EV ownership is neither fairytale nor nightmare

National charging infrastructure issues need to be addressed, but EV ownership is still a very rational decision for many families.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
charging display on ev
Jason Perlow

On Sunday morning, I woke up to an email from my tech-averse mother – she had sent me a copy of The Wall Street Journal's latest hit piece on electric vehicles, written by the newspaper's main lifestyle writer, Rachel Wolfe, in which she chronicles a 2,000-mile trip from New Orleans to Chicago and back in a Kia EV6. I recently purchased a Polestar 2 Dual-Motor, Long Range version (which I also reviewed in December 2021), and I know my parents were skeptical of the purchase. 

"See! You can't go on a long trip in your electric car!"

New Orleans as trip origin. Seriously?

I am not going to discount the entirety of Ms. Wolfe's experience, but I was stunned by the level of disingenuousness, as well as the lack of technical vetting and documentation of the piece. Let's begin with the WSJ choosing a New Orleans-based writer to author the article. 

The Crescent City is known for its lack of redundant electrical infrastructure and its heavy dependence on and influence of the local petroleum industry. In 2021, Hurricane Ida caused catastrophic damage to the city's grid, leaving only a single high tension line to supply power to many of its parishes and leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity for weeks. Much of the suffering by city residents in the aftermath of that storm can be attributed to the incompetence of the city's energy supplier, Entergy, and its failure to plan for and build a redundant grid.

So yes, the author is correct that there are no Level 3 DC fast chargers within New Orleans City limits. However, she neglects to mention that you might brown out the entire city if a sufficient number of Bourbon Street bartenders plug in their blenders and make frozen Daiquiris.

Choosing a route for a long-range EV trip is a science and not an ad-hoc exercise

The author did not fully document the capabilities of all of the charging stations she stopped at in the article, noting that she used PlugShare as a primary means of route planning and that "not all fast chargers are created equal." 

EVs, depending on the manufacturer, will also charge at different rates depending on how depleted their batteries are and the current battery temperature. This is done on purpose by manufacturers to level the lithium-ion battery cells and prolong battery life, so while a Level 3 DC fast charger might advertise 150 or 200 kW maximum speeds, a vehicle might negotiate 20 kW or 40 kW especially if it is topping off from 80% charge -- you won't see full speeds unless the battery is at very low levels of depletion. 

It should be noted to achieve the best possible charge rate, many vehicles can "prime" batteries before reaching the charging destination, but this requires using an integrated navigation system (some vehicles, such as the Ford Mach-E, can do this integrated with CarPlay) where the charging destination is programmed into the route, such as the Google Maps built into Android Automotive, which is used on the Polestar 2.

But I think it would be helpful to many readers and potential EV customers if we could understand which stations were chosen for this particular trip and why. Certainly, successful long-range EV trips have been documented by many owners (such as this recently accomplished 18-hour trip to Florida from Chicago in a Hyundai Ioniq 5 by the video blog Technology Connections), and while there are certain things to be aware of, such as delays due to a charger not functioning on arrival, or if the chargers at the destination are not fast enough, this is more of the exception rather than the norm. 

Also: Ford begins production of its first electric pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning

Be prepared for randomness

Yes, it's not uncommon to find at least one Level 3 charger out of service, and maintenance of these charge networks is still a work in progress, as I mentioned in my previous article about the pitfalls of EV charging. If you intend to own an EV, you need to accept that some issues are out of end-users control and can occur at any charge station. This includes owners of slower capacity charging vehicles (unknowingly) taking up spots for higher-speed fast chargers, which can cause potential delays for owners of fast-charging vehicles. Additionally, owners of gasoline vehicles have been known to illegally occupy EV charging spots. So, until there is better queuing and logistics for fast charging, it's an uneven experience from charging provider to charging provider, and location to location.

While PlugShare is not a bad way of scouting for stations in general, since it can consolidate listings for multiple DC fast charging networks, such as Electrify America, ChargePoint, and EVgo, as well as a large number of Level 1 and Level 2 chargers at public locations, it is not a foolproof listing and is not as authoritative as checking the apps for each of those charging providers themselves as to the capabilities and current status of each station.

If you are inclined to take a long-range trip such as this in an EV, I would look at not only PlugShare but also the individual charging network apps, and also A Better Route Planner (ABRP) to get a better understanding of what stations exist on your proposed route, and if necessary, alter the plan to optimize the charging experience. 

Understand your use case and choices for an EV

But let's be clear, most EV owners are not people that plan to drive their car on long-range trips of the type Rachel Wolfe undertook. Yes, it's possible, the technology is proven for this scenario, and many people that own EVs do these trips a few times a year, such as my colleague Jason Cipriani, who owns a Tesla Model 3 and has driven cross-country and recently placed an order for a Rivian. 

Most of us, however, drive these cars for local travel. While we use charging networks from time to time, the balance of our charging activity occurs at home, using Level 2 chargers, where the vehicle's batteries are replenished at night in a few hours. 

I cannot emphasize enough that installing a 240V circuit in your home with a 6-20, 6-50, or 14-50 NEMA plug to accommodate a Level 2 charger is an absolute must as an EV owner.  If you live in a multi-dwelling building such as a condominium having these chargers available at your residence is critical. Otherwise, you'll want to budget time (and money) charging up at a Level 3 near your home, which is more expensive. I personally have a 50A breaker capability which allows my plug-in charger to perform at 40A, but other owners have had good overnight charging results with as low as 20A.

Some EV manufacturers have partnerships or promotions with Level 3 charging companies. For example, my Polestar 2 came with two years of free 30-minute charge sessions with Electrify America (which is owned by Volkswagen). I'd take advantage of this as much as possible with any new EV purchase.

We are all early adopters

As a recent EV owner, I admit that I am an early adopter, and not everything about the overall ownership experience is fully baked. While EVs have many advantages, there are certain things you need to be aware of. 

Let's start with the fact that you are not driving a car, per se -- you're driving a computer with wheels. And like any computer with a sophisticated software stack, they have bugs that crop up. These are things that can be as minor as charging not working at optimal speeds when you are plugged in at home or a DC charging station -- typically requiring a system reboot -- or experiencing a software fault that can cause the vehicle to become either partially or fully inoperative. 

All of these cars are also internet-connected and receive software patches and updates continually, so there is always the possibility that not only can a new and annoying bug come up that affects the car's functionality, but also the (albeit remote) possibility you can brick the computer with a bad software flash or update. These system faults are par for the course for any computer or device that gets over-the-air updates -- and your car's In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) system is not that much different than your smartphone. In the case of my Polestar, it's based on Android.

Also: Choosing the right electric car: Why I won't buy a Tesla

Stuff happens, but EVs are far from a net negative

I have not had a severe technical issue with my car yet that would necessitate me bringing it into a dealership to resolve it. But I have had to reboot the IVI stack a few times to resolve a bug or a weird quirk, and there have been two major software updates since we bought the car in April. These issues are not just typical of my Polestar but also of all EVs on the market, including Tesla. 

One of the most important considerations is access to a maintenance network when choosing an EV. A prime reason I decided to buy a Polestar 2 -- in addition to vehicle inventory when I bought it -- was the existence of two dealerships with maintenance capabilities each within an hour from my house and sufficiently trained staff at these dealerships to work on the vehicle. 

Some auto dealerships may only have a few vehicles to sell, such as my local Ford, which only had a single Mach-E (and wanted to sell it for $12,000 over MSRP) when I was shopping for vehicles. When I asked if they had sufficient technicians to deal with the car if it had a potential issue, they admittedly said they might have to outsource the work to another dealer or a  third party to come in and do the work, as most of their technicians were yet to undergo the required training. 

And yes, parts availability for EVs is constrained now because of supply chain issues, but that's also true of all cars, not just EVs -- so I would make sure that any dealership you deal with has a loaner program. 

Depending on their loaner inventory, you might just get stuck with a gasoline car while your EV is repaired -- this happened to us on one occasion when we had to have a windshield re-sealed, and the dealership paid for a rental car for a week. 

Do EVs have issues? Do you need to be aware of them and plan accordingly? Yes, but the nightmare trip that Rachel Wolfe made isn't representative of EV ownership. Infrastructure issues need to be addressed, but it's a very rational decision if you can find an EV in inventory or wait for delivery and install a Level 2 charger in your home.

What has your experience been as an EV owner? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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