One Finite Planet

The Electric Vehicle Road Trip Problem: EVs in Australian and USA as Examples.

First Published:

Table of Contents

In theory, and under ideal conditions, an EV road trip with DC rapid charging can be as time efficient as travelling in an ICE vehicle.

However, conditions are not always ideal. Some trips take much longer, and others can become problematic.

Will EV road-trips ever become as convenient and dependable as traveling by ICE vehicle?

The Problem: Road Trip DC ‘Fast’ Charging Can Suck.

Almost all trips in an EV match or exceed the convenience of travelling by ICE vehicle. The ability to charge between trips by plugging in when parked at home or other locations means starting each day with a full battery and never having to visit a ‘gas station’ or interrupt a trip…. until a single trip is longer than the range of the EV.

A single trip longer than the range of the EV becomes a ‘road-trip’.

While the perfect charging stop during a road trip involves plugging in when parked while the humans take a refreshment break, and the EV being ready to leave as soon as the humas are, stops can be far from perfect.

Currently in 2022, EVs at the fastest chargers still need 15 minutes to 30 minutes charging at a typical stop, which is very often longer than the humans will need to be ready, and that is if a working charger is available.

Even with the right planning, it is still possible to arrive just as someone else plugs in to the last working charger, creating an over 30-minute wait before charging can even begin, and often without an easy system to ensure that the person who should get to charge next, will get to charge next.

The ideal way to travel with an EV is to ensure all overnight stops provide EV charging, and to plan any needed stops during the trip to coincide with rest stops. Note of this planning is required when travelling in an ICE vehicle, and while gas station queues can happen, they move much faster than a queue at an EV charger. It is true that and pumps can be out of order, or even that a gas station can be out of the required type of fuel, but it is less common than broken down EV chargers art this time.

Generally, road-trips with an ICE vehicle have never required planning, or the use of apps equivalent to ‘plug-share’ or ‘a better route planner’ as used by many EV drivers.

Road trips with an ICE vehicle are simpler than with an EV, and ultimately can be quicker.

The problems with EV fast charging.

How big is the problem?

Almost all people who become disillusioned with EVs, do so due to lack of the ability to charge at home, not due to problems encountered when road trip charging.

As so much of the world works to pivot away from fossil fuels and the internal-combustion engine, a new study from the University of California, Davis, published in the journal Nature Energy last week, showed some concerning signs for what the auto industry still needs to get right. According to this study, which looked at California EV owners specifically between 2015-2019, 18% of electric vehicle owners switched back to a gas-powered car. For plug-in hybrid owners, 20% of them flipped back to a car solely powered by an engine.

The major takeaway from the EV flip-flopping lands in the lap of charging — specifically at-home charging. The lack of reliable Level 2 charging at home (that’s a 240-volt plug) was a major factor leading to EV “discontinuance,” as the researchers called it. 

Surprising number of EV owners switch back to gas power, study says

Note the study was from 2015-2019, mostly back when the Leaf was the top seller, and infrastructure in general was significantly worse than it is today. The main lesson is that potential EV buyers should think twice before buying an EV without having access to a power point where the vehicle is normally parked.

Fast chargers all being busy does happen, but mainly only peak times like thanksgiving in the USA, but in locations with only one working or two working chargers as is common in Australia, all it takes is a small coincidence. The fact that it is rare can make it worse when it does happen, as charging bays for EVs are typically just parking spots without the drive-thru setup that enables queueing at gas stations.

In summary, the problems are rare, but can be quite significant when they do arise.

Price of charging: The fastest charging is as expensive as fossil fuels.

The faster the charging, the more sophisticated the required equipment, and thus typically higher the cost per kWh.

Generally, in many countries, when using the fastest possible charging, road trips with an EV are equally expensive as road-trips with an ICE vehicle. The best solution is to plan trips with rest stops that allow the use of slower charging.

Here are some tests comparing the cost of charging with the cost of fossil fuel for a road trip:

While both of these tests stray from being fully representative, the result that when on a road-trip and exclusively using fast charging, the cost of charging is very similar to the cost of fuelling an ICE vehicle. This is because the price per kWh of electricity when fast DC charging is typically around 3x the price a consumer pays for electricity at home, and also significantly more expensive than charging at destination chargers.

It is possible that once the war in Ukraine ends and renewables power more of the grid, the overall price of electric will fall, but in the meantime, the solutions is to minimise the use of rapid DC charging.

Consider a road-trip day with 1,000 km (600 miles) of distance travelled. Given a typical EV has a highway range of over 300 km (180 miles), and the days driving could start with a full battery courtesy of either home or destination charging, reducing by 30% the amount of rapid DC charging required. On any day with a less aggressive driving distance target, the impact of starting the day fully charged will be greater, and opportunities for lower priced destination charging during the day will increase.

When owning an EV, the goal is to charge whilst parked and doing something else, and rapid DC charging is only for there has been no opportunity for a better way to charge.

Broken Chargers.

recent survey of 181 San Francisco Bay Area public charging stations, partially funded by the nonprofit Cool the Earth, suggests that 23 percent of them might be “nonfunctioning” at any given time, stymied by broken screens, shoddy credit card or payment systems, network connection failures, or damaged plugs.

Wired, April 2022: Broken Charging Stations Could Be Stalling the EV Movement

Another problem far more common for non-Tesla EVs chargers, is broken chargers. For some reason, chargers seem to be broken quite often. Again, apps such as ‘plug-share‘ show which chargers are broken, allowing drivers to avoid such problems, but it is another step that should not be needed eventually and is not needed by ICE vehicle drivers.

‘ICE-ing’

and ‘ICEing’

ICE vehicles parking in EV charging bays and preventing EVs from being able to charge is sufficiently common as to have been given a name: ICE-ing.

ICEing is ultimately caused by two primary reasons. These are limited parking infrastructure and ignorance concerning electric vehicles. The former is part of a broader societal problem in which the number of cars outweighs parking spaces; as a result, opportunistic drivers see EV charging spots as somewhere to leave their vehicles, regardless of its needs. The latter is multifaceted, often being driven by hostile perceptions of particular manufacturers (Tesla in particular) and stereotypical perceptions of EV drivers themselves.

Feb 2021: Electric Cars And ICEing: Here’s What You Need To Know

Sometimes it is deliberate, and by people who have something against EVs, and mostly it is people who are just using what they see as a free parking space. In Australia, the problem is most common in shopping centres, and is mostly not identified as related to any anti-EV stance, despite some previous attempts to politically polarise around EVs and the claims of EVs ending the weekend.

Both broken chargers and ICEing reduce the number of chargers below the level chosen as appropriate.

The two factors can even combine, with broken chargers resulting in charging bays being unused by EVs, further increasing the perception by others that the charging bays are never used by EVs, and thus wasted parking spaces.

Charging Queues.

There are two situations which can result in having to wait to access a charger:

  1. Peak times such as major public holidays, or peak travel days during seasonal holiday times.
  2. Coincidental arrival to charge at the same time as other drivers at locations with 1 or 2 functioning charge points.

The first of these can be anticipated, the second results from EVs being such a small percentage of vehicles.

Chargers with up to 4 charging bays, can be reduced to just 1, or even zero, functioning charging bays through broken chargers and icing. There are apps that can warn of broken chargers and chargers being in use, but they cannot warn that the remaining charger(s) are either blocked, about to fail, or just about to be used by someone else.

Provided infrastructure keeps up, as the number of EV users rises, the statistical chance of overloading charging point will reduce, but infrastructure keeping up is a big ‘if’.

While queues are so rare that most charging locations do not even provide for the possibility of a queue, when it does happen the time lost can be 30 minutes or even an hour.

Insufficient Chargers & Locations.

Tesla has the supercharger network, which is quite reliable and has quite a number of well-located chargers, but even this network shares the main charging network vulnerability: scale.

With so few EV drivers, the expected number of drivers at any charging station highly variable. In Australia, it is often zero, and rarely more than two at locations with 4 chargers. But it still does not take many people to happen to all arrive at once, particularly if one or two chargers are broken, before there is a considerable waiting time. Many charging locations have only two ‘chargers’, and it is common for one to be broken.

Head from Sydney to Canberra, the snow, or Melbourne, and the first main supercharger near the two-hour stopping time distance from Sydney, is the Goulburn supercharger, with a generous 8 superchargers. However, if you are the 9th Tesla driver to arrive within any 20-minute window, having departed Sydney on busy Friday afternoon/evening, you could be stuck waiting for a charger. Unlike waiting for a fuel pump, you could easily be waiting 20 minutes to get a charger. Waiting to get a charger is worse than waiting to charge, as charge time is predictable, and you don’t need to hang around.

While 8 superchargers at Goulburn is quite good, at Cooma there are only 4, and there would be times when it is likely more than half of drivers were headed to the snow, making a bottleneck at Cooma an even bigger risk.

Being stuck waiting for a Tesla charger is low risk, but the potential is real, and the impact would be significant, as it could turn a relatively straight forward stop into a real mess.

Over 60% of all EVs in Australia as of end 2022 are Teslas, but unlike Teslas that can also use other chargers, other EVs currently cannot use Tesla Chargers. At Goulburn there are three (3) fast 350kW chargers, and at Cooma two fast 350 kW stations and a 50kW station. Non-Tesla EVs are far more likely to fast chargers all busy, and currently, there is no option of using the Tesla chargers, although it has been announced that this will change in the future.

There are apps the indicate which chargers are in use, but it is still possible that someone arrives just before you and occupies the last charger just as you are pulling up.

Unlike gas stations, there is no easy system for queuing if chargers are all busy. So far, it is rare to be waiting at locations with more than 2 chargers, but with numbers increasing rapidly, the problem could get worse.

Links to more:

So there you go, first time experiencing the lack of and precarity of functioning from our charging network. Only one charger functioning (of 50kw in Goulburn, not counting the Campbelltown site) on arguably the busiest highway in the country is really poor I guess. I know Sutton Forrest is down because they’re adding more chargers, and we’re supposed to get (soon?) additional charging option in Hawks Nest too (?)[should be Pheasants Nest] but really not good enough.

Whirlpool forum.

Counterpoint: EV road trips can be more fun.

Frontiers and dancing bears.

Perhaps surprisingly, many people gain enjoyment from tackling the problems of EV road trips. The challenge of overcoming obstacles and getting an EV to do what it does worst in an environment not adapted to EVs can be fun.

I am reminded of an analogy of a dancing bear, that described how people pay to see a dancing bear, despite the dancing bear being well below the standard of a regular professional dancer. That the bear can dance at all becomes entertainment.

In the early days of ICEVs, people set off on road trips with an expectation of problems and a sense of achievement in simply reaching their destination, that some people feel is lacking in the modern world.

Here are some articles about EV road trips, that suggest some people find road trips better with EVs:

The Counter Point: When ‘slow charging’ is sufficient, life is better with EVs.

For local trips, people who can park their car with access to a mains electricity socket, can charge at home. Charging at home can be a genuine step forward in comparison to needing to visit gas stations, that given trips in practice are rare, that trade-off can be worth it.

Further, highway economy of ICE vehicles is better than urban economy, while the reverse is true for EVs. So, the road trips comparing ICEVs and EVs are comparing the ICEVs at their best economy, and the EVs at their worst. Conversely, local driving is more economical in EVs, and worse economy for the Audi. Electricity is also less expensive at home, as fast chargers buy the electricity from the same grid and must charge a premium for the use of their real estate and infrastructure.

Even in the USA, when not on road trips, the Tesla and Mach-E would have fuel costs of only half of they Audi. Plus servicing, and other costs are reduced. Almost all of the time not only do the EVs come out ahead on time and convenience, they also offer big savings.

This means, at least for those with a recharge socket at home, EVs overall would still be logically be better.

However, that pain on a road trip would be really annoying. All the convenience with ‘every day’ trips, still does not compensate for a road trip being a step back. For real success, there needs to only be steps ahead, and no steps back.

Road Trip Timing when all goes well.

Sample trips.

Sydney Melbourne.

Using ABRP, (a better route planner) with the base model Tesla Model 3, the suggested time is 8 hr 53 min of driving, and 1 hr 18 min of charging, for a total of 10 hr 12 min. Drive and stop pattern of:

  • drive 2h 10, stop of 16 min
  • drive 1h 41, stop 26 min
  • drive 1h 33, stop 18 min
  • drive 1h 40 stop 18
  • drive 1h 21.

Not that a 2022 Tesla Model 3 Long Range with 18-inch wheels can reduce the total charging time to 45 minutes when limiting recharges to 65% but does increase the vehicle price.

Using ABRP, with the Atto 3, overestimates charging times as the Atto 3 vehicle is in ‘alpha’ in the ABRP database, so the ATTO 3 charging time page is used for charging times.

The suggested time is 9 hr 6 min of driving, and 1 hr 17 min of charging, for a total of 10 hr 23 min. Drive and stop pattern of:

  • drive 2h 9, to Goulburn Gateway, 36->78% charger taking 20min
  • drive 2h 18, to Tarcutta, 10->57% charge taking 20 min
  • drive 1h 33, to Barnawartha North, 10->64% charger taking 22 min
  • drive 1h 44 to Avenel, 10-> 46% charge taking 15 minutes
  • drive 1h 21 to Melbourne arrive with 10%.

In both vehicles, the actual trip would be longer, as no one will time their stops precisely, although extra time at any stop but the last will largely mean less time needed at the next stop. Note, it turns out the Atto 3 is never charged beyond 65% on this trip, which ensures only the fastest part of the Atto 3 charging curve is used. Even in the Atto 3, there is less than 1h 20 of stops, and each stop need only be around 20 minutes. The overhead over travelling in an ICE vehicle could be in an hour for those who could take all the stops they need, and one probably needed refuel all within a total of 20 minutes, but that would require either driver swaps, or ignoring recommended rest stops entirely. If setting records is the goal, the EV will not be desirable.

The biggest delay will result if, for example, a specific stop for lunch was desired that was not close by an EV charging station. Or another rest stop was desired to be near a picturesque nature spot.

Sydney Canberra.

I was initially unsure that the Atto 3 would manage Sydney to Canberra without a stop to recharge could be close to the limit given the trip gains elevation and as mostly at 110 km/h, but it is now established that it is no problem. Personally, I would stop at least for a short break and could gain extra buffer by doing so. The return trip can be done without a refuel stop in an ICE vehicle, and this is simply impossible in an EV. A one-day return trip to Canberra using an EV needs to allocate time to be spent with the vehicle on a fast charger.

Sydney to Broken Hill.

While the Atto 3 can manage the trip, Dubbo to Cobar is 297 km, and as such best travelled only when starting with a full charge, or at least 97%, despite charge at Dubbo at on the 50kW charger available requiring over an hour. The trip is still quite manageable but charging over 85% to get the range needed in the Atto 3 starts to add significantly to trip times, as does the fact that chargers Dubbo and Cobar are only 50kW chargers.

This trip has morphed from the nature of the trips to Melbourne and Canberra, which for most people in most circumstance would see only minor impact and an increased emphasis on planning, into being a trip with a degree of adventure. The planned NRMA charger at Nyngan will largely eliminate the adventure, but the trip is getting to the limit of trips without more preparation.

Adelaide Perth.

Suggest Adelaide to Perth on a better route planner and it will give up. The trip across the Nullarbor in an EV is certainly possible, and there are pages on the web explaining precautions and the extra charging adapters required. Given that fuel pumps require electricity to operate, there is nowhere that diesel or petrol can be purchased without also access to electricity. On this basis, no trip possible in an ICE vehicle is not also possible in an EV.

However, some trips should not be taken in just any ICEV, or just any EV. Plus, some trips in an EV should only be taken with extra 3 phase charging adapters. With the right adapters, and Atto3 could manage the trip across the Nullarbor, but even then, it could easily take more than twice as long as the same trip in an ICE vehicle.

A far better vehicle would be something like an Aptera EV, with 1,600km of range, and off-road kit, and solar charging able to still make the trip even if all refueling stations stopped operating. In reality, by the time an Aptera is available in Australia, there will be more fast chargers, and as long as the fuel stations are working, it would cease to be a challenge in the Atto 3.

There is the analogy of a ‘dancing bear’. It can be entertaining to see the bear dance, that the bear can dance at all may be impressive, but when casting the next ‘Swan Lake’, the bear would not be the best choice. There will always be some trips for which the Atto 3 is just a ‘dancing bear’, in that an ordinary EV may be able to make the trip and managing the trip in an ordinary EV may be very enjoyable for some people, but an ordinary EV is far from the best vehicle to cross the Nullarbor.

Travelling the Nullarbor and other routes far off the beaten track means requires carrying three phase and caravan adaptors. AC charging speeds matter, and the current Atto 3 with 7kW AC charging is a poor choice, and while Teslas, with 11kW AC charging are better, 11kW is not great either, but it is all modern EVs normally offer, and converter units often cost over $10,000.

EVs that are suited to travelling long distances in the outback may be available in future, but they are not here now.

Examples of ‘road trips can suck’.

The Marcus Brownlee 2021 2-day road trip.

Electric vehicles currently suck on road trips, demonstrated by Marcus Brownlee in this video, in the US with his 2-day road trip, driving the:

  • Audi Q5 gas ICE vehicle takes 18 hrs 39 minutes
  • Tesla Model S ‘plaid’ takes an extra 1 hr 32 minutes.
  • Ford Mustang Mach E (EV) takes an extra 6 hours 35 minutes.

This proves 2 things. On the trip in question, even when all goes well, there is a significant time penalty (1 hr 32 minutes), but when all goes wrong, there is a huge and unacceptable time penalty.

The huge extra delay for the Ford Mustang Mach E was caused by:

  • Faulty electric vehicle chargers, and use of the Ford app which did not correctly locate appropriate chargers.
    • Using a better app vastly reduced the time penalty on day 2.
  • Less non-Tesla chargers, particularly in the USA.
    • Tesla is opening their chargers up to no Tesla cars, although plugs in the USA are a problem.

Both these problems can be overcome over time, but right now the experience is real, and even then a road trip would still be sub-par compared to an ICE vehicle, which hardly sounds like progress.

You would save some some money, but particularly in the USA where gasoline prices are some of the lowest in the world, not that much on a road trip:

  • Audi Q5: $84.79
  • Tesla Model S ‘plaid’: $66.35
  • Mach-E: $61.25

The Tesla is particularly impressive given it has more acceleration than any road going Ferrari or Lamborghini etc, yet those vehicles would be far less economical. At the other extreme, there are some countries in the middle east were gasoline is even less expensive than the USA.

Simpler, The Mach-E problems: OK, six months and fixed?

Today, in the USA, people have to deal either buy a Tesla, or face the situation face by the Mach-E. Reviewing the Mach-E problems:

  1. Faulty electric vehicle chargers, and use of the Ford app which did not correctly locate appropriate chargers.
    • Using a better app vastly reduced the time penalty on day 2.
  2. Less non-Tesla chargers, particularly in the USA.
    • Tesla is opening their chargers up to no Tesla cars, although plugs in the USA are a problem.

Both of these problems for non-Tesla owners could be solved soon, as Tesla is opening their chargers to all. The problem is the USA is that unlike most of the world, Teslas in the USA use a proprietary charging plug. This could delay Tesla charging stations being an viable option for cars without that proprietary plug. Outside of the US, this problem is already far less significant, as you would see from videos by people such as Bjorn Nyland.

So, in the US, this problem should be solved, outside the US, it is solved.

Even With a Tesla, The ICE Experience is better: For how long?

The biggest problem with the test, as pointed out in a comment to the video by @JerryRigEverything that received over 200 replies: “I think you should have let the EVs charge to max at the hotel. Since that’s one of the perks of an EV. Most hotels have at least one destination charger that’ll work with either plug.”

Reality is hotels don’t all have destination chargers yet, but as EV numbers grow, they could become essential. Batteries do not get refuelled, they have energy added, which means as opposed to needing an exact fuel, their energy could come any source, but the trade-off is that batteries are best recharged while sleeping (link to be added). Recharging overnight on road trips is the way to offset that even rapid charging may always take a few minutes longer than refuelling, but as charging does not need supervising, it can also happen overnight, saving a recharge stop during the day.

One recharge saved is not enough to eliminate the 1hr 32 minutes to recharge the Tesla Model S plaid, but a Lucid Air, or even an efficient, less high-performance car such as a Hyundai Ioniq 5, the combination of the overnight charge and faster recharges, could cut that different down to less than 15 minutes. Realistically, while it seems hard to see that last 15 eliminated, with a trip of one more day, or a different combination of rest/meal stops while driving, given the EV can charge while you rest and the ICE vehicle must be attended while refuelling, the time difference could certainly be eliminated.

Sorry Tale of Broken EV Chargers.

On the return journey, we arrived at Mortdale with 22% left in the battery.  This is where things started to go awry.  Based on my previous experience, I figured we needed about 33% charge to get home so I took advantage of Jolt’s free first 7 kWh daily offer, putting in 6.5 kWh into the battery.  That gave us 140 km for the 129 km trip home – plenty of headroom, or so I thought.  

Another sorry tale of broken EV chargers and unrealistic range expectations

Yes, again EV fans can point out the obvious mistakes that could led to the problems, and how this could also happen with an ICEV if making the same mistakes, but the truth is the mistakes are the type that is common with people new to EVs, and that same person had not made the same error in previous years of driving.

The bottom line is that there are traps to road-trips with EVs beyond those tackling the same trips with ICEVs. Yes, they can be avoided, but it takes some planning to ensure they are avoided.

Solutions For Road Trips.

I previously concluded that in 2021, EVs simply don’t add up yet other than for those that willing to sacrifice for the environment, but predicted that by 2025, that will have turned around.

Will the ‘time penalty’ and road trip limitations also have turned around?

The situations for DC fast chargers will continue to improve, but what is not clear is whether installation of chargers will outpace uptake of EVs. Battery sizes will likely continue their slow rise and may reach between 80 and 100 kW by 2025 and provide range@100km/h of 500 kms. Overall, the situation will continue to improve, but even by 2025, only specialist EVs will match the range of over 1,000 kms available on some ICE vehicles today, and largely eliminating the need for rapid DC charging.

Conclusion and Where to Next.

In practice, to deliver the relatively problem free experience of today’s ICEVs when on a road trip, EVs still need longer than typical range, plus state-of-the-art recharging and chargers.

With all of that and destination charging, EVs could one day be better at road trips than ICEVs, but today that means rare and expensive EVs, and charging infrastructure that will take years if not decades to be deployed.

That said, for the bulk of road-trips, combine destination charging with a fast-charging EV and the difference is negliable.

The problem is managing that minority of road-trips with inadequate or faulty charging infrastructure and when things go wrong. Without a positive attitude and a spirit of tackling an adventure, things can go very wrong.

How long before what is the best available today (2021) is the average available? I think 5 years is enough. Which means if you are buying a new car to keep for a while, a trade of while on road trips for the first 1 or 2 years could be worth it given the benefits outside of road trips.

Well….as long as you either don’t face, or can deal with, the problems of either apartment, or on street parking. And you are buying a new car.

Update Log:

  • 2022 December 03 : Australia examples.
  • 2021 September 18: First published.

2 Responses

  1. Electric cars alone won’t ‘save us’ and the transition to EVs will take over 20 years, hopefully by which time the grid is cleaner and the two combined will make a big difference. There is no long-term resource problem beyond that of ICE vehicles and evolving battery technology to sodium and other metals together with the elimination of the need for rare earth metals already in place will see prices continue to fall until EVs cost less than the alternative. The biggest problem is that it all takes time that from a climate perspective, may be a big problem.

  2. EV’s are not the solution to the long term problem of DECLINING RESOURCES!
    EV’S are EXPENSIVE, they take too darn long to charge & then there is the incompatable plug problem which can be solved.

    With so many parts of the world suffering energy shortages, just HOW can we expect to charge even MORE EV”s?

    The drought in California has shut down one of their most important source of electricity, Oroville’s resavor is so low, they had to shut down it’s generators, more generators will soon suffer the same fate, shut down.

    Another problem is RESOURCES!
    Electric cars are still DEPENDENT UPON RESOURCES INCLUDING OIL, COAL & NATURAL GAS! We cannot replace declining resources with an resource dependent technology.
    It’s expected that by 2025, lithium & cobalt will be in short supply.

    https://www.treehugger.com/why-electric-cars-wont-save-us-there-are-not-enough-resources-build-them-4857798

    Thanks to automation & outsourcing, millions of us lost our good paying jobs, low wage workers struggling to just pay the rent AND eat, cannot afford to buy an EV, being RENTERS they also can’t put solar panels on their LANDLORDS roofs & low rent apartments won’t have EV charging stations either.

    EV’s will simply be another toy for the RICH, they cannot replace our current transport system.

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