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The Electric Car Road Trip of the Future

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author photo by Nick Chambers July 2011

With their short ranges and relatively long charging times, all-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi i-MiEV may not seem like the best choice for a road trip vehicle, but given the proper infrastructure and an adventurous attitude, a road trip in an electric car is within reach.

Some early adopters have already pushed the envelope, taking their electric cars on trips that only a few years ago seemed far-fetched. In April of this year, electric car advocate and blogger, Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, took her Leaf almost 520 miles across the British countryside over a span of 48 hours.

She was able to accomplish this feat of traveling more than 7 times the car's EPA-rated driving range of 73 miles on one charge by stopping at a series of so-called DC fast charging stations, where an electric car can add up to 80 percent of a full charge in about half an hour. In her native Britain, a handful of these types of charging stations already exist at a network of Nissan dealerships.

"Our Leaf behaved impeccably, we saved a lot by not buying gasoline, and it was a success," said Gordon-Bloomfield after the trip. But she also said the trip was not without some "severe negatives," noting that they had to drive during business hours to be able to access the charging stations and spent long times waiting at "child-unfriendly" dealerships.

In June of this year, self-proclaimed electric car evangelist, Jerry Asher, took his Leaf on a trip from Santa Monica, California, to Tucson, Arizona - a distance of more than 600 miles - using nothing but the low- to moderate-speed charging available via standard household outlets and a couple of 240-volt charging stations located at Nissan dealerships along the way. Jerry's trip took him a full eight days to complete, but he had set out to have "as leisurely of a trip as possible" and saw the extra time as a benefit.

"Everyone is traveling so fast these days, they hardly have time to discover things along the way," said Asher in an interview with AutoTrader. "Taking a bit of extra time enhances the experience and gets us out of that 75 mile per hour mindset."

While these intrepid EV owners seem to be accomplishing things that the average car owner can't - or perhaps doesn't have time - to do, their feats are not all that removed from the ordinary. In fact, in some areas of the United States the ability to almost effortlessly use all-electric cars for longer road trips is quickly becoming a reality.

Your Mileage May Vary

Aside from the sparse infrastructure these early adopter adventurers took advantage of, there has been an explosion of public charging stations for electric car drivers in many regions of the world - and the US is no exception.

Funded in part with federal dollars - but including significant private investment as well - by the end of the year there are plans to install more than 10,000 public charging stations in the US, with a large portion of them concentrated up and down the West Coast on the Interstate-5 corridor from northern Washington to southern California.

These public charging stations will be a mix of both 240-volt moderate speed stations and the much faster DC fast charging stations. The stations are largely being installed by a handful of companies that won various federal, state and local contracts including ECOtality, Coulomb Technologies and AeroVironment.

With the availability of DC fast charging, a properly equipped electric car could make the 1,200 mile drive from Seattle to San Diego in about four days time -only twice what it normally takes in a conventional car.

Among the West Coast states, Washington has gotten a head start on the future of electric car road tripping by building the nation's first "EV-friendly scenic tourism corridor" along US Route 2 from Seattle across the Cascade Mountains into central Washington. The corridor will be anchored by a series of federally-funded DC fast charging stations and more than a dozen tourism-related businesses in central Washington have already begun installing their own public 240 volt stations in preparation for the coming EV traffic.

Be Prepared

If you've got that adventurous spirit and think you can spare a bit of extra "leisure time," the first step in getting ready for an electric road trip should happen before the car is delivered. To take advantage of high speed DC fast charging along the way, the fast-charging equipment option needs to be included when the vehicle order is placed. For instance, the Nissan Leaf supports DC fast charging, but it costs an extra $700 and requires the upgraded SL trim level. Mitsubishi's i-MiEV will also support DC fast charging as an extra cost option when it launches in January 2012.

Keep in mind that Nissan doesn't recommend using DC fast charging very often, saying that frequent, repeated use can damage the vehicle's battery. However, this is a bit of a gray area given that Nissan fully supports the rollout of DC fast charging infrastructure and says that occasional use should be fine.

In addition to the vehicle equipment you'll need to know where the charging stations are located. Nissan's Leaf has a built-in navigation database of known charge points, but given that many different and unrelated contractors are installing the stations at a breakneck pace, the Leaf's database tends to lag a bit. Other options include websites like Recargo.com and Plugshare.com, both of which provide smartphone apps and are crowd-sourced - meaning that users have the ability to update charging locations as they find them. There are also two major networks of charging stations - ECOtality's Blink Network and Coulomb's ChargePoint Network - that have their own maps and smartphone apps.

Right now electric car road trips certainly aren't for everyone - let alone every electric car driver - but early adopters are proving what can be done, and the coming network of charging stations in early deployment regions will make it possible for every electric car owner to attempt such a feat if they choose.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Electric Car Road Trip of the Future - Autotrader