500 Miles in an EV—Some Observations

By Paul Gipe

We recently completed a 550-mile trip to Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo from Bakersfield in our Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle (EV). It’s not as far as many have driven, but it’s far more than most owners of EVs. That was one observation we came away with after the excursion.

The report on the trip itself will be posted separately. This post simply lists some of the observations we made. They’re in no particular order of importance.

Don’t turn up your nose at 120-volt receptacles for trickle-charging.

I had gone so far as to filter out all sites on Plugshare.com where only 120-volt charging was available. In my inexperienced mind, it just didn’t make sense to be aware of such stations—receptacles really. They are only suited for trickle charging and in a Leaf it takes 21 hours to recharge from an empty traction battery to 100% State of Charge (SOC). Who can afford the time on a road trip?

That was before we stopped at the Hyatt in Valencia on the return trip. I was sick and with a 26% SOC I didn’t look forward to two or more hours at the Nissan dealer re-charging. I simply wanted to go to bed.

As I poked around on Plugshare trying to estimate whether we had enough charge for me to drop Nancy off at a friends and return that I noticed two 120-volt stations in the vicinity of the Hyatt. As the GPS began to home in, one station looked like it was nearby. So I went downstairs and across to the parking garage and there on the right hand wall as you enter in big bold print was EV charging with two spaces reserved. How did I miss that I wonder? I pulled out our Leaf and moved it over to a free space and got out our gear.

Two plug-in hybrids were already there: a Volt and a Ford. I took up one of the receptacles in a two-receptacle box and pulled 9 amps. A trickle of a trickle charge for sure, but better than driving to the Nissan dealer.

Later the Ford left and our EVSE Upgrade pulled 12 amps, allowing us to charge at a little more than 1 kWh per hour. That was enough. I ate and went to bed.

When we left mid-morning, the SOC had reached 100%.

Don’t turn down the kindness of strangers.

Twice I needed help connecting a balky CHAdeMO (the same one) connector at Ventura’s DCFC station. The Nissan-branded NRG eVgo charger uses that clunky early Yazaki connector with its unwieldy lever and sliding lock. The lever was broken—pieces of it were lying on the pedestal—making it impossible to lock into place. Nevertheless, you could charge if you got it lined up right. Well I couldn’t get it and I kept getting error messages. Fortunately someone drove up, asked how long we’d be and when I told him I was having trouble, he jumped out and did it for me. (I had visions of spending the night in Ventura.) He said it happened all the time.

The next time a woman was charging and we chatted about the problem I had on the trip out. When she was finished, she asked if I wanted her to connect it for me. “Sure, that would be great.” She spent a few seconds mashing the connector around until she got the signal light and I was ready to charge.

Give me the Eaton DCFC.

After using the Eaton CHAdeMO and the Nissan branded version of NRG’s eVgo network, I am sold on the Eaton. The Eaton uses what looks like the Dyden connector. It’s also heavy and awkward, but it is clean and straightforward in comparison to that monstrous Yazaki connector. There’s no locking lever. There’s no locking collar to lock the locking lever. The Eaton connector plugs in just the same as the J1772. You push it in until it makes contact. Period. There’s a release button on top and an indicator light. There’s little reason for everyone to use the same funky Yazaki connector. Eaton chose not to. I am with Eaton.

Quite a few Leaf owners don’t know a lot about their cars, or how to take full advantage of charging options.

We met five Leaf owners on this trip in different locations from Ventura to Grover Beach. Not one of them knew about EVSE Upgrade’s service and the ability to transform the portable trickle charger that comes with the Leaf to a portable L2 charger.

Most used their trickle charger as their home EVSE. They took it out of the trunk, plugged it in at home, and that was the extent of their home charging.

This fit with what I found when I contacted a neighbor who had a Leaf. She used the trickle charger exclusively. In her case she didn’t leave it plugged in, she kept it in a box and every time she wanted to charge, she pulled it out of the box and snaked it across the garage to the nearest receptacle. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy with the car, and sold it soon afterward. (Her deceased husband had bought it.)

First, they were surprised that the portable charger could be modified, and second that this information was readily available.

Quite a few Leaf owners don’t know about MyNissanLeaf.com or Plugshare.com.

This too was surprising, but I guess most buyers don’t come to the Leaf the same way we did. We plugged (pun intended) into a local group of owners at an EV open house before we ever bought the car and the locals were quick to share their experiences, and sources of information. This included the usefulness of the Nissan Leaf forum and Plugshare.

The Leaf owners we met on this trip were more “typical” car buyers. I don’t know how much research they did before they made their decision, but they bought an atypical car. And most seemed blithely ignorant of how to take maximum advantage of what it has to offer.

One driver in a battered Leaf bought her car because it was electric. She didn’t have to buy gas. “I drive 3,000 miles per month, gas would bankrupt me,” she said. She used the DCFC station in Ventura exclusively for her trip from Ojai to Thousand Oaks every day! She couldn’t be bothered with Plugshare or MyNissanLeaf forum. “I don’t have time for that,” she said dismissively.

Few of the drivers we encountered had ever taken their Leaf on a road trip. One Ventura couple was intimidated by the drive from Ventura to LA or Valencia—all within easy reach.

Hardly any of the drivers had invested in their own EVSE, using the included portable trickle charger instead. One made the point that it was simply too expensive to install their own EVSE. I was dumbfounded.

Read Plugshare.com closely.

If a few days ago a user said a new DCFC station wasn’t yet functional, it’s unlikely to be functional when you get there.

Don’t believe everything you read on Plugshare.

Plugshare is crowd sourced or community created. As such it has “the” most extensive list of EVSEs and places to plug in of any network. But it’s only as accurate as the information posted by users. Most are very knowledgeable, and most information is accurate as can be. But there are anomalies.

For example, the filter entry for the Shorepower terminals at the Flying J truck stop in Lebec, California was only 120 volt, though the text clearly explained there were 208 volt terminals as well. If you filtered out 120 volt receptacles, the site wouldn’t show up. (I’ve edited the listing to correct this.)

In another case, there’s an entry of William Morris Chevrolet in Filmore, California. This could be a very useful stop for those of us from the San Joaquin Valley who want to drive to Ventura, eliminating a stop in Valencia. On the surface it would seem that with Chevrolet in the name that the LVSE would be limited only to Volts. Yet the entry notes that the EVSE is on the side of a “café” attached to the dealership and suggested it was likely open to other vehicles.

We stopped to check it out. No go. The café is part of the dealership and the dealership said the station was only for Volts. (We’ve updated the entry as a result.) This would have been a rude surprise if you were depending on it to get to your destination.

Find L2 stations within walking distance.

In two overnight stops, we chose our motel in part because there were L2 stations within walking distance.

At Santa Ynez we needed a good charge to drive the 50 miles to Grover beach. We got in later than we planned and couldn’t charge before turning in for the night. I didn’t want to leave the car in the lot overnight not knowing the local market’s protocol.

The next morning I drove the Leaf down to the market and plugged the car in at free ClipperCreek L2 station and walked back to the hotel. By the time we finished breakfast, packed up, and I’d walked back to the market, we had a complete charge for the drive to Grover Beach.

Slow down, you’re moving too fast, got to make the morning last now. . .

Driving an EV on a road trip reminds me of that refrain from a Simon & Garfunkel tune. You’ll get where you’re going, not the most direct way, not the fastest way, but you’ll get there—and you’re have more experiences along the way.

Tripping in today’s consumer-oriented EVs is a different way of travelling than what we’re accustomed to. You drive slower (you’re in the right lane most of the time). You stop more often—every 30 to 50 minutes instead of every 2 to 3 hours. You don’t get as far in one day, but you do get there—eventually. You spend more time in more places than you would otherwise, because  you have to stop and charge so often.

For example, I would never ever stop in Solvang in a conventional car. The town is much too Disneyesque for my tastes, but they have several L2 charge stations at the city’s public parking lots. So last weekend I found myself pulling into downtown Solvang. Nancy couldn’t have been happier. (There are lots of quaint shops.)

Stopping often broke up the trip into more segments than normal, and allowed us to engage more people in chats than driving straight through. For the most part EV owners are friendly and happy to talk about their cars, including their complaints. We only found one driver who had her urban guard up and was reluctant to talk with someone she didn’t know. Even she thawed some after we engaged her. A couple of the drivers really opened up and regaled us with their views on EVs and the Leaf they were driving.

Planning eases range anxiety.

Plan, plan, plan. That’s my proscription for range anxiety. I still had it at times. All, except the Bakersfield to Lebec segment, was new to us. I had a good idea what to expect, but, then again, we hadn’t done it yet. I was flummoxed by that awkward Yazaki connector at the Ventura DCFC station. It was beginning to worry me, but we’d allowed plenty of time for an overnight in Ventura if need be. And I already knew where the L2 stations were located should we need them.

I needn’t have worried. It was a busy station and someone plugged the connector in for me—both times we were there!

I planned the trip thoroughly with an ample reserve. My intent was never to end a leg below my “comfort zone” of 25% state of charge. While I didn’t fret, I did constantly monitor the SOC, my speed, and the power demand. I was watchful and tried to keep my power demand less than 2 or 3 “bubbles” on the power meter. With the exception of the first leg up the Grapevine, we only approached my comfort zone twice: once on that 48 mile uphill stretch from Goleta to Solvang, and another time on the 48 mile uphill segment from Ventura to Valencia.

Working range for us is about 40 to 60 miles.

While everyone knows that the range of a Nissan Leaf is 84 miles, no one actually drives that distance. In local urban driving, where you know the distance to your home charge station intuitively, you can push the limits and pull into the drive with 10% charge remaining. Not so on a road trip. There are too many unknowns. For us, 40 to 50 miles seemed about right, maybe 60 miles if we had to push our boundaries. At this distance, our range anxiety was under control though I always kept a watchful eye on our power demand and consumption to avoid any rude surprises.