Electric cars are undoubtedly the near future—most carmakers won’t be producing gas-powered vehicles within a few years, and a recent executive order in California requires sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035. And they’re getting easier and easier to use, even for longer journeys. Range is growing, charging time is shrinking, and millions are being invested in rural charging stations. But can you take on a longer California road trip in an EV?
I recently took my first journey in a fully electric vehicle, and it was an ambitious one: 303 miles from the Los Angeles area through some fairly undeveloped stretches of desert to Las Vegas. Two years ago, a New York Times writer tried a similar journey in a Chevrolet Bolt and wrote about the experience under the headline: “L.A. to Vegas and Back in an Electric Car: 8 Hours Driving; 5 More Plugged In.” Surely things have improved in the EV world since then?
I borrowed a Polestar 2—Volvo’s first all-electric, luxury car. With a 408 horsepower engine and an estimated EPA range of 265 miles, it seemed ideal. It wouldn’t get me there in a straight shot but it would get me there in style. It also features an Android infotainment system (so Google Maps is front and center on the screen), a vegan leather interior, and—small things matter—a very satisfying and futuristic reversing sound.
I’d begun plotting my journey before I left. From my home in Thousand Oaks, a city just west of L.A., the route runs through the northern parts of Los Angeles County before joining the I-15 highway north between the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests, passing through cities like Hesperia and Victorville, Barstow and Baker, eventually cutting through vast tracts of desert, skirting the Mojave National Preserve, and reaching the bright lights of Vegas. Waze predicted a drive time of four hours and 45 minutes.
My research revealed plenty of interesting pit stop ideas—Calico Ghost Town, Mormon Rocks, and Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, to name just three. But I wanted to be sure I could charge the car when I stopped, which is why I ended up in a parking lot outside a JCPenney in Victorville a few hours into the drive when my battery had dropped to 43 percent.
It’s here that I’d planned to stop at an EVgo station with three charging spots—one of the fast-charging network’s 850-plus locations in 35 states. My first experience was fairly seamless. A driver vacated a spot as I arrived and I recharged in less than an hour—just enough time to browse the mall and get a coffee. A sticker on the station boasted that it was “powered by 100 percent renewable energy” and a rep for the company later confirmed this, telling me that “since 2019, EVgo has been the only 100 percent renewable powered network.” This particular station was powered by solar, but other renewable electricity is purchased through renewable energy credits (EVgo spends money on solar and wind projects).
It cost $18.59 to get the battery almost back to 100 percent—easily enough power to get me the remaining 188 miles to Vegas.
On the rest of the journey I passed the world’s largest gas station, the world’s tallest thermometer (where EVgo has more units), and a huge solar array sparkling in the late afternoon sun. By driving instead of flying I got to witness the gentle shifts in landscape you get on a longer road trip, shadows deepening on the mountains, and the appearance of Joshua trees as the road rose to 4,000 feet.
But it was that unexpected elevation gain that triggered some range anxiety, leaving me eyeing the car’s performance stats more than the surrounding scenery. I eventually started dropping back downhill to Vegas’s 2,000 feet and even clawed back 1 percent of battery power with some regenerative braking. I ended up at the Paris Las Vegas hotel around six hours after leaving, thanks to an accident that slowed traffic.
The return journey a few days later was almost as painless.
When I left Paris (the hotel), the Polestar 2 was fully charged. I’d managed to snag one of the three charging spots in the parking lot, getting a full charge for free, even if it took all night. I asked the hotel’s rep why there were so few charging points and why they weren’t widely advertised. “Caesar’s Entertainment has long offered a statewide approach to clean energy,” the company’s SVP of engineering and asset management, Eric Dominguez, said in a statement, adding that 48 EV charging stations were added at its 13 resorts in 2014, followed by a Tesla supercharger station, and also a new site in 2019 behind the Linq Promenade with 39 stations.
So, about that return journey. For starters, I think I made a Tesla angry. As I was unplugging the Polestar, the neighboring car kept activating “sentry mode,” warning its owner remotely of a possible thief (or in my case, a bumbling EV beginner).
As I drove out of the city, the car promised 330 miles of range—27 more than the distance home. However, that figure dropped to 230 by the time I’d passed the last Vegas hotel. I quickly learned that the remaining range figure can shift up and down depending on how you drive and other factors. It’s not a reliable indicator of how far you have left, as it is with gas cars. Remaining battery power is a better yardstick.
Once again, I had to miss the interesting pit stops, like the Greek restaurant a coworker recommended and that massive thermometer, in favor of a reliable charging point halfway home. The EVgo was full this time, but the Polestar 2’s Google Maps screen directed me to a Electrify America location, showing a variety of spots that were all free, by a Walmart back in Victorville.
Here I was less lucky, with several card readers not working and slower charging. (It seems like I’m not alone.) After a few phone calls to the company, where a helpful operator gave me the power for free, and trying out three different booths, the car began a 90-minute charge. As I killed time in a nearby In-N-Out Burger, I was thinking about big thermometers, tzatziki, and baklava. The return journey also took some six hours.
So have things improved? That total five-hour charging time from 2019 was more like two and a half for me, a drop likely to continue. And while my first EV road trip was marginally less convenient than a gas-powered drive, it cost me $18.59 and the environment very little. The journey took as long as flying, door to door—and there was something deeply satisfying about moving 300 miles across the planet powered by sunbeams.