Range Confidence: Charge Fast, Drive Far, with your Electric Car

By David Herron

Learning Range Confidence

There's an old saying that what you focus on grows. While that doesn't work when you're waiting for a pot of water to boil, the idea is true for ones attitude. We all have a tendency to cycle our attention around familiar patterns of thinking - the pessimistic person will circle around areas of doubt and uncertainty, for example. The more time one spends in one mode of thinking, the more prevalent that becomes. But people can cultivate a different attitude about life, learn to operate in different modes of thought, and develop different life results.

With our electric car we want to focus on Range Confidence rather than remain trapped in Range Anxiety. Rather than focus on the ways an electric car is limiting, we can focus on the process of bypassing the limitations. As we gain experience with the capabilities of our car, we grow inner knowledge that will let us drive freely, even with a shorter range electric car.

Range Anxiety and Confidence in gasoline cars

Many new drivers starting with gasoline powered cars just jump in the car and drive off down the highway unaware of how to manage the amount of fuel in the car. These people quickly learn the car runs out of fuel, and it doesn't always do so conveniently near a gas station. The gas tank must be refilled occasionally in order to keep driving. After a few times of doing this, most people learn to watch the gasoline needle and stop at a gasoline station to avoid the embarrassment of running out of gas. After some more time, most people have the confidence to drive anywhere, to stop at gasoline stations when needed, and heeding the "Last Gas" signs.

Total driving range risks and fears exist for gasoline cars as well as electric. That’s why you carry a gas can in the trunk, just in case you run out. Unfortunately it’s not feasible to carry a can of electrons the same way.

The wise experienced gasoline car driver doesn’t drive with an empty tank into the middle of nowhere, ignoring the “no gasoline for 50 miles” warning signs. Likewise, the wise experienced electric car driver knows the range of their vehicle, the terrain, the charging infrastructure, and therefore knows what they can do with what they have. That’s what Range Confidence is, being wise and experienced with ones car.

Electric vehicles are refueled from electricity, meaning those of us with decades of gasoline experience must learn a new way of refueling. Fortunately it's easy, but there are some questions you must learn the answers to. Where do you find electric car charging stations? How far can you go on a charge? How (or why) does it take so long to recharge an electric car? Can I charge the electric car more quickly? Where can I go with my electric car? How do I get an electric car charging station installed at home? What kind of charging station can I carry with me?

Electric vehicles go only as far as the battery pack allows, just as a gasoline car only goes as far as the gas tank allows. Run out of gasoline and you're stuck at the side of the road, right? The difference is that for gasoline it's usually possible to take the gas can out of the trunk, walk a few blocks, find a gas station, fill the gas can, return to your car, and get enough fuel to get you to a gas station. That's not possible with an electric car. But, it's common for an electric car driver to quickly learn where their car can go, what they can do with the car, and so forth.

Developing Range Confidence

That's the mentality we want to develop as an electric car driver. By knowing how far our car can go, and knowing charging station locations, we can drive anywhere that's within range of a charging station.

Would you think an electric car with a paltry 50 mile range could be taken on a 200 mile trip in one day? I used to own such a car, and took it on such trips multiple times. The first time required a lot of planning, and I was nervous about the trip. But I learned so much about that car’s capabilities, that I’m confident it can be taken on trips of any length so long as there’s enough charging stations.

The Range Anxiety bugaboo would keep us cowering in fear inside a box, afraid to drive very far. That box is literally a circle around your house, big enough that you can drive somewhere then return home to charge.

Range confidence free’s us from that box, giving us the knowledge to erase that fear from our life. It’s developed from experience driving on electricity, the behavior of your car in the terrain of your region, and knowing the local charging stations infrastructure. Unfortunately, we aren’t at a stage where electric car owners can drive as freely as gasoline car owners. Until then we have a few simple skills to learn.

Step 1 - Map your trips to know how far you need to drive

What are your real needs, and what are your perceived needs? That’s always an important distinction to make. Most of us buy cars on perceived needs rather than an assessment of actual real needs.

Recording where you actually drive measures your real needs. The typical perceived need is 300+ miles of driving range, and a five minute recharge at a ubiquitous filling station. The average person drives less than 40 miles a day, according to the US Dept of Transportation, well within the capability of most electric cars.

What are your real needs?

What's needed is a list of trips you frequently take, and the number of miles for each trip. You can do this before buying an electric car just by spending some time with the maps. It's best to use a computerized map, because it automatically calculates the route and distance for you.

Create a list places you normally go, spending the time to make sure it’s as complete a list as you can make. Include not just the around-town locations, but ones further away. The goal is to measure your typical daily driving distance, and your longest typical trips. You might have a frequent loop, such as the Sunday trip to church followed by lunch at a specific restaurant followed by shopping at a specific grocery store before heading home.

It's also possible to carry a notebook in the car with you a couple weeks, noting where you go, when you fill up the gas tank, how much that costs, etc. There may even be a smart phone app to do this.

We’re looking for information like this:

  • The distance you drive to get there. How far is it from your home? How far from your job? Use the on-line map to give you driving directions, distance, and driving time.
  • If the location is part of a frequent loop, how far is it from the previous location on that loop? For your frequent loops, how long is each leg of the trip, and the total trip length?
  • Are any of these trips mountainous?
  • It will help to keep a log-book for a few weeks, recording your daily trips, the distance driven each day, and how often you refuel the gasoline tank.

The next thing to do is estimate the effect of mountains. Climbing a mountain takes more energy than driving on flat ground. It’s a matter of physics and doesn’t matter whether what fuel source (gasoline or electricity) is driving the vehicle. However, electric vehicles have an advantage driving DOWN a mountain which gasoline vehicles cannot do. Regenerative braking means that, on the trip back down, the car will recapture some of the energy spent climbing the mountain. Gasoline cars can’t do that because it’s impossible to unburn gasoline.

Step 2 - Know your local EV charging terrain

Now that you’ve mapped all your usual trips, it’s time to add data about public charging station locations and a list of the charging networks in your area. Specifically focus on the stations along the routes you mapped in Step 1.

The best source for data on public charging station locations is the PlugShare application. It’s available as a website and as a free app for smart phones. The PlugShare service collates data not only from all the charging station networks, but also by crowdsourcing a list of other charging stations. Some of those are home charging stations made available by individuals who are sharing for the benefit of all. It’s an invaluable resource for locating charging stations, and Recargo (the company behind PlugShare) is improving it all the time.

Most of the charging network operators have their own websites and smart phone apps, as well. Of course the charging network will have the definitive data on its charging stations. Therefore it’s best to install both PlugShare and network-specific apps in your smart phone. PlugShare’s value is that it contains data from all the charging networks in one place. See Step 6 for links to information on more charging networks and apps.

Browsing the Plugshare app and website

For now, go to (plugshare.com) http://plugshare.com and browse to your region. The browser window will be filled with a map, and the map should be filled with pins each showing a charger location.

In the upper right corner of the map are some checkboxes letting you adjust what charging stations to view. Set it up to view “Public Stations” and “In Use Stations”. Add the “High Power Stations” to include fast charging facilities. You can select/deselect these checkboxes to see the effect on available charging in your area.

Clicking on a pin gives more data, such as the street address, ownership of the charging station, and any fees or other requirements to use the charging station. All of this is important information to capture. For example, you need to know which charging networks to join.

The goal is to locate the nearest charging stations to each of your destinations, especially the destinations requiring a long drive. With luck you’ll find them AT your destinations, or else within easy walking distance.

For bonus points, look up “amenities” near the charging stations. You may end up spending 3 hours at the charging station. Wouldn't it be a nice convergence of goals to accomplish something else while the car is charging? Maybe the charging station is in a library parking lot? Or a store (groceries etc) where you need to shop? Or near your church? Other applications like Yelp are useful for finding amenities.

The two most important locations to charge your car are at home and at work. Each are places where you’re naturally spending many hours, meaning the car can easily be charged while you’re working or sleeping. Does your employer offer charging to employees? Even a lowly 120 volt outlet is useful if that’s all you have available. See Understanding charging rates and effective trip speed

Step 3 - Getting around town with your electric vehicle

Now that you’ve collected data on your travels, and on the nearby charging stations, you should have a good sense of your ability to get around with an electric vehicle. It’s time to put the data to the test.

Before taking a car on the road, let’s trace a few lines on the map. Going through the list of your frequent trips and destinations, and note those which are long enough to require charging. The threshold depend on the range of the electric car you own or are considering buying. The trip would be a loop, starting at your home, going to one or more destinations, then returning home, and cover enough miles to require charging.

The threshold with the current crop of affordable electric vehicles is 80 miles, or so. With the Kia Soul EV the threshold is in the 90-100 mile range, with the 2016 Nissan Leaf the threshold is at 108 miles, and with the Tesla Model S or Model X the threshold is over 200 miles.

Taking an electric trip on paper

We're going to take a simple dry run of an electric car trip. Then after that we'll go out in the field and do it with a real car.

Get a blank piece of paper. Select a trip that is longer than your electric range threshold, and will involve multiple stops. On the piece of paper, write the name of each stop with space in-between to write additional notes.

Using a map application, plot the driving route between each stop. You probably already know the route, but what we need is the precise mileage. Write the mileage on the paper in-between each stop, and also note any special characteristics like hilly areas.

At the top of the paper write the fully charged vehicle range, then discount it by a little bit. You want to leave a little bit of range in reserve in case of difficulty or unexpected energy consumption. Now, go through each stop on the trip, subtract the miles between each stop from the range. This gives you an estimated remaining range at each stop.

At some point along the trip you'll run out of range. Before that point you need to charge the car.

Using a charging station map (like PlugShare), look for charging stations along the route prior to the place you'll run out of electricity. Ideally the stations will be at or near one of the stops you made before running out of power. On the paper note the available charging stations, their location, and which are fast charging stations.

At each charging stop add miles to the range. The number to add depends on how long you stay, and whether it's a fast charging station. You'll go through the whole trip adding miles at charging stations, and subtracting miles driving the car from one stop to the next.

What we've done is develop a trip plan. There are multiple alternate charging stations, just in case, and you have a clear picture of the state of charge throughout the trip.

Get your butt in a seat, and drive electric

Now that you’ve mapped at least one route and charging stations, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test with a real car on the road. If you don’t already own an electric car, it’s possible to borrow (or rent) one for awhile. Look either to car rental agencies, some of which have electric cars, or the person-person car sharing services like GetAround. Failing that, maybe a car dealership will let you take an extended test drive, or maybe a friend has an electric car you can borrow. Maybe the Electric Auto Association has a chapter in your area, and you can start attending meetings.

However you do it, get your butt in the seat of an electric car. They’re fun to drive, you’ll probably enjoy the experience.

With your butt in the seat of an electric car, head off on as many of the trips you’ve mapped out as possible. Prepared ahead of time for each trip by making a list of the charging stations, just in case. You want to do this even on short trips so you can feel safe knowing where to get a charge if something amiss happens.

Start with short trips, ones which probably won't require a charging station. As you gain confidence take longer and longer trips.

On some trips go to a charging station location and charge the car, to gain experience with the process. If the car you’ve chosen can take fast charging, make sure to experience both normal-speed and fast charging to understand the difference.

Step 3a – Ponder alternate destinations

You may find one of your frequent trips requires public charging, but there's no charging stations along the route. These cases mean thinking up an alternate plan of some kind. A typical recommendation is to rent a gas car, or continue owning one, for those trips. In some cases you can find an alternate destination providing similar services.

For example, I recently moved to a place 10 miles from where I’d lived for over 10 years. All my shopping habits were in that other town. Initially shopping trips meant going to that town, to go to the familiar stores. Over a few months we found alternate stores in our new town, and some had better deals than the stores in the original town.

Is there an alternate destination that’s closer to home at which you could achieve the same result?

For some destinations there's no suitable alternate. For example you can’t visit someone else's grandmother just because yours lives inconveniently far away.

Step 3b - Alternate charging possibilities

It’s possible to scrounge the use of a power outlet, because electricity is everywhere even if it isn’t available through an official charging station. A common substitute for charging stations are RV parks, because they often have 240 volt 50 amp NEMA 14-50 power outlets. Making full use of such a power outlet means carrying a portable 6 kiloWatt charging station.

As shown in the picture above, it's quite possible to just use an extension cord to plug into a regular power outlet. If you do this, make sure to use a thick extension cord, preferably one using 10 gauge wires. With skinny extension cords you run the risk of a fire. See Safely use Extension Cords when charging an electric car or electric motorcycle

The PlugShare app can be configured to show "wall outlets" and "NEMA 14-50" power outlets. PlugShare users have documented some such power outlet locations, and you can use that data to find them. These power outlets can make the difference, sometimes - such as those gaps in the map with zero charging stations but plenty of RV parks.

Step 4 - Set up charging at home, at work, or nearby

The two most important places to charge are at home and at work. At both places you spend several hours a day at each location anyway. That makes charging time irrelevant.

That is, you arrive at work, park in front of the charging station, plug in the car, then walk into the office. The time cost to you is maybe 1 minute, total. After 3 hours or so you'll get a notification on your cell phone, you go out, unplug the car, and and park it elsewhere to free up the station so others can use it.

In the evening you'd arrive at home, plug in, walk inside, kiss the spouse, have dinner, and by the morning the car will be fully charged. Some cars let you schedule the charging time to make use of time-of-use electricity rates. In some areas electricity cost in the middle of the night is a fraction of daytime prices. This means two things:

  1. Your fuel cost can lowered by using time-of-use rates.
  2. Your car is fully charged every morning before driving to work.

Can gasoline car owners be assured of a full tank every morning? No, refueling a gasoline car requires a trip to a gas station, and you cannot refuel a gasoline car at home. An electric car driver can be assured of a full battery pack before heading to work, by charging at home. Further, by charging at work they can be assured of a full pack before returning home.

If you're an apartment dweller who wants an electric car, read Apartment/Condo dwellers - what to do if you cannot charge at home.

Step 5 - Prefer electric cars with fast charging

The charging rate your car can sustain affects your autonomy. Higher power charging stations recharge the car more quickly. This is measured as the miles of range gained per hour of charging. See Understanding charging rates and effective trip speed

Long trips go quicker with fast charging

For a long trip that speed, range gained per hour of charging, limits the effective speed of the trip. Hence, the best electric car road trip experience is had with fast charging.

For example – current electric cars typically support a 6 kiloWatt (or so) charging rate. The rule of thumb is that 6 kiloWatts gives 20-25 miles of range per hour of charging. While that’s a lot better than the 10-12 miles gained by the 3 kiloWatt charging units we had earlier, it’s still pretty slow when trying to take a long trip. It means a 100 mile trip requires 4 hours of charging time, or a 5.666666 hours total time, for an effective 17.6 miles/hr speed. That’s not much better than riding a bicycle.

With a CHAdeMO or Combo Charging System DC fast charger, the charging time required drops to about an hour. The total trip time is then 2.666666 hours, for an effective speed of 37.5 miles/hr. That’s still not as good as what our gasoline powered brethren enjoy, but it’s a big improvement over using level 2 charging for the trip.

Of course the Tesla Supercharger blows this away. The Model S driver probably doesn’t have to stop for a charge at all and can make a 265 mile trip before needing to charge. At a Supercharger station, the time required for 100 miles of range is about 15 minutes, for 1.91666 hours total trip time, and a 52.17 miles/hr effective trip speed.

Step 6 - Charging station network memberships and smart phone apps

While inventorying the nearby charging stations, you will have listed the charging networks in your local region. Join them all. You’ll end up carrying a lot of cards, which is suboptimal, but that’s the way it is right now.

As you do this pay careful attention to the offered plans. I'm constantly meeting people who misunderstand the plans offered by eVgo -- the NRG subsidiary that's operating charging station networks. While eVgo does offer plans with monthly fees, they also offer a plan with no monthly fee and instead you pay for charging per use.

This book contains two useful lists of all charging station networks and charging station map applications, that I've been able to find. The lists are comprehensive, but it's possible I've missed a few of each.

See Known electric car charging networks around the world

See Smart-phone apps for finding electric car charging station networks


Range Confidence is Copyright © 2016-17 by David Herron

Learning Range Confidence

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