What if your first electric vehicle (EV) experience doesn’t involve Elon Musk showing you how to operate a new Tesla? Instead, what happens if someone just hands you the keys to an all-electric version of a regular, everyday car and just says “go”?  In other words, what happens in the real world when a real person tries to drive an electric car?

I am a dealer-trade driver. Car dealers often trade inventory among themselves and when they do I get called to physically swap the cars, often driving 100 miles or more between dealers. I’ve driven everything from Porsche Panameras to tricked-out Tundras. When I walk into a dealership I get a simple set of instructions identifying the car I am supposed to deliver, the car I am supposed to retrieve, the keys, and little else. Such was the case with my first EV.

My clue that this drive was going to be different came when I went out onto the lot to find the car — in this case, a VW Golf. It wasn’t there. I finally found it plugged into a charger by the service department. Uh oh — it was an “e-Golf”.  All of the cars I had driven had always been gas, diesel, or hybrid.

Pressing the start button, I immediately saw that instead of the published range of 180 miles, my range was only 121, even after charging all night. That was significant since my destination was 110 miles away. Before I even traveled one mile, my range dropped four more miles. Let’s review that. Before I got one mile off the lot, my range had diminished from 180 to 121 to 117 miles.

Lesson 1

Real world range is less than published range. Sometimes a lot less. Cold weather, vehicle electronics, and uphill grades all reduce range — sometimes quickly. (Note — “regenerative braking” will restore some of that range, but since I would be driving the interstates at a relatively constant speed, I didn’t expect much help there.)

Okay then. Defroster, off.  Radio, off. Everything else I could find, off. Feather the accelerator on uphill grades. In combination, these measures seemed to stabilize my range to within a few miles of my destination, but “almost” is not good enough, so I called the salesman who had arranged this trade. We had the quick “it should have enough range” (him) vs. “no it doesn’t” (me) conversation while he looked up the location of an independent charging station on my route.

Lesson 2

Independent charging stations don’t always work. This one didn’t.

Plan B: Find a VW Dealership where I could charge the car. Fortunately, my GPS said there was one within 10 miles, so off I went. But upon arrival, I was told this dealer did not have a “fast-charger” and their regular 240v charger would take hours.

Lesson 3

Just finding a charger is not good enough.  It has to be one of the specially made “fast chargers,” or you’re going to be there a while.

Plan C: across the street was a Nissan Dealer. Nissan makes electric cars and I could see several “fast chargers” right in front of the showroom. Pulling up, I asked a salesman if I could use one of them. He said sure, except for the annoying fact that it wouldn’t work on my car. Apparently, all the Japanese cars use one kind of charger and receptacle while all the U.S. and European cars use a different kind.

Lesson 4

EV charging receptacles are not standard, so you not only have to find a fast-charger, you have to find the correct fast-charger. That’s right — with all the hullabaloo about electric cars, they can’t even agree on which plug to use. I’m told Tesla uses yet a third type of receptacle.

Plan D: Find another European car dealer with a fast-charger. I called the next VW dealer near my route and, to my relief, was told yes – they had four fast-chargers. But when I arrived, all four chargers were occupied, with no owners in sight.

Lesson 5

Fast-chargers are popular, so don’t expect to pull right up to one as you would a conventional gas pump.

A quick chat with the sales manager to tell him I only needed “a few miles” added to my range and he agreed to temporarily move one of the cars from a charging station so I could use it.  Whew! Fifteen minutes and 40 miles of additional range later, I was on my way.

I arrived with 40 miles of range to spare. Would I have made it without an additional charge?  I’ll never know, but in the space of 110 miles I did get a real-world education about EVs. From what I learned, they’ve still got a way to go, literally and figuratively. In particular:

Driving an EV with a 120 mile range is like driving a gasoline-powered car with a four gallon tank.  You don’t get very far. High-end EVs have higher published ranges — for instance, Tesla’s advertise 300 miles — but as I discovered, you get a lot less than that in the real world, especially on a cold fall morning.

Chargers and receptacles need to be standardized. Seriously. The current system is like being told you can only fill up at a Chevron station because Shell and Arco pumps won’t work with your car. If someone can come up with a patent for a universal adapter, they are going to become very wealthy, very fast.

Fast chargers aren’t really fast — they can still take half an hour or more to charge your car. If this process can’t be expedited, then there should be a McDonald’s franchise at every charging station so at least you can get something to eat while you’re waiting.

To my relief, my return ride was a good old-fashioned gas-powered, two-liter, four-cylinder turbo. So I quickly forgot about fast-chargers and European receptacles while I turned up the stereo and the climate control, set the cruise control to 70 and headed for home. 

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