The Problem Is Not Range Anxiety, It’s Charging Chaos: A Report From A Nissan LEAF Adventure
Last month we once again became part of the InsideEVs sales scorecard statistics, signing up for a 2-year 2014 Leaf lease. Interestingly, in July 2014 our lease was one of 3,019 Leaf sales, whereas in August 2012 when we first met Da Leaf, we were one of 685; quite a progress, no?
So perhaps it’s a good opportunity to share the story of our most ambitious day trip with our beloved 2012 ocean-blue Leaf, now back in Nissan’s hands and hopefully finding a new home soon (I’m spying on it every other day… haven’t seen it sold yet).
The story starts in late December 2013, when we made a two-night holiday hop to Portland (in a stinky old ICE car, b/c I deemed the trip infeasible given our winter range). Midway between Seattle and Portland lies the mysterious wonder of nature known as Mima Mounds (which are low, flat and domelike natural mounds up to 150 feet wide).
It was our first trip there, the weather ended up being reasonable, and the walk was great. During our walk we met a nice elderly ranger, who strongly recommended coming back in May, when the mounds are in bloom and there’s a festival called Prairie Appreciation Day.
And so our adventure was conceived. The Love of my Life thought, “I want to go there in Spring!”, and I thought, “We can go there in our Leaf!”.
The festival took place Saturday May 10. In the week prior, I haunted the Plugshare website and plotted our attack. The Prairie Appreciation main location was some 85-90 miles drive from our home, with zero charging opportunities at the destination itself. But the Tumwater L3 station, just outside Olympia, is 70 miles away – perfectly situated.
In fact, if all goes well, the 80% there should suffice to get us to Mima, then back all the way to the L3 at Fife outside Tacoma, with 40 miles remaining to get home. A 180-mile day trip with only 2 QC stops? Sounds great.
But there were still wrenches waiting to be thrown into my little plan. First, according to Plugshare, the Tumwater charger was out of order. The most recent entry (around May 5) said a tech was on his way from California. On Friday May 9th, I called the operator Aerovironment, and they confirmed that a tech fixed the issue a day earlier. Station was operational, even though Plugshare still didn’t have any up-to-date positive user report.
If Tumwater falters, our fall-back would be the L3 at Olympia Nissan, a couple of miles off the highway. After some checking it turned out that the Olympia L3 is now operated by ChargePoint and costs money even for Leaf drivers. I have the ChargePoint card, but since I’ve never needed to use a ChargePoint station I haven’t bothered to put down the $25 needed to activate it, and was reluctant to do so at this time either. If push comes to shove, I hoped I could manage the activation over the phone in real time.
The Fife Blink location (for the way back) nominally has two QC spots, but one of them was reported broken. The other one seemed to work with daily “all OK” entries.
On Saturday we set out of home around 11 (this is early for us!). In previous highway excursions we’d driven the Leaf as if it was ICE, i.e. ~65 MPH and sometimes even 70. But having learned from the sages at MyNissanLeaf, I knew how to drive this time: cruise control set to a rock-solid 55. It felt a bit strange; at one point a Model S zoomed by, seeming to laugh at us. But it did stretch the range. We rolled into the Tumwater station with 7 miles on the Guess-O-Meter…. only to see another Leaf there, apparently it has just gotten in because it wasn’t even charging yet!
Like all Aerovironment stations in Washington, Tumwater is single-charger so there was nothing to do but wait and chat with the other Leaf driver. Turns out he was a complete newbie, he still had the dealer’s temporary permit. He was en route from Auburn to Centralia to watch his grandson play soccer there, and his car computer “told him to pull over and charge” at Tumwater. A stupid instruction, since there’s only 65 miles between Tumwater and Centralia, and that town has its own L3. Being a newbie, he had to register with Aerovironment de novo. His entire phone process took some 15 minutes, plus a few minutes before we got there when he was waiting for them to answer. This was followed by less than 15 minutes actual charging.
Our buddies for the day-trip, Israeli expat friends with a Toyota Highlander, set out from Seattle some half-hour after us. I had thought we’d reach the Prairie more-or-less together, but now I called and let them know we’re delayed. Being the amazingly good sports that they are, and always looking for a good laugh, they decided to stop by and keep us company while telling EV jokes. They rolled in just as we started the process ourselves.
I called Aerovironment and paid over the phone. I was registered to the system, so it was shorter for me, but still took some 7-8 minutes (as a bonus, I discovered they charge tax on top of the $7.50 for a total of $7.79). At last we started charging, while passing the time with our amused friends and taking trips to the really, really stinky restroom in the gas station’s convenience store.
Suddenly our friend said “it says ‘Charge Complete’!”, but it was a bit soon. The AV charger claimed it filled our Leaf from 23% to 89%, to the tune of 11.4 KWh. Those numbers didn’t add up. Even assuming we had some 10% undeclared emergency stash in our battery beyond the 7 miles on the dial, I still expected getting at least 13-14 KWh from this session. There was reason to suspect we’d only been charged to ~70% instead of 80%.
By the time we left Tumwater, we’d spent well over an hour there. We had to rush to the festival location, getting there shortly after 2 PM, when the official closing time was 3. We didn’t quite get to all the booths which are literally scattered about on the hills (it’s a really great festival, by the way, highly recommended). But we still enjoyed ourselves. Afterwards we decided to add a 3-mile round-trip detour to the “official” Mima Mounds visitor site, where the mounds are most TeleTubbies-like – and then headed back.
When we hit the I-5 again we saw our problem: the G-O-M (and also the bar indicator) suggested we are a good 5+ miles short of reaching Fife. Evidently the Tumwater L3 *did* shortcharge us. I slowed down to 52-53 MPH – can’t really go any slower without becoming a freeway hazard, this stretch of highway has a speed limit of 70 – but things didn’t get better. Given the negative experience at Tumwater on our way in, stopping there again for an extra boost was out of the question.
Instead, my wife spotted on her Android Plugshare a conveniently located 4-plex L2 near Sears in Lacey, a few miles ahead just off the highway. With two growing boys in tow, we had no shortage of new clothes they might need. So for 55 minutes we wandered the halls of Sears, emerging with at least one article of clothing for each of us, to reunite with our Leaf, 15% better than before (blink, $1). By now it was getting dark.
We arrived at the Fife L3 – possibly the busiest one in the state – with 8 miles on the G-O-M. Indeed, only one charger was working. Fortunately there was no one ahead of us this time, the charge costs a straight $5, is card-operated with no need to call, and the L3 plug is of the new improved push-in type. Meanwhile we spent an enjoyable pizza dinner with some live rock music at Louie G’s some 10 minutes walk away; turns out it was battle of the bands night or something.
By the time we got home it was after 11. Of the trip’s 12 hours, only 4.5 hours or so were spent at our destination. Sure, some of the dead time en route was converted to reasonably useful and even enjoyable ends (shopping, dinner with live music). But still. That was a destination that in an ICE, PHEV or Tesla would have taken under 1.5 hours drive each way, and on the merits it shouldn’t have taken more than 30 minutes extra each direction with a Leaf.
What’s wrong? It’s not range anxiety. It’s Charging Chaos. I won’t provide a litany of all that’s wrong in the “system” that’s supposed to enable a trip like we’d taken – you can figure that out for yourselves. Rather, I prefer to focus on a vision of how things can and should be.
Sub-100-mile, and ~100-mile BEVs are here to stay. There are already ~60k of them on US roads. Even when 120-mile-plus affordable BEVs become reality – oh, I’d love to get us one – shorter range BEVs will continue to be an excellent economic and environmental choice, besides all the BEV oldies and beaters that should become part and parcel the permanent motorized scenery.
For these BEVs, quick-charging makes the occasional long day trip, or road trip, a viable experience, even an enjoyable one if the stops are in a pleasant enough location. Reliable quick-charging can embolden BEV drivers to get rid of their “insurance” ICE vehicles, which often sit and do nothing except for such trips.
True, there are local heroes like Steve Coram, who already take any length of BEV trip on the existing system, come what may. But there are far more people like my family: road-trip-curious, but would like some minimum standard of reliability and convenience. For this silent majority, we will need (in decreasing order or priority):
- Reasonably-spaced QC locations along major highways – in the beginning perhaps every ~20 miles, but eventually at least every 10 miles.
- Each location should be multiple-charger, like the Tesla Superchargers. Well, at least two QC charging spots per location, for starters.
- Plug-and-play operability. Just like one expects to pump self-service gas after swiping a card or sliding in a bill, the current situation with QC operators is simply ridiculous. So I applaud the Nissan initiative for a single cross-network charging card; it’s a first step in the right direction (still waiting for that magical card, a month after we got the car…).
- As non-CHADeMO vehicles multiply (I believe there are already a thousand or so SAE Combo vehicles out there – Spark EV and BMW i3), QC stations should become multi-standard.
This is a classic case of “If you build them, they will come”.
The initial push for charging stations in 2010-2012 had focused too much on L2 chargers. It turns out that the best place for “slow charging” is at home, and the second-best at work. The glut of unused L2s in strange locations (like that Lacey 4-plex, a total overkil) has provided ammunition to anti-EV advocates, but has also masked the real lack of near-highway L3s.
In our state, all the major L3s have been around for a couple of years. The two locations we used on that trip, are the only ones on I-5 between Seattle and Centralia; that’s about 100 miles with some of the highest Leaf concentrations in the country. Going east of Seattle on I-90 is even worse, there’s nothing until Snoqualmie Pass which is right at the boundary of a 2011-2 Leaf range.
Meanwhile, charging networks are still looking for a viable business model; this probably explains why they have been unwilling or unable to accommodate the surge in Leaf sales by building more L3s. Even the newer EVGo is reluctant; see the smarmy response their rep gave an Oregon driver wondering about that elusive northern-Califonia gap.
So this is where leadership from other interested parties is needed: government, EV makers and – yes – electrical utilities. They have, or should have, a clear interest in EV expansion. Building a network that makes any QC-equipped BEV road-trip capable, will immensely help that.
Back in May, I emailed a shorter description of our adventure to the Washington Governor’s office. Gov. Inslee has been a clean-energy advocate long before entering office, however we haven’t seen a lot of EV infrastructure progress so far in his tenure, because he’s been sandbagged by two turncoat Democrats who set up a coalition with the GOP in the State Senate. It’s sometimes amazing how a couple of idiots can derail the work of so many good people.
My letter also wondered, how come if we pay an annual $100 EV surcharge, we’re not seeing QC stops pop up every other week. The Governor’s office referred my letter to the DOT, who responded in quite a bit of detail. Here’s a key quote from the letter, signed by Tonia Buell, Project Development and Communications Manager, Public-Private Partnerships, Washington State DOT:
Thank you for your suggestions. We agree that the DC fast charging network needs to be strengthened and expanded to better serve electric vehicle drivers in Washington.
The problem is finding the funding to build out the infrastructure. The 12 DC fast charging stations in the West Coast Electric Highway network were federally funded with US Department of Energy grants through the American Recovery and Reinvesment Act [that explains it… – AO]. Those limited funds were short-term and are no longer available.
The $100 EV registration renewal fee is deposited into the motor vehicle fund to be used only for road maintenance and operations. Legislative approval would be needed to change the use of the funds. There is a proposal in the next transportation package bill that would temporarily divert that funding to an EV Infrastructure Bank for charging infrastructure. [Transportation package was aborted by the State Senate; the state hasn’t had a transportation package in years – AO]
We continue to seek other financial solutions…
Well, regardless of which state you’re in, a viable QC network is not a far-fetched idea. Once a semblance of a reliable network exists, the word will spread and people will use it. Until then, it’s quite an adventure out there… go ahead and try it – it’s really great – but do you homework and be ready with back-up plans.
Oh, and try to leave home before 11. We’re still working on it.