Can you take a road trip in an electric vehicle?

Electric vehicles are great for commuting to work—but how do they hold up for road trips? We took a Chevy Bolt on the road to find out

There’s no question that electric vehicles, or EVs, are the way of the future. The U.K. government recently announced that it will ban the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars starting in 2030, and the state of California has a goal of 5 million zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) on the roads by the same year.

For those living in a city with easy access to charging stations, commuting in an EV can be a great way to save money on gas and maintenance. I’ll readily admit that not having to worry about regular oil changes and part replacements sounds like a dream—and a full charge at a charging station is much cheaper than a full tank of gas. 

But can you take a longer road trip in an EV? Chevrolet was kind enough to loan me a 2021 Bolt for a week so I could find out for myself.

A new experience

As someone whose primary vehicle is a motorcycle, the Bolt is basically the opposite of everything I’m used to: It’s quiet, comfortable, and very easy to drive. I hit the road intent on making my way up the California coast from my home in San Diego, with a loose timeline and half-baked itinerary. By a wide margin, California is the state with the most EV chargers in the U.S., so armed with the PlugShare app, Chevy’s myChevrolet app, and Google Maps on my phone, I figured that locating charging stations would be the least of my issues. 

It only took me a few hours to realize I was wrong. 

"Out of order" sign on an EV charging station
Photo: Sanna Boman

I had decided to plan my days of driving around my charging breaks by looking up Level 3 charging stations, also known as DC fast chargers (see details on different charging levels below), along the route in places where it would also make sense to stop for lunch. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I brought all my own food, drinks, and snacks in a cooler to avoid having to deal with potential crowds at restaurants—so all I needed was a functioning, available charger to plug my car into while eating my sandwiches.

The first stop on my first day of travel was at a Target in Orange County. Shopping centers are popular places for charging stations since you can run errands while the car is charging—and some stores even offer free charging to shoppers. This particular store had three chargers lined up along one end of the parking lot, but as I pulled into the closest spot I noticed a sign stating that the charger was out of order. In fact, none of the three chargers were working. 

As any avid roadtripper knows, road trips are a lot more enjoyable if you’re able to roll with the punches. I’m typically always prepared to switch to a plan B—but I don’t normally have to do it within the first few hours of leaving my house. 

After sitting in the car for a few minutes pondering my next move, a work truck pulled in next to me and a group of men in bright orange vests jumped out. “Do you need to charge?” one of the men asked me. “Pull in over here and I’ll charge you up.”

EV dashboard lit up with a charging message: "80% complete in 55 minutes"
Photo: Sanna Boman

After doing as I was told, the man attached the charging plug to my car and pressed some buttons on the charger, and a few moments later my dashboard display lit up with a progress bar, stating I was 55 minutes away from an 80 percent charge. 

The next charge

While my first charging experience turned out both worse and better than expected—the process took longer than it should have due to the charger issues, but I didn’t have to pay for the charge—the rest of the trip was less eventful. The main issue, I quickly learned, was finding fast chargers in remote places or small towns. As soon as I ventured away from larger cities, I was limited to Level 2 chargers, which can take up to 8 hours for a full charge. In a few places, all chargers were already being used by other drivers, adding extra time while waiting for them to finish. And on one occasion, the only available charger was unable to communicate with my vehicle, for reasons still unknown to me.  

When traveling through the U.S. in a gas powered vehicle, I typically don’t spend much time thinking about or looking up gas stations along my route in advance. Even on my motorcycle, which gets about 200 miles out of a full tank, I generally feel confident that I will encounter plenty of easy-to-spot gas stations well before I’m at any risk of running out of gas.

What surprised me most about my EV road trip was how much time I ended up spending thinking about my next charge, looking for charging stations, and—if I found one—waiting around for the car to charge. 

It became clear that even though electric vehicles may be the way of the future, the future—including its necessary infrastructure—isn’t here quite yet. 

Photo: Sanna Boman

5 tips for getting the most out of an EV road trip

If there’s one thing I learned during my trip, it’s that the key to a successful EV road trip is planning, planning, and more planning. Here are some tips for making the trip as enjoyable as possible.

1. Drive in a way that maximizes your range

The Bolt can get an estimated 259 miles out of a full charge, which is on the higher end of the more affordable segment. For those able to splurge on, for example, a newer Tesla Model S, that number jumps significantly, to up to 390 miles. However, these numbers are just estimates, and will be affected by how and where you drive. Since everything in an electric vehicle runs off the battery, minimizing battery use can help extend the range. This includes avoiding use of the heater or air conditioner whenever possible, going easy on the accelerator, and using regenerative braking to slow down. 

According to Shad Balch at Chevrolet Communications, the Bolt battery’s ideal temperature is around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that if you’re in a cold climate, the first thing the car does when you start it in the morning is to bring the battery up to the right temperature, a process that uses a lot of energy. “One of the tricks that you can do, if you’re in your garage or a place where there’s a charger, is to keep the vehicle plugged in while you power it up,” Balch says. 

2. Plan charging stops around activities or meal breaks

When traveling in a gas powered vehicle, you can typically fill up at a gas station and be back on the road again within minutes. This is not the case for EVs. But if you can find a DC fast charger along your route, getting your vehicle’s battery up to 80 percent or more typically takes less than an hour. “If you know that there are charging stations available all the way, go as far as you possibly can before stopping to charge, even at night,” Balch recommends. 

While you shouldn’t expect to find charging stations at a trailhead or next to a scenic fishing lake, there are ways to maximize your time while waiting for the vehicle to charge. Many charging stations are located in shopping centers and near restaurants, so it makes sense to combine charging with a meal break or supply run. 

If you’re traveling with your own activities—bicycles, skateboards, roller skates, or games—this may also be a good time to bring those out. And while many museums and other indoor activities are currently closed due to the pandemic, there could be other interesting sites within walking distance from your charging station—look for parks, historic buildings, and public art.  

A parking lot filled with cars and a charging station sign that reads "Electric parking only while charging"
Photo: Sanna Boman

3. Use available apps and map out your mileage in advance

There are plenty of different ways to locate public charging stations. Download apps specifically designed for this purpose, such as PlugShare, ChargeHub, or Open Charge Map, or use Google Maps to search for the type of charging station you need. Once you have an idea of your road trip itinerary, make sure to check for chargers along your route, and especially near places where you think you may be stopping. 

Remember that your vehicle’s estimated range will be affected by your driving style, the climate you’re driving in, and your use of creature comforts such as air conditioning or heat. Take this into consideration when planning your route and daily mileage—and don’t wait until your estimated range is down to 10 miles before finding a charging station.

4. Be flexible and have a backup plan

As I learned the hard way, charging stations may be down for maintenance, busy charging other vehicles, or simply not able to communicate with your specific car for whatever reason. When your car’s battery is low, it would be wise to not drive straight to a remote area with only one public charging station available. What do you do if that charger is not working? Having a backup plan—for example, knowing someone in the area who may allow you to plug in to an outlet in their garage overnight—can be the difference between a successful, memorable road trip and one you’d rather forget. 

5. EVs are better for urban adventures than going off the grid

Even in California—the state with the most EV chargers anywhere in the U.S.—it can be difficult to find fast chargers outside of major cities. Traveling to more remote places, like national parks, will require more advance planning in an EV than sticking to urban areas. This is especially true in states with fewer available charging stations. That’s not to say that you can’t drive across the country in an electric vehicle—it’s absolutely possible, as long as you plan ahead.  

An electric vehicle connected to a charging station
Photo: Sanna Boman

Different kinds of charging stations

Level 3 or DC fast charger: Whenever available, this is the type of charging station to use on a road trip. A fast charger can often get your battery level to about 80 percent in 30 to 60 minutes. 

Level 2: Commonly found in public and commercial spaces and in more remote locations, Level 2 chargers can typically get you close to a full charge in about 8 hours. These work well when charging during the day at your workplace, or overnight at a hotel, but they can be cumbersome and time consuming when you’re eager to get back on the road.

Level 1: This is the slowest type of charging, and can typically be done using a regular wall outlet and adapter for your car. A full charge can take up to 24 hours (or sometimes longer), so this type of charging is best done in your own garage when not using the vehicle, or as an emergency backup.

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