I was busy last Thursday. Very busy. I had a bit of an adventure, really.
My sib has finally replaced their ancient car with an EV, and we used it last Thursday to deliver our brother (the eldest) and his kids to the airport. From Burlington, Vermont, to Boston’s Logan Airport.
During the winter.
I, and my sib, learned a great deal.
We delivered our eldest brother and our niblings to the airport only twenty minutes later than planned, but the drive took approximately twice as long as I’d normally expect (seven hours, ish). It turns out that the quality of the charging stations available to you matters a great deal, whether that’s “do they charge quickly” or “do they work at all.”
The EV in question is not a Tesla, no superchargers for us.
This all meant that we stopped several times for recharging, with each stop taking about thirty to fifty minutes. We would stop charging before hitting full capacity because the rate-of-charge decreases significantly as the battery fills, so we tried to time our stops to only charge when we’d actually get faster charging. I can see a future where this becomes more normal, and the dominant “highway refueling” paradigm shifts from gas stations with little quick-to-use convenience stores to charging stations with diners, restaurants, or any place that can hold your attention easily for fifteen to fifty minutes. It’s not a bad feel, really, and if we weren’t under time pressure to deliver our family to the airport, it might have been nice to slow our journey and appreciate those stops. Not having COVID be a thing would help too.
But as best as we can tell, any charger installation needs someone nearby who really cares about whether it works and how well it works. The reliable chargers were near stores that might want them to attract clientele, mostly Whole Foods (though there was a Walmart with mostly-okay chargers). But other chargers, like one hidden behind a hotel, were often simply broken and only registered error codes or offered trickle charges that would take a whole day (or night) to refuel. Even the chargers in Somerville’s Assembly Square garage didn’t work reliably; if my sib and I are right, this comes down to no one establishment caring enough about the chargers to push for their regular maintenance, and no one establishment seeing them as clearly tied to their own reputation.
Having delivered the fam to the airport, we then turned around and headed back north. Well, after stopping to charge again and eat. It probably would have been a better idea to stay the night in Somerville, all things considered.
But we retraced our steps, mostly without excitement (except for a surprise fireworks display), until we were nearly in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. That’s when the temperature dropped into the single digits (6F or so) and we both got real quiet, watching the battery’s gauge plummet.
We had to cycle the defroster, and turn off the car’s heat in general, in order to nurse the battery to the charge station… where we discovered that the charging capacity had been temporarily reduced (from earlier that day) due to an in-progress system update. It felt, in many ways, how I imagine early gasoline car trips might have felt. Remarkably functional, exciting, and just uncertain enough to keep us on the edges of our seats.
So we spent the next hour and a half or so waiting for the battery to charge. We napped (or lay still with eyes shut, in my case), and drank our extra coffee, and generally tried to pass the time as midnight rolled by. After watching the battery drop so quickly in the cold temperatures, we didn’t want to chance going up and over the Green Mountains without a nearly full charge, so we took extra time to be sure. Then, nearly full, we set out again.
The first leg of that trip was nerve-wracking. We kept eyeing the number of miles remaining, comparing it to the percent charge still in our battery. We planned out where we’d pull off the highway and ask for help, if it looked like we were losing charge too quickly. It wasn’t until we could tell that we were definitely getting slightly more than one mile per percent of battery charge that we relaxed—we knew we had another charger in range at that point, which would let us finally return to Burlington about seventeen hours after we’d left.
From there on, it was fun. We talked, listened to music, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Vermont is beautiful, and driving through it at night and watching the snowscapes pass by is still something I love.
It’s not a trip I want to make again in an EV though, not the way we did it.
I think that until the charging infrastructure is a little better—more reliable, faster, more omnipresent—I prefer to make shorter trips. Or I prefer to make long trips like that with more flexible time available on either end. I suspect that the trip would feel quite different in the summer, too, without the battery choking on the frigid temperatures.
But, for all that I have been raised to expect the convenience of a gas engine, I think the more languid rhythm of a long EV trip is quite nice. And I think it’s vital that we build out better charging infrastructure to make those trips easier, because EVs are the only practicable way to move car-culture and long range personal transport past petroleum. I don’t think there’s anything inherently different about what is possible with an EV, I just need to change the way I think about structuring my trips in them: what would be a three and a half hour trip will be longer, and I’ll want to plan for more rests and more layovers, as it were.
This makes me think of rural America, and of small towns.
I actually think there’s a lot to be said for EV charging, and building business offerings around that, as a way to buttress the small communities that are so often simply passed and ignored by people on highways. When you’re nearly guaranteed to spend half an hour in a spot charging your car, you’re far more likely to look around and be tempted to eat or buy something. Gasoline vehicles will pull into a station and be out again three minutes later, there’s no captive audience there. But EV drivers are far more likely to want something to do, see, or eat while their vehicle prepares for the next leg of the trip. If an EV charging network can collaborate with local businesses, or if local businesses can band together to offer a charging station… that would be great.
Despite the harrowing nature of some pieces of my trip last week, I think EVs are great. I think they’re vital to weaning ourselves off petroleum, and I think they could be another way to bring people to the small communities that have withered along the sides of the highway for so long. Maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to see them succeed.