Few things are more American than loading up the family and hitting the open road, soaking up sights and picnicking at roadside rest stops with a somewhat loose destination in mind. As gas prices fluctuate unpredictably, more and more families are turning to electric vehicles. Electric vehicle options like the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf serve day to day commuters well, but the true litmus test of a vehicle is the road trip – can an electric vehicle match the range and performance of an internal combustion engine on US interstates? We built two road trips using two of the most common electric vehicles: the Nissan Leaf (starts at $29,010 MSRP) and the Tesla Model S (starts at $70,000 MSRP).
Road Trip #1 – ‘Leaf’ It All Behind
The Nissan Leaf is a pretty standard hatchback with a 5 seat capacity and various engine and battery options to increase driving range. The SV model, starting at $34,200, sports a 30 kWh battery with a 107 mile range and enough tech to help even the most directionally-challenged driver take the right exit. The major challenge of taking a Colorado road trip in the Leaf is the somewhat limited charger network – it is supplemented with residential Plugshare spots along various highways, but the coverage is a little thin, especially northward into Wyoming and east into Nebraska. For our road trip in the Leaf, we chose Moab, UT as the destination. [See our route with charging stations here.] South on I-25 and west on I-70 provides plenty of opportunity for catching a charge at 100 mile intervals in Denver, Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction.
Using the PlugShare site, we were able to plan the trip and locate a number of available charging stations, a network of public stations, high power or ‘Supercharger’ stations, and even residential chargers that made it possible to make the entire trip with just 5 charging stops. With a conservative approach, we calculated that the longest you’d have to drive between charges on the seven and a half hour drive would be 98 miles. But the main question is how long does it take to charge back to full after driving all that distance? According to the Nissan Leaf Q&A site, where real live Leaf owners answer questions, one owner reported that the direct current chargers, or ‘super chargers’ can deliver a full charge in less than 30 minutes, while other owners reported that the typical home charger takes 4-5 hours to reach a full charge. In larger metro areas like Denver, super chargers are easily accessible, but they become less frequent as you head west on I-70. We determined that even if you stopped at every opportunity to charge, you’d have to wait a minimum of 15-30 minutes while the car charged. Which is ideal if you’re in a picture-taking mood, and who wouldn’t be in western Colorado?
Road Trip #2 – Your Road Trip, It’s Electric
For the Tesla Model S, we planned a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, perfect for the art-lover or southwestern foodie. With a range of 199 to 267 miles (depending on the model), the Model S makes an out-of-state road trip much more feasible. We calculated that you’d only have to stop to charge twice – once in Colorado Springs, and once in Trinidad, CO. Tesla is extremely proud of the fact that their Tesla Superchargers provide an additional 170 miles after only a 30-minute charge, and the company strategically places Superchargers along well traveled highways and in city centers. Almost all of the charging stations are located near restaurants, shopping centers and WiFi hotspots, and the Tesla app notifies you when your vehicle is charged. Our road trip route (seen here) pushes the range a little bit on the stretch between Trinidad and Santa Fe, but a Supercharger station in Las Vegas, NM, could supplement the final push into the city.
A road trip in an electric vehicle, while not impossible, takes a fair amount of planning. Just in researching two theoretical road trips, we utilized two different apps, four websites (PlugShare, Tesla’s Supercharger site, EZ-Charge, and of course Google Maps to calculate distances between charging stations), not to mention various resources on how to achieve optimal mileage, which can vary based on air temperature, speed, car load (how much mountain biking gear you have crammed into the back of your Leaf), driving style and topography. All this aside, as electric vehicle charging infrastructure becomes more built out and battery technology improves, the American road trip in an electric vehicle could very well become effortless, as you unplug and hit the open road.
The unknown impact of charging
One anticipated challenge of mainstream electric vehicle usage is the increased pressure it could place on energy infrastructure. Peak energy patterns indicate that residences tend to use the most energy between 7am and 9am in the morning, and then 5pm and 8pm in the evening If you followed the FortZED RDSI project, you know that the City of Fort Collins is focused on addressing peak energy challenges to maximize the efficiency of our current energy infrastructure. The challenge is that if everyone is driving electric cars, then coming home and plugging them in at 5pm on the dot, peak energy usage could skyrocket, putting a strain on existing power plants even while reducing emissions. To find out more about this particular problem, the City of Fort Collins and FortZED have partnered with Colorado State University and Innosphere to host Innovate Fort Collins - The EV Charging Challenge. This competition is calling for submissions, asking businesses to submit proposals for gathering more usage data related to electric vehicle charging and propose innovative, problem-solving technologies. To submit a proposal, you can visit innovatefortcollins.com and apply to be one of the companies that will present their idea at the Energy Transition Symposium on September 28-29.