My partner and I are in the market for a new car.
The lure of an electric car is high with their much lower maintenance costs and not having to worry about gas prices. One of the things that gave us pause was their utility on road trips around California. The state has some of the world’s most beautiful areas and we are determined to visit as many as we can.
This past Memorial Day we put road trip concerns to the test.
Months ago my partner booked a campsite at Gold Bluffs Beach, a campsite located in Redwood National Park.
The campsite was located about an hour and half north of Eureka. Between the two of us we have one car, a stick shift 2009 Volkswagen rabbit with a trunk that refused to open.
We kicked around the idea of renting a car and were almost going to do so. A few days before the trip my parents mentioned that we could take their electric car as they weren’t really going to use it over the Memorial day weekend. We were hesitant at first, but the price tag on a rental car for a weekend pushed us over the edge.
The biggest learning we had about driving an electric car on a road trip is that it requires the journey itself to be much more thought out. Electric charging stations are not as accessible as gas stations, so the trip has to be planned around stopping strategically along the route. We used an app called Plugshare along with the Electrify America app to map out our route before we even started.
Typical charging sessions last between 20 - 30 minutes to get up to an 80% charge. After 80% the charge rate slows down considerably in order to protect the long term health of the car battery. Given this six hour trip would require up to four stops to charge, we had to budget for an additional two hours on our journey.
In addition to having your primary stations it’s important to have an understanding of online back-up stations along your route. The apps do a decent job of communicating how many of the charging stations at each location are actually working. Locations typically had 4-8 charging stations, but consistently at least 1-2 of them would be offline.
The previous year my brother took the car to drive down to Los Angeles with his girlfriend. At a stop in Carmel all but one station were down. There was a massive line of folks waiting to get a charge in.
Exasperated, his partner called the help number on the side of one of the stations, expecting nothing to happen. The customer service ended up being really solid and they reset the electric station remotely so it worked. They were able to charge the car to the sounds of cheering EV owners. We knew we could somewhat rely on a remote reboot.
There are times like these when all charging stations are taken up, which result in hanging around before you can begin charging. Having back-up spots helps you make a call to continue on your journey to another less popular spot, usually located at a random gas station or dying mall.
This was our first time taking an electric car on a long road trip, so we erred heavily on the side of caution. We aimed to always keep our charge level above 40% to weather any potential emergencies or a string of bad luck with chargers.
On a side note, I spent more time in malls on this trip than I probably did in the past decade. My partner isn’t the biggest fan of shopping malls, but I actually loved walking around them. The Santa Rosa Plaza was actually bustling with families and it felt nostalgic walking around. The Eureka-Bayshore mall was half closed down, almost completely deserted, and filled with knock-off fast food options. The layout was inefficient, dimly lit and fascinating. It felt like walking around a partially staffed ghost town of a bygone era.
On our ride up we noticed that the mileage we were able to get from a single charge varied based on the actual drive. With regenerative braking enabled, windy roads with varying inclines were our friends. Long stretches of highway on a steady incline were not. We ended up stopping at a backup spot at a Safeway in Willits before making the final stretch drive to our first night stop in Fort Bragg.
The final charge we grabbed in Eureka lasted us our entire time exploring the Gold Bluffs Beach area. The car was able to weather the more rugged stretch of terrain between the city of Orick and the campsite really well.
The Gold Bluffs campsite was stunning and offered a good home base for exploring the Redwood National forest. We felt comfortable driving to other hikes in the area such as the windy three mile trail to Trillium Falls. We even had time to drive down to witness the fabled Roosevelt elk lounge around in the grass while tourists took pictures of them like paparazzi.
Overall we were incredibly satisfied with our experience. Any concerns we had for California road trips in an electric car were erased. With the increased prevalence of EV options, the number and efficacy of charging stations will only likely increase in the future. As we’ll soon be in the market for a new car we got the confidence to go fully electric.
Editor's Note: The "Notes on the Valley" blog is written by Monith Ilavarasan, who grew up in Pleasanton. After a career in tech, he took a sabbatical to be a community organizer. He has continued to work in tech and shares his thoughts on the people, places and events that make up and shape the Tri-Valley.