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  • Jason Rapp

Exploring The US On Four Wheels: How To Plan A Better Electric Road Trip

One of the things that makes A Better Routeplanner special is that all of us who work on the project drive EVs ourselves and use them (and A Better Routeplanner) to take road trips. We use our own journeys to debug, dream up features, and try to design the tools we want to use to drive an EV.

Recently, we took a trip in my VW ID.4 from Texas to California and back again for a family member's wedding, and I thought it’d be informative to document the trip and how I used A Better Routeplanner (and how we envision A Better Routeplanner would integrate into anyone’s electric road trip). The trip was over a total of 2.5 weeks and covered more than 4700 miles. We decided to go on a road trip instead of flying to minimize the risks to our two young children, who couldn't yet be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Our ID.4 in all its not-dirty-from-the-trip-yet glory

To get an idea of the trip, here’s the route we took:

This rest area needs a fast charger or ten

One of our main goals with A Better Routeplanner is for it to be an easy tool to pick up and plan the day’s travels without much forethought. Many of us gung-ho EV enthusiasts love planning out every little stop along the way and knowing exactly what we’re getting into at each charge stop, but many consumers want to plug in their destination and start driving. I think we’re pretty close to that, and that’s what I tried to approximate on this trip:

  • Set all settings possible to ‘automatic’ (Consumption, SoC, weather, traffic, etc)

  • Live Data connected via Bluetooth OBD

  • Planned each day’s drive when we got in the car each morning using Android Auto

I recognize that for a lot of users, that middle bullet is probably a bridge too far, but we are working on other solutions that should simplify the Live Data setup. The goal of this write-up is not to sugar-coat the trip or A Better Routeplanner but to give a real glimpse into what driving an EV is like and some of our thoughts on our own use of the app.

Pretty much all of our charging was done at Electrify America stations and slow chargers/destination chargers at our overnight stops. This is due mainly to the way A Better Routeplanner picks chargers. Not only do we try to find the fastest charger, but we also give bonus points to chargers with multiple stalls because there’s a lower likelihood all of them will be broken. Electrify America generally has more stalls than the alternatives, and their chargers are well-placed near freeways.

Day One - Halfway to Albuquerque

On the first day of the trip, we hit the road excitedly. I’d driven many miles in our old Bolt EV, starting out before Electrify America had any stations of their own, and I couldn’t wait to see how the ID.4 held up on a really long trip. The drive in the ID.4 was great. If you haven’t driven one, the ID.4 is a very quiet and comfortable ride. This is perfect for facilitating naps for the kiddos.

Travel Assist was quite nice (though not quite as good as Autopilot or OpenPilot, in my experience). For those interested, the ACC was quite good, though it fumbled on cut-ins sometimes. The auto-steer was also quite good on well-marked roads, but there seems to be a relatively low torque limit, limiting the tightness of turns you can take at a given speed. I really do hope VW continues to improve it over time.

The ID.4 even has enough range to warrant some stops between fast charges so the kids can stretch their legs. We were consistently getting ranges of 220-240mi on the guess-o-meter at the quite high interstate speeds in the barren stretches of Texas (Often traffic is flowing at 85+mph, though we kept it to a limit of 80-85 mph). To be honest, it's extremely easy to speed in the ID.4; the smooth quietness of the drive makes it easy to forget how fast you're going. Like it was developed with the German Autobahn in mind.

A typical Texas Interstate, traffic moving along at ~80mph, faster in the left lane

Unfortunately, my experience in the Bolt EV and using earlier versions of the Electrify America app actually gave me negative training for starting charges in poor-signal areas. I got our first charge started easily enough, swiping the stall in the app, but at our second charge stop, I had very poor cell signal, so by the time my swipe made it from my phone to the charger, the car had timed out. I eventually got it working, and we were on our way.

This, however, was a prelude to the next charge stop, where it really came to a head. My phone’s connection was extremely poor, and I couldn’t get the charger to start. I switched stalls, tried the old 'hold the cable' trick from the Bolt, and after a frustrating 20 minutes, I called support. The representative shared the "secret sauce" for starting charges - NFC! NFC was by far the most reliable way to start charging at Electrify America stations, and I used it mostly successfully throughout the rest of the trip. For anyone interested in using this, make sure you have "Pay with NFC" set up in the Electrify America app: Accounts > Payment > Pay with NFC, then just tap your phone on the charger's NFC pad (grey with a wireless card/phone symbol) to start the charge. Doing it this way was basically instantaneous for me on the trip.

This was also the first charger where we encountered a charger issue we found to be common in the hotter regions of our trip: cooling-challenged chargers. Sometimes these would start out at the normal rate for the ID.4 (125kW) and then take big step-downs as the station found it couldn’t keep the cable cool. Sometimes, these would start at 30kW and stay there. I suspect a major contributor to the cooling problems with these chargers is the fact that they’re baking in the hot southern sun all day, every day. We’d pull into the charger, and the cable would already be hot to the touch, just from the sunlight. Not only that but being exposed to the hot sun while fruitlessly trying to start a charge just adds to the frustration. Thankfully, I was always able to find a charger at each of these stations that could keep up with the thermal load and provide full charge speeds.

This first day was fraught with frustration, and it was the only point on the trip where I found myself thinking that maybe I should have just spent the extra $18k and bought a Tesla. It really underscores the need for Plug & Charge; almost all of the issues that brought huge frustration were in just getting the charge started. In fact, later in the trip, I ran across stations that had been set to free and started charging immediately after plugging in. This was a fantastic experience and a nice preview of what’s to come for Plug & Charge.

We ended the day at a hotel in Vernon, TX, plugged in and ready to rest.

Day 2-3 - To the Grand Canyon via Albuquerque

On the second day, I left the hotel determined to have a good charging experience armed with knowledge. And it worked! All of the charges on the way to Albuquerque started without any issues.

Our first stop of the day was at a rest area in the middle of the Texas Panhandle without charging. It stood out to us because they had an excellent play structure for the kids. These rest areas would make excellent charging locations.

This rest area needs a fast charger or ten

Our navigation with A Better Routeplanner isn’t as good as the big players, but it never led me wrong. The main thing I encountered on the trip was extraneous instructions, such as ‘False Forks’. These are still a thorn in our side as we’re figuring out how to properly identify them and ignore them.

The Texas Panhandle is extremely flat, empty, and boring to drive through, but it's great to see a small part of what makes Texas the highest producer of wind energy in the nation

Having your navigation take your SoC into account is a really good experience, and Day 2 is a perfect example. Leaving our first charge stop, we had charged more than expected (kids take a while to eat lunch and run the wiggles out), and had more of a tailwind than originally accounted for with the planner's Live Weather forecasts. So within 15 minutes of leaving, A Better Routeplanner was proposing we save half an hour by skipping the next planned charge stop and catching a later one. I was happy to take it!

We pulled into Albuquerque with time to spare and stopped for a very nice river walk and dinner before pulling into our hotel.

After spending a day and a half getting through Texas, it was a surprisingly short drive through New Mexico and Arizona to get to the Grand Canyon. We took a hike near Albuquerque before heading west and saw a ton of millipedes out searching for morning dew.

We also stopped at the Petrified Forest National Park. I knew from looking at our route that morning that there was a slow charger at the visitor center, so we sat down and had lunch, picking up an extra 10% charge.

ABCs of an EV road trip - Always Be Charging! Don’t stress about making sure every stop has a plug, but if there’s a charger - plug in and get a few more electrons. One major success for the trip was charging every night at our hotel, or at RV parks near the hotels. It definitely sped the trip up starting each morning with a full charge

After lunch, we took the scenic drive through the Petrified Forest, though the kids quickly fell asleep, and we didn’t get to spend as much time exploring as we’d have liked. Next time!

Day 4-5 - The Grand Canyon

This blog post is about the journey, not the destinations, but I absolutely have to plug the Grand Canyon. It’s fantastic, and visiting mid-week, we had the place almost to ourselves. Plus, I got a fantastic shot of our ID.4 on the rim, which looked like something out of a commercial. Having a charger at the lodge made exploring the Grand Canyon an absolute breeze. The shuttles were also very convenient for exploration when there was no parking at trailheads, though they made us a little uncomfortable with the enclosed space with a bunch of strangers during COVID. The drivers did do a very good job enforcing the mask requirement, so that added some comfort back in.

Glamour shot at the Grand Canyon

We need to add a proper 3D map mode to really highlight the amazing landscape we can drive our EVs through

Day 6+ - To California!

The last driving day was similarly uneventful, and it’s a testament to the awesome efficiency of the ID.4, we only needed two charge stops from the Grand Canyon to my parents’ house in Southern California. As we got into California, we started seeing a lot more EVs at the chargers we stopped at. We even saw an absolutely gorgeous Porsche Taycan charging, and I chatted with the driver. He works for Porsche driving around the country testing Electrify America stations and identifying problems to help make the Porsche charging experience top-notch.

Driving around California was really quite interesting, for the first time we had real choices on charging, instead of having to stop at the pre-ordained next Electrify America station along the interstate, we could choose to charge early or late. It really drove home the need for us to prioritize adding the “Alternative Next Chargers” button to Android Auto, so that’ll be in work in the coming weeks.

It was also really cool seeing so many other EVs charging, probably the craziest stop was at Harris Ranch, with six Electrify America stalls next to a row of twenty Tesla Superchargers, with pretty much all of them full. We need more! More EVs and more ultra-fast chargers to go with them.

That fourth stall was filled shortly after this photo by a Hyundai Kona

Everywhere we stayed in California, we were able to plug in overnight, and even the Airbnb we rented for the wedding had just recently installed a NEMA 14-50 plug for that express purpose. It's very encouraging to see interest from the most unexpected places in supporting EV infrastructure.

Our ID.4 overlooking the Pacific Ocean, enjoying a beach day in California

Day E-3,2,1, Home!

The drive back home to Houston was more or less uneventful from a charging perspective. We ran into two more stations in Arizona with a few stalls that couldn’t keep up with the heat and charged at ~30kW max. It didn’t help that we were still getting very high temperatures, and these chargers were baking in the sun in 110°F heat. Electrify America isn’t the only one with these problems, even Tesla’s Superchargers slow down in the heat on occasion.

In Arizona, I talked with some new EV drivers and got to help them figure out the charging station and introduce them to A Better Routeplanner. One person I met even had A Better Routeplanner installed on his phone but had forgotten why he’d installed it. He was enthused to learn how easy it made the trip planning. It was also interesting to see how few people I met randomly knew about A Better Routeplanner. I think we are definitely an enthusiast's tool to some extent. The people who are really into their EVs and like to pre-plan their trips use A Better Routeplanner. We need to figure out how to reach those who don't do that, those who want just to plug in their phone and go. Part of the fun was in bringing up the name of our app, and it often resembled a rendition of the classic "Who's on First" sketch.

On the way back, we learned another cardinal rule of road trips - not only is it very important to have a slow charger at the hotel to top up overnight, but also make sure they have a pool! After pulling into the hotel at the end of a long day of driving, the kids often have a lot of energy to burn. Burning that energy in the pool made bedtime a lot easier.

We finally pulled in at home with electrons to spare. A long lunch break on our last day filled us up more than we needed, and we cruised home with no problems at all. We set to the task of unloading, settling back in, and making sure all the toys still worked the same as when we left.

Within 5 minutes of pulling into the driveway, our oldest had already gotten his electric tractor out and begun patrolling the back yard to make sure everything was still in order

Hardware for a Successful Trip

  • Cargo Box - We have a hitch-mounted Thule cargo box, and it sits inside the wind shadow of the ID.4. Aside from the extra weight going up over mountains, it had effectively no impact on our efficiency. Our calibrated consumption before leaving was 270Wh/mi, and on the road, it hovered right around 260-280Wh/mi.

  • Jesla Jr - The Jesla Jr I bought years ago for our old Chevy Bolt is still the best EVSE I can find on the market. For those unaware, it's a standard Gen 2 Tesla UMC with the plug converted to a J1772. I have almost every NEMA adapter and some that Tesla doesn't make, like a TT-30 adapter. We used this repeatedly on the trip to charge at RV parks or on outlets with the friends and family we stayed with.

  • TeslaTap Mini (60A) - This one turned out to be useful twice and is a nice item to have on hand for this kind of long road trip. Many of the hotels we used had Tesla Destination Chargers, which are often installed side-by-side with Clipper Creek J1772 EVSEs. When those were in use, the TeslaTap gave us a backup option.

Bugs Encountered

This trip was made while we were implementing the “Reference Images” for highways and interstates, and I’m always running development builds of A Better Routeplanner, so I ran into a few visual glitches.

The nice part about being on the dev team is being able to either fix these yourself or know the right person to talk to about getting them fixed. The extra nice part about being on a dev team that resides mostly in Europe is you can report some bugs before passing out at a hotel and have a fresh build in the morning before heading out again with the bugs fixed!

Instructions, while not bugs, are another area we could definitely use improvement on. The bulk of the instructions worked really well. Some lack detail, which is due to the varying availability of details on OpenStreetMap. For example, in rural areas, a lot of information is often missing, like lane details. Some are bugs in our routing engine, misidentifying what should be a fork or just ignored as an offramp we’re not taking.

The biggest source of ‘bugs’ is our relative lack of a true offline mode. A large portion of my trip off-interstate was in areas with poor cell coverage. At the Grand Canyon and in the mountains and foothills in California, cell coverage can be quite sparse. Some of these bugs were easy to solve, and are already live. But really, we need to think about this and come up with a much more cohesive offline framework to help you get off the grid with your EV.

Final Thoughts

Aside from the issues I mentioned, A Better Routeplanner worked fantastically well across the whole road trip. Having a consistent and accurate State of Charge prediction gave both me and my wife (who is a lot less familiar with all of this than I am) confidence on the long stretches of the interstate with few chargers.

Charger reliability issues are greatly overplayed, but understandably. When a charger issue does happen, it can be incredibly frustrating. The incident on our first driving day sticks with me, and if that was my only (or first) charging experience, I definitely would have been turned off by the whole idea. I personally think Plug & Charge is an absolute must-have technology to make it accessible to the general population. Charging is a big departure from the gas station flow with a lot more points of potential failure, which can be frustrating. A gas station merely needs payment to begin flowing fuel. A charging station has to establish communication with the car, authenticate, test the safety of the connection, and also process payment. And it has to do this all before the car decides to time out and give up. Most of the time, this works great, but sometimes your phone has a bad connection, and you can't get the "go" signal from your phone to the pump. This is a large part of why I'm not so enthusiastic about Tesla's 'easy' solution of having non-Tesla drivers start the charge from the Tesla app on their phones.

Finally, Charger locations could use some improvement. A lot was pretty great, in fact, we even saw a few at rest stops in California, which was incredible! But many were at barren parking lots at big box stores (I’m looking at you, Walmart) with not much to do. It didn’t help that we stayed outside as much as possible to keep our youngest’s exposure down (too young to wear a mask). That aspect I’d hope to see improved for future trips where that’s not a concern.

Would we do this trip again? Definitely. I would want to add some more down days between the driving days to see more sights. The driving/charging cadence was perfect, if not a bit too quick. We were never really waiting for charging to complete, the car was always done charging to the goal set by A Better Routeplanner 10-20 minutes before the kids were ready to get back inside. I don't think this trip would have been any more convenient if we had taken a fossil car. I heartily look forward to our future electric road trips!

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