Mainstream news doesn’t understand the mainstream EV range

Credit: Ruth Milligan

I was excited to read today’s NYTimes article mainstreaming of electric vehicles. The two-line story could theoretically convince Central America that it’s okay to consider buying an electric vehicle, even if it’s places like “North Dakota, for example, [where] there are only 19 fast chargers.” But I winced at incomplete reporting and a strong desire to set the record straight.

The NYTimes story began quite harmlessly:

The first wave of people who bought electric cars were wealthy, environmentally conscious tech enthusiasts living in California. The second wave could be people like Russell Grooms, a librarian in Virginia. Mr. Grooms bought a battery-powered Nissan Leaf last year and spent about $20,000 to save money on gas after government incentives.

But you always need a counterpoint. And they found it in a woman from Columbus, Ohio, who had had a bad experience driving her daughter to school in Michigan.

Ruth Milligan, a resident of Columbus, Ohio, tried to get her daughter, Maggie Daiber, into Michigan State University in August. Ms Milligan calculated where she would need to charge her ID.4 during the four-hour drive.

“I did my homework on the charging grid,” said Ms. Milligan, an executive language coach, “or so I thought.”

But she hadn’t considered that the battery would drain faster when the car was loaded with belongings from her daughter and husband Dave Daiber, who is 6ft 4in tall.

Less than two hours into the drive, Ms. Milligan realized the car would not make it to Toledo, Ohio, where she planned to charge. Instead, they exited the highway at Findlay. Of the four chargers in the city, one was behind a locked gate; another was at a Toyota dealer who wouldn’t let a Volkswagen use its charger; a third would only charge Teslas; and the fourth had recently been installed and was not yet working.

The family ended up staying the night in a hotel and making the rest of the trip in a rented van.

Still, Ms Milligan says she likes the ID.4, which she bought after waiting 10 months for delivery. “In general I’m happy with the car, but I’ll be careful when I push its limits,” she said.

That sounds like a horrible experience and one with no resolution. And with the range of 250 miles in a Volkswagen ID.4, you’d think making the journey would be pretty easy. This situation will scare many potential EV buyers who are told they can take road trips.

Details, details

I’m from Ohio, not too far from their stopover in Findlay, Ohio, so I know these roads are mostly across flat farmland – no big hills to climb. It’s not that far for a modern 250-mile EV like the VW ID.4, even in bad weather. After a little Google Maps research, it’s 96 miles between Columbus and Findlay, Ohio, where she stopped, and at most 150 miles between Columbus and Toledo, where, according to the story, she planned to fast-charge.

However, Northwest Ohio is a bit of a car-loading desert, so it’s not uncommon to end up with a tow truck.

To weigh

The story also mentioned having a lot of cargo and people in the car, saying that was a major factor in the range issue.

It turns out that weight isn’t a big factor when calculating EV range for highway driving. I learned a lot about this last month on my Ford trip in the F-150. It boils down to Newton’s first law of inertia: an object in motion keeps moving. A cruise-controlled car at 60 mph on flat land will require the same energy to propel it forward as the same car with 500 pounds more in it. None of the forces on the car (aerodynamic drag, rolling resistance, etc.) are directly related to weight. For city driving with stops and starts, the range decreases moderately with additional weight. Aerodynamics is by far the biggest force. So it turned out there was a lot more to this story.

Fact check of the trip

So I decided to contact Ms. Milligan on LinkedIn to get some clarity on the journey. Noting that the Times was running a call for stories from EV drivers about their experiences, she chose hers.

The discussion was insightful. Here’s an incredibly intelligent woman who has obviously done her homework and genuinely loves her VW ID.4.

According to them, the NYTimes authors failed to mention some important information and, for whatever reason, cited information about the weight of the people and the cargo in the car as the reason for the unsafe mileage.

She told me (and the NYT, although she didn’t report it) the following:

  • She started the ride with only 80% charge (already up to 200 miles of range) due to an adjustment issue.
  • It had a bike rack and a bike on the back.
  • She had a 3×3 foot soft roof rack on top – several backpacks tied down.
  • She drove 65-70mph on the trip and stopped with about 20% charge in Findlay, Ohio to check for chargers. At this point she was SOL because all four level 2 chargers in the city were unusable. The nearest viable charger was out of their current range and the car was eventually towed to a working fast charger in Upper Sandusky, pictured above.

Now the range problem makes a lot more sense. In my experience, adding a bike rack reduces range by 15-20%. A roof rack will do, too. Starting with her 80% of 250 miles = 200 miles, she really left home with about 150 miles of range at best. We also know that slowing down really helps when there’s a higher drag coefficient and she’s going close to 70mph.

Why am I calling this?

I’m not here to shame the NYTimes or its authors for the omissions in their article. I think the story needs to be corrected to indicate that aerodynamics – not weight – is the primary factor in highway range, as I think EV and potential EV drivers need to know this information. I think they picked this story because of the harrowing outcome, but that’s speculation.

Nor am I here to blame Ms Milligan, who is obviously an EV advocate who hasn’t been educated on the importance of potential range hits when adding bikes and roof racks. A bigger problem, however, is that she trusted the VW ID.4’s internal EV charger detection card, which gave her information about potential charging backups, but not the reliability of each of those stations. There are still many calculations to be made when driving electric vehicles while traveling that typical drivers simply do not need to consider. I think her story can and should be cautionary tales.

However, instead of the POV of the story where there is uncertainty as to why the EV didn’t reach the expected range, we can rely on the numbers shown. “Reach Anxiety” is about uncertainty. Now we know why she couldn’t make the trip.

Here’s how to make this trip with a bike rack and a roof rack

And heavy passengers and cargo.

In that case, I would have made sure the car was close to the full 250-mile range before embarking on the trip. At normal highway speeds, the range with a bike and roof rack is reduced by about a third. So you’re starting out with around 175 miles of range at best with a fully charged vehicle. You can get from Columbus to Toledo fairly easily this way, with an additional range of about 25 miles. If I had run close, I would have slowed down significantly to 55mph.

But I don’t like the idea of ​​stopping at the Chevrolet dealership, which is the only Toledo quick charger that pops up on their route. Instead, I would have planned the Electrify America station at the I-80 turnpike outside of Toledo as my first stop. If you are in a VW this will be the fastest and most reliable charging station and if recently updated should also do instant plug and charge. It requires driving on some smaller roads before entering the turnpike and adds about 15 minutes drive to the journey.

This is 120 miles from Columbus and takes 2 hours and 20 minutes. She could have charged up to 80% there in minutes, eaten something, and been on her way again. She’s now 138 miles from her destination in Lansing, Michigan (where there’s another EA Charger), which she could potentially have done on one charge. There is also an EA station in Ann Arbor where they could have stocked up for this trip.

Electrek’s take

It turns out that Ms. Milligan has already figured this all out (also missing from the NYTimes article). Since taking her daughter to school in August, she has been back in Michigan State with her ID.4. She has successfully tried my method above, although it increases the travel time. On the way back, she made it from Ann Arbor to Columbus in one leg (about 190 miles) with no bikes or roof racks, but with her 6’4″ husband. This is the route they will be driving going forward and they do not expect any additional driving time. One stop and no detour from the Interstates.

More importantly, Ms. Milligan has learned not to trust every EV charger out there. She says she’ll look for Electrify America stations to make a trip first, then look at the less reliable options if needed. When she needs to find other charging stations, she looks at recent check-ins and doesn’t trust anything that hasn’t been successfully visited by an EV driver within the last 24 hours. She concludes by saying that the VW ID.4 EV charging station finder is “dead to her,” and they really need to work on it if they want her to trust that functionality again.

My point here is to help people who might be a bit scared by the NYTimes article or EVs in general. So, some final road trip tips:

  • Weight doesn’t matter much unless you’re climbing mountains (and you’ll be doing most of that by regenerating power on the way down).
  • Aerodynamics play a big role. Bike and roof racks can each cost 10-20% of your range.
  • Slowing down, especially with added drag, really makes a big difference.
  • Also subtract 10-20% for very cold weather, mitigate some by preconditioning the vehicle.
  • You can drive an electric vehicle almost anywhere in the United States (yes, even North Dakota) if properly planned and executed.

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