they could just get rid of the disadvantages from poor implementation.)
The Shell charging station takes several minutes to get working. This is a common experience that will repeat in the trip. A simple solution would be to start charging the moment I plug in, and give me a couple of minutes to authenticate payment. If I never authenticate, you might lose 20 cents worth of electricity, but you gain a happier customer, shorter charge times and faster throughput on the station — it’s a hugely obvious win. (It’s ironic because in many places you can still pump a full tank of gas before you pay.)
The Shell experience is so poor (not too surprising from a gasoline company) that I vow not to use them again, though they run the broken fast charger and 2 of the working slow chargers in Ely where I will spend the night. By far the easiest thing in Ely would be to stay at the Prospector motel, which has two (non-free) stations at the back and which is planning to put in a fast charger. This night, for some reason the room rate is higher than normal, and I decide I don’t want to spend 60% more on my room for the convenience. I do find a nice hotel that will drive me over to the charger. That works OK but is definitely not that convenient. (The local railway museum will also let you plug in but only during open hours.)
It turns out I needed the flexibility, as I decide to head south on 93. Outside Panaca is a former gas station with a rarely — a free fast charger. The main problem is that there’s really nothing to do or eat but gas station food, and cell signal is weak, so while free is nice, I just get enough to reach the Tesla supercharger at Cedar City. As always it is fast at 250kW and simple to use. We don’t get food, but we want to be on our way into the interior of Southern Utah. This is the last fast charger for a few days.
Tesla also needs to improve the experience for people using their official CCS adapter. They sell you the adapter but don’t do anything to make it easier to use. You can’t search for charging stations (even though they are in the car’s map) and you can’t tell it to “precondition” (warm up) the battery to make your charging session faster—you have to trick it, and it doesn’t always work. The car constantly complains when it is too far from a Tesla station even though you are driving to another station and will be just fine. You can’t route plan with the car, you must use another tool like “A Better Route Planner.” (Sadly, ABRP doesn’t work offline, and Plugshare, the best station mapping tool, also still has problems offline though they recently partly improved it.)
Tesla could help a lot if they would allow the car’s mobile connectivity to be shared (hotspot) with your phone, even if only for use with travel and charging apps, not the whole web.
My target is Bryce Canyon National Park. Just outside the park is Ruby’s Best Western, and it has 4 Tesla slow chargers and an RV park. I call them, and ask if one can reserve a charger, though I know the answer will be negative. It is almost never anything else. My problem is, I plan to arrive at the hotel without much charge left, and will need that overnight charge to continue my trip. If the first-come-first-served approach leaves me not-served, I will be almost stranded. The hotel assures me it is very rarely a problem, and I ask if they can put me in the RV park if the 4 chargers are full. They won’t promise but do promise they will do something for me.
Charging at your hotel is by far the preferred option for a road trip. Even on hard-slog 600 mile/day road trips, you still want to charge at the hotel, and use fast chargers mid-day. Charging at the hotel involves not driving out of your way at all (except perhaps to the back of the hotel parking lot) and you can eat anywhere you want, rather than at a fast charger. It’s better for your battery, and you can charge as full as you like (fast chargers get very slow for the last few miles.) It’s almost always included free with the hotel stay, which may only cost the hotel $5 of electricity, but to you it may save $25 plus a lot of inconvenience of going to the fast charger.
We get there late, as expected, after going into the park past sunset. And there are already 3 cars at the stations, so I take the last slot. I hope there was no 5th car hoping to use one. At this hotel, there is another solution, which is to use the free shuttle into the national park while leaving your car to charge during the day, as competition is not so strong then. That’s a much slower approach and only valid in a few locations.
On the plus side, Bryce Canyon was one of the “winners” in Tesla’s contest to vote on where next to put superchargers, so some day that will remove any uncertainty.
Returning to Bryce in the morning we plunge even further into the charging desert, planning to take the utterly Amazing Utah 12 to Hanksville, and then the almost as amaing Utah 95 out to Blanding.
In Hanksville, a tiny and isolated crossroads village, sits one example of an excellent place to charge overnight, namely an RV park which has motel cabins (or an associated motel.) In this case, Duke’s RV Park has built nice rental cabins in former RV spots, which means each still has an RV pedestal including the 50 amp connector a car needs for overnight charger. In theory, this is ideal, because it means each cabin has a reserved charging spot — just what you want. Smart EV road trippers always carry an adapter that can plug into the 50a RV plug, and many cars come standard with such an adapter, or they can be bought for under $150.
In theory — because Duke’s didn’t anticipate this type of charging and disconnected those pedestals. However, since the park was not full, it was easy to park a few feet away in a regular empty RV spot to charge fully. Had the park been full of RVs that would not be possible, but hopefully they will fix these disconnected pedestals. I was obviously the first driver to request this, so demand so far is not strong, but it will improve.
That overnight charge was more than enough to enjoy the drive over the upper end of Lake Powell to rejoin the Supercharger network at Blanding, UT. The small supercharger there is across the street from a decent burger joint without outdoor patio, just what we needed to continue on to Moab (which has lots of charging, including fast chargers, free chargers at many hotels and even two public free slow chargers.) Oddly from there we would backtrack a bit, filling up to 100% (only the 2nd time I have done that) in Green River to retrace Utah 12 for a short section and return to I-70 at Richfield.
Richfield offers a number of interesting choices. I ended up (incorrectly) going to the Supercharger, as it had a tolerable pasta buffet next to it and we were hungry. A better choice would have been one of the motels with free slow charging. Next to my hotel was the rarity of a free 125kW fast charger run by the Utah Dept. of Transport and built by Chargepoint. Sadly, this one would connect and start charging but abort the charge after 2 seconds. Being free, it wasn’t an authentication or payment problem, but just yet another in the list of strange CCS station problems.
The town also had an Electrify America station. EA is the 2nd largest network, after Tesla, but it has raised its prices. It’s now quite high at many stations if you don’t pay their monthly fee. If you have a CCS car that fee is probably worth it as there are many EA stations. Tesla owners are less likely to make heavy use. Even though I had used EA before and set up an account, I had not used it for a year so I had to spend a bunch of time getting it going again, and (grrrr) loading more money into a balance. It was not worth it and it did not deliver much power — the car was already fairly full from the Supercharger but I decided we needed a touch more in the morning. We wanted to venture away from the fast chargers again, to drive through, but not enter Zion National Park. You an only tour the inside of Zion on the shuttle bus, but that can be a win if you can get one of the 2 (pay) slow chargers at the visitor center, or stay at one of the many hotels with slow charging.
Instead we headed to St. George where many affordable motels came with free slow charging, ready to top us up overnight. That would get us to Las Vegas for a partial fill up to reach the Shady Lady B&B — a former brothel on Nevada 95 converted to a B&B. I called to ask if they had some RV plugs, and they said they did, but I also asked him to confirm they were working, which he said they were, but also inspired him to go check. He discovered his 50a connector appeared missing (reason unknown) but the 30a was working. In spite of the numbers, a 30a connector only provides 1/3rd the power of the 50a connector, and won’t usually fill you up overnight from empty. In addition, very few EV voyagers carry an adapter to use the 30a RV plug, but I do, just because many rural facilities do come with 30a RV hookups you can use.
Because he let me know, I arranged to roll in needing only 100 miles more charge, which the 30a can handle, and more than enough to get us down to Bishop, CA on 395. Bishop’s many chargers (including the Supercharger) are located central to let you walk around and get good food while charging. From there it was up through Yosemite National Park on Tioga pass, which didn’t open until late July this year. In a rare event, the Mammoth supercharger was briefly closed for construction, but in spite of the 9500’ altitude of the pass, it is possible to get over the Sierras and down to Tracy, CA on a single charge.
In Tracy we were not that far from home, so 10 minutes was all that was needed. That made me think about violating my “never wait while charging” rule, but it was suppertime and there was a fast Blaze pizza in the plaza so we pre-ordered that, though we could not eat it during the charge time.
Indeed, this trip required a few other violations of the “never wait while charging rule.” This rule attempts to make EV charging faster than gasoline fill-ups, because you are always doing something you intended to do (eat, shop, be a tourist) while charging, so it takes no time from your trip. Charging while sleeping is the best, but charging during meals also works. Some of the locations on this trip just had absolutely nothing to do or eat, or came at the wrong time, and so the rule could not be kept. However, it was possible to do things like surf the internet or watch Youtube and Netflix in the car — which is something we do all the time at home, but rarely on a road trip.
On a tourist road trip you want to visit towns and tourist sites. Some chargers are sited in just the right places for that. Indeed, the tourist boards of towns should realize that they want to encourage charging stations in good places to park and walk around the town. Unless the town is dreadfully boring, visitors will enjoy this and not feel forced. The town should even try to make sure there are things to do after hours. Other chargers are in the middle of nowhere, or in dead (or live) gas stations and not places you want to hang around. Those should only be used if you must.
The good news is that the number of charging deserts is shrinking, and stations are planned for some of the larger ones, like SE New Mexico. A few other national parks continue to be hard to reach. The Alaska/Cassier Highways are still devoid of fast charging, as are some regions of Alaska, though much of the Yukon is supplied. Other less populated areas of Canada remain a challenge. You’ll also find some difficult areas in Montana, Idaho, Eastern Oregon, the Dakotas and Maine.