Cross-country in an electric car

It’s doable, but it can take a lot more time

By David Drum

It sounded like a good idea. My kid brother, who’s as concerned about the environment as I am, invited me to go with him via electric car from Los Angeles to my sister’s birthday party near Boulder, Colorado. From where I live, Boulder is approximately a thousand miles away, a 16-hour drive in a gasoline-powered car.

“That sounds like fun,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

My brother has been driving his electric car for a while, but he’s mostly driven around town. Neither of us had traveled long distance in an electric car, but there is a support network in place. I seemed doable, and a noble idea, but our trip to Colorado became a long, lengthy nightmare.

My brother Ellery drives a 2017 Chevy Bolt. He’s a bit of a car guy, and his car is quite well-maintained. My brother had checked out the route. He’d identified charging stations all along our route, at distances where he could comfortably recharge his Bolt.

Although I did some of the driving, I was mostly to be the navigator. My brother had planned the trip with the use of his Apple phone and an ap called A Better Routeplanner, which I downloaded onto my Android. He brought along a supply of fruit and nuts for munching, and drinks, so we didn’t have to stop and eat. He even brought along some lawn chairs for us to sit in while hiscar was recharging.

We left on Tuesday, allowing a day longer than it might have taken us to drive in a gasoline-powered car. We thought this would allow us extra time to stop and see the sights along the way. We estimated we could have a leisurely trip and still get to Colorado by Friday, the date of my sister’s birthday party.

Las Vegas is normally a four-hour drive from Los Angeles. We left Los Angeles at ten o’clock, aiming to arrive at Las Vegas by that afternoon in plenty of time to see a show.

We had to recharge before we left. The Bolt has a maximum range of 238 miles, according to the EPA, but the effective range is considerably less. For one thing, we were traveling through the desert and the air conditioner uses power. For another, quick chargers fill to 80% of battery capacity quite rapidly, but after that, charging slows to a crawl. My brother typically charges his car up to 80%. This equals approximately 150 miles of range, but it’s less than that when you also factor in the distance to the next charging station, and leave a margin for error.

Like many electric car owners, my brother suffers from “range anxiety,” a fear of running out of juice in some godforsaken place. For this trip, he told me, he built a rack for his bicycle on the back of the car in case the Bolt ran out of juice and he needed to ride for help.

This was all new to me when we stopped at a futuristic-looking charging station maintained by a company I’d never heard of called Electrify America. The company’s quick charging stations sat on one end of an asphalt parking lot, and its chargers looked like tall, slender gasoline pumps, painted white with green trim. The chargers all had futuristic touch screens, and a thick rubber hose that connected the charger to the car.

Electrify America’s touch screens almost all read “unavailable.” Even the chargers whose screens indicated they were in working order did not actually work. We tried connecting the Bolt to several chargers, following the instructions on the touch screens, but no charger would take my credit card and we couldn’t start charging.

As the weather warmed up in an Albertson’s supermarket parking lot, my brother called Electrify America’s prominently-displayed toll-free number. He was put on hold. We waited. Time passed. The message replayed and replayed. All the customer services representatives were assisting other customers. Eventually, we pulled out the lawn chairs my brother had brought along, sat down in the shade, ate some grapes and strawberries, and waited to have our call answered. This took more than an hour.

At last, a helpful young lady with a disembodied voice took our call. She remotely checked and activated one of the stations and my brother connected his car to the charger. She advised him to push the handle up after he connected, because that was sometimes necessary to make a solid connection with their chargers. The charger still didn’t work. He tried again. Eventually, after some more conversation and electronic rejiggering of the chargers by the customer service rep, we finally got connected and charged up. We were off to a slow start. We headed east, past the thick necklace of stucco subdivisions that surrounds the city of Los Angeles, and made our way into the chapparal and open desert.

Electrify America is a company born of scandal. In 2015, when Volkswagen was caught cheating U.S. air pollution standards, the so-called Dieselgate scandal, the EPA fined the company $2 billion. Rather than shelling out the money, Volkswagen agreed to invest $2 billion to erect 2,000 high-speed electric car chargers all around the U.S. and they formed a company to do it. Electrify America chargers are located in apartment complexes, shopping centers, hotels, and other locations, including many Walmart parking lots. Their chargers can deliver high speed quick charges to every electric vehicle except Tesla, which maintains its own charging stations.

Charged up to 80%, the Bolt climbed effortlessly into the high desert, past a battered sign for the defunct Roy Rogers Museum, once a local landmark. The museum once showcased the careers of popular TV star and singing cowboy Roy Rogers and his wife Dale. In addition to other cowboy memorabilia, the museum notably contained the bodies of Trigger and Buttermilk, Roy and Dale’s taxidermied horses, and their taxidermied pet dog, Bullet, all sold off to the highest bidder when the museum was forced to close a decade ago.

In Barstow, a hundred miles from home, we needed to recharge. It was hot. The chargers were in a Walmart parking lot. The touch screens on most of the Electrify America chargers read “unavailable” and even the last charger whose screen indicated it was available wouldn’t work properly. During several frustrating attempts to charge, we seemed to get partway through the process, but the terminals refused to take our credit cards and start charging. As an Afro-American technician labored away on a nearby terminal, we called customer service and waited, all of us baking in the afternoon sun and scorching 105-degree heat.

We struck up a conversation with the technician, an affable gentleman who said he got a lot of work repairing the charging stations. Electrify America’s quick chargers are computerized, he said, and big computers are often kept in cool rooms. Since there was no roof over the chargers, he observed the heat might interfere with the proper operation of the chargers. In the end, he was nice enough to help us get a charger going.

When the Bolt was 46% charged, my brother’s dashboard notified him his right front tire had gone flat. The Bolt doesn’t come with a spare tire; it has an electronic box that uses power from the car’s engine to pump air and sealing goop into the tire for a temporary repair. But the Bolt’s front tire was punctured and it wouldn’t hold air.

Walmart’s auto center was close by, so we filled up the tire, disconnected from the charger, and drove to the auto center with the front tire hissing like a rattlesnake. There were other cars in line ahead of us at the auto center, of course. We pulled out the lawn chairs for another wait under some little trees. As the sun began to drop in the west, I watched a drone float ominously around the far corner of the Walmart auto center and whiz past us in the heat, twenty feet over our heads.

After they put on a new tire, my brother was anxious to get on with it, so we hit the road. We had enough juice to get to the charging station in Baker, 37 miles away. The Bolt glided across the Mojave Desert, its air conditioner humming, past a landscape dotted with scrub brush and Joshua trees.

We arrived in Baker, California, population 215, where the temperature read 111 degrees on to the world’s tallest thermometer, a 134-foot landmark in the middle of town. Fortunately for us, Baker has several charging stations. The ap guided us to a bank of Electrify America chargers behind a boarded-up restaurant. There was a roof overhead but we pulled up on the sunny side and — miraculously — quickly — connected to a charger right away. But the desert sun was merciless and my brother very sensibly chose to disconnect and move his car into the shade, which turned out to be a mistake.

On the shady side of the charging station, we couldn’t find a charger that worked. Once again, my brother called customer service. With the help of still another disembodied female voice, we tried connecting to all four chargers on that side of the station with no luck. Finally, my frustrated brother moved the car back into the hot sun, to the charger that worked before, but when we tried to connect, that charger wouldn’t work either.

As the disembodied female voice apologized, we drove to another charging station on the other end of main street, which was maintained by a company called Evo Fast Charge. We connected immediately and charged up on the first try. Next to the Evo Fast Charge station was an extremely large Tesla charging station which put it to shame. An impressive flotilla of Tesla chargers sat waiting beneath a high roof topped by solar panels, ready to charge perhaps twenty or thirty Teslas at a time.

We finally arrived in Las Vegas after eight o’clock, too tired and late to book a show as we’d planned to do. The trip had taken 10 hours, more than twice as long as by gasoline-powered car, and we hadn’t even stopped to eat.

Our hotel, Circus Circus, had only two low-power, Level 2 Charge Point charging stations to service its 3,000-plus rooms but the chargers apparently weren’t in great demand. An electric car was attached to one of the chargers but didn’t seem to be charging. The other charger didn’t work when we tried it, but my brother called Charge Point’s customer service, and immediately got connected.

Unlike the quick chargers, Level 2 chargers take some serious time to charge a car. My brother left the Bolt charging for most of the night. Charging stations charge a fee if you remain connected to the charger for more than a few minutes after you finish charging, so my brother calculated the time necessary to charge up, woke himself up at 4 a.m., disconnected the Bolt, then rode back up the resort’s claptrap, atrociously-functioning elevators to go back to sleep.

We both slept in. When I got up, I went for a swim while my brother got a foot massage. We took off before noon with the car 100% charged and raced through the spectacular sandstone canyons and mesas of southern Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.

When I had a chance to drive the Bolt, I thought the experience was delightful. I’d never driven an electric car before. The Bolt’s engine was quiet. The seats were comfortable. The air conditioning was efficient and visibility was good. The car handled well, and it had all the power needed to take any hill. There weren’t many FM radio stations in that section of the country, but when they came in the car’s sound quality was good.

We made it 120 miles to St. George, Utah, our longest hop of the trip. The ap guided us to an Electrify America charging station in still another Walmart parking lot. The first charger we tried didn’t work, but the second did. We had time to buysome big salads and a jar of mixed nuts at a nearby Costco. We sat under a tree in our lawn chairs and ate our fill while the car quick-charged, then took off for Beaver, 96 miles away.

Our route-planning ap was great at locating electric vehicle charging stations, which were shown as lightning flash icons on a map of the highway. With some jiggering, the ap also gave me addresses, but I couldn’t find instructions as to which exit to take. The charging station in Beaver, Utah, was close to a Days Inn Motel, I could see on the ap, but while I was punching and swiping, trying to figure out which exit to take and looking out the window, the Bolt blew right past the only exit in town.

“I think it’s back there,” I said, not helpfully. “I think I saw it.”

My brother continued several miles down the highway while we reassessed the situation. There didn’t seem to be any exits ahead in the desolate, rolling hills, and we didn’t see anywhere to cross to the other side of the divided highway.

We really needed to recharge. Perhaps suffering from range anxiety, my brother pulled over and began backing up the shoulder toward the exit several miles behind us. This was scary, and probably illegal. The shoulder of the road was narrow. Teetering along the shoulder came the Bolt, now hurtling backwards, while cars and big trucks roared loudly by, all going the opposite direction.

We saw flashing blue and red lights behind us. A patrolman had stopped to help another driver, who had pulled off the road. We didn’t dare back out onto the interstate to go around him, so we stopped and asked the patrolman for help.

“We have to recharge my car. We’re trying to get back to the charging station in Beaver,” my brother explained to the man in uniform.

“There’s an exit six or seven miles down the road where you can turn around,” the man replied, pointing east.

We drove down Interstate 15 for several miles, found the exit, turned around, and pulled into another Electrify America charging station in Beaver around 5:30 p.m.

These chargers stood at the edge of an empty field, with some bare mountains in the distance. It was hard to see how a beaver could have even survived in Beaver, since there was no water around. As we drove in, a blue Bolt identical to my brother’s car was also charging up. After one false start on a charger, and another call to customer service, we moved the car to another charger, and got connected.

We struck up a conversation with driver of the other Bolt. Two women, probably a mother and daughter, were traveling together. The woman who was charging told us they’d had problems charging, too, but she’d gotten the Electrify America ap, which she said made the charging easier. Before long, a double rainbow sprang from clouds that were moving in from the south.

A few drops of rain fell from the sky at the Walmart parking lot in Richfield, Utah, fifty miles away, our next designated stop. We tried four different Electrify America chargers, and none would work.

My brother got on the phone with a guy at customer service and took the time to sign up for an Electrify America ap and membership which cost $4 a month and offered reduced prices on charging. This was tedious business. Finally, with the help of the male disembodied customer service voice, we got one of Beaver’s chargers to work for us. We left a few minutes before 8 o’clock with enough juice to get 135 miles into Green River, Utah.

Shortly before 11 PM, we finished our second long day of travel in the darkness. We checked into a funky little motel across the street from the Green River charging station, where an ageing hippy with long thick grey hair tied back behind his ears rented us a room.

My brother woke up early to charge the car. Using his new Electrify America ap, he was able to get charged on the second try. We had coffee and a bagel at a rustic little coffee shop next to the charging station and were off for Grand Junction, the first big town in Colorado, still more than 100 miles away.

In still another Walmart parking lot in Grand Junction, after two abortive tries and another call to Electrify America’s customer service, we charged up and began climbing the Rocky Mountains. We made it to Glenwood Springs, 88 miles down the road,where we needed another 40-minute charge. The Electrify America ap seemed to be working. My brother unhitched the bicycle he had strapped to the Bolt and took off across the parking lot for some exercise while I took out a folding chair, enjoyed an apple and some fresh grapes, and read a book under a tree.

After charging, we made it 97 miles to Frisco, Colorado, where in another Walmart parking lot, we recharged again. At last we were close enough to shoot for Boulder, 83 miles down the mountain.

We didn’t know it, but we really didn’t need to charge the car again. Since we were now driving downhill, the Bolt was recharging itself all the way down. When we arrived at my sister’s house in time for her party, to our surprise, the Bolt had made it down the mountain without using any electricity at all.

In the electric car, we had made what is normally an easy two-day drive in three long days. Our travel time included approximately an hour at each recharging station, when you include the time involved in all our calls to customer service, and sometimes longer. We spent a lot of time in Walmart parking lots, where many of the chargers wouldn’t work without the assistance of customer service. To travel the 1,010 miles between Los Angeles and Boulder, we’d stopped to charge ten times and spent between $6-$10 for each charge.

After a few pleasant days in Colorado, we headed back to California. We stopped in Frisco, where a gray-haired, well-built older man in a leather vest came over to inform my brother his left turn signal wasn’t visible, because of the bicycle strapped on the back. The man was a former Green Beret, and rather talkative. As the Bolt charged he told us some good stories, including one in which he beat up three young guys who tried to mug him.

That first day, planning to take it easy on the way back, we stopped in Glenwood Springs, an easy day’s drive from Boulder. We enjoyed a steam bath in the sweltering hot underground caves and swam in the resort’s famous mineral water pool. We went rafting down the Colorado River the next morning, something we’d both wanted to do, and took off again.

The first time we stopped to charge, the Electrify America ap stopped working. Customer service told my brother’s his ap was frozen, but the disembodied voice couldn’t explain how to fix it. My brother’s phone is an Apple and the rep only understood how to fix an Android. But we did finally get charged up.

Rain fell from the skies all morning, which kept the temperature cool and the air conditioner off. We stopped and charged, and stopped and charged. Our second day, we made it to Richfield, Utah, 300 miles down the road. We spent a nice night at a Quality Inn, enjoyed a relaxing dinner at the restaurant next door, and left early the next day after charging in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter.

We made it 115 miles to Cedar City, Utah, stopped to charge, and charged again at still another Electrify America near a Walmart in Mesquite, Arizona, a tiny little town with many charging stations.

In Mesquite, we pulled up next to a rather fat, glum-looking young Millennial wearing a baggy American Motorworks tee-shirt. He was charging a car that was almost completely covered with black car bras, apparently to disguise its identity.

“Is that a prototype?” asked my brother, who knows his cars.

“I can’t tell you what I’m driving. I signed a confidentiality agreement, and it’s against company policy to talk about it,” the guy somewhat defensively responded. “I’m prohibited from identifying the vehicle if people ask me.”

The guy did say he was testing-driving the unidentified vehicle, driving it back and forth from Las Vegas to Mesquite to Las Vegas where he lived with his mother. He had to stop every hour and do certain tests, he said, which made it slow going.

The scantily-bearded young Millennial had what he said was a minimum wage job, he said, and he foresaw a bleak dystopian future.

“The skies are filling up with space junk, he said. Everything is hooked to the satellites, and it could all come crashing down,” he said. “People are suffering while rich guys fly into space,” he added, an apparent reference to billionaire Jeff Bezos, who had just returned from his first space flight.

“I hear the hedge fund guys are all buying property in New Zealand,” I said.

“The oceans are rising so fast they won’t be able to escape. New Zealand is an island. Before long, all the islands will be underwater,” he replied, and hefinished charging.

“I liked it that Volkswagen put up these charging stations until I heard they were all powered by coal,” he said, and took off in the bundled-up mystery car which I noticed had a sort of fin on top, making it look a bit like a shark.

We arrived in Las Vegas around one o’clock, both of us exhausted. With the help of my brother’s GPS, we finally located a long line of Electrify America chargers in a narrow parking lot devoid of any neon at all. These chargers were sandwiched between the tall windowless walls of two huge Las Vegas strip hotels.

My brother pulled up and began charging near a muscular, tattooed guy in a T-shirt who was putting up directional signs in the charging station. The guy looked like a biker, with a ZZ Top beard and wraparound sunglasses. He was missing two front teeth but he had a nice smile. When we asked, he said he was a contractor, and he’d already installed several charging stations for Electrify America.

“Volkswagen owns all of these,” he said, with a sweep of his hand. “They’re a good company to work for, and they’re smart. They’re making money on these chargers and getting tax breaks for what they’re doing.”

After we charged, we decided to try to make it home that night, our sixth day on the road. We left Las Vegas under overcast skies. Sailing across the desert we went, enjoying the cooler temperatures. We recharged at the same station in Baker, then stopped again in Barstow, where we had to call customer service in the same Walmart parking lot in which we had a flat tire and problems connecting a few days before.

While waiting for customer service to pick up, we struck up a conversation with a neatly-bearded, well-dressed fellow charging his new Volkswagen. He could have been a university professor. When my rather exhausted brother mentioned his problems using the ap with his Apple, the man was an Apple guy. In a flash, he showed my brother how to unfreeze the Electrify America ap, something the company’s customer service reps were unable to do.

After six days, 2,000 miles on the road, and twenty stops at charging stations, the Bolt carried us home. Traveling by electric car has been a frustrating, time-consuming experience, but we made it to Colorado and back. We had saved money on fuel, but the charging process took quite a bit of time.

Charging with others, we met people and had conversations we would never have had at a gas station. And we’d been as easy on the environment as we could be, in what one day will be considered the pioneer days of traveling cross country in an electric car.

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David Drum has worked as a newspaper reporter, ranch foreman, a funeral director, and more. MFA from the University of Iowa, author of several books.