The way we saw things, if we were spending two months driving around the western United States with a baby in the middle of the pandemic, it wouldn’t be any more logistically complex doing it in an electric vehicle. As it turned out, being in an EV made the whole thing so much better.
Here was the plan: After 13 years living abroad, we were going to remeet America in grand fashion. We’d drive 5,500 miles around the western U.S. visiting friends and family in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. We’d do the whole thing in a brand new Ford Mustang Mach-E California Route 1, which has an official range of 304 miles (but which we found on some flat legs of driving to be capable of more like 325–340).
We set off from San Francisco on December 10, 2021, and put in the Holiday Inn, Santa Clarita, some 371 miles away, as the Day 1 destination. The car’s navigation system plotted our charging stops for us and we drove off confidently—into a massive strategic blunder.
At our first bathroom break, just a quick pause at a gas station, we were still confident. Three hours later, we arrived at our first charger in Firebaugh, not far from Fresno, and fumbled around for five minutes before charging. Things seemed to be working.
It was at our next stop that we realized things were off track. Our four-month-old woke up hungry and we had to pull off at Buttonwillow, near Bakersfield, a rest stop with no services and no charging. Then, an hour down the road, we unexpectedly had to stop and charge at a rest area in Lebec as our car hadn’t calculated the added work of driving to higher elevations. Our baby woke up, and the quick 10-minute charge turned into a 45-minute baby care break.
That was when the light bulb came on. At that moment we got it all figured out.
Plan your own charging stops
When we let the car plan our charging stations, the car’s built-in navigation system tried to make the total travel time as short as possible. Since the battery charges fastest when it’s most depleted, the algorithm was having us charge when the battery was closer to 20 percent and not charge it up to the normal stopping point of 80 percent. There were three problems with this approach:
- We took more time during breaks to feed ourselves, relieve ourselves, and feed the baby than it took to charge the car (about 25 minutes at a level 3 charger averaging 75 kW, which is only half of the total potential charge speed for our car). So reducing charge time really wasn’t necessary.
- We wanted to plan our stops to align better with our baby’s naps and feeding needs, and not just push for the longest stretches, which is not as relaxing as knowing you have regular breaks coming.
- The car was optimizing to get us to our final station with a lower battery for faster recharge, but changes in the weather and gradient affected the battery performance, and then it added a charge to our route. As we headed out of the Central Valley and over the Transverse Range, we were climbing and the air temperature plummeted. We were fine, because the planning system knows where the chargers are and stops you from getting into trouble, but the last stop wasn’t how we would have planned our time.
So for the next two months we changed our strategy, picking charges 1.5–2.5 hours down the road to align better with our needs.
A network of EV charging stations
There are chargers all over the western U.S. We drove across some of the least inhabited parts of the country, through the Sonoran Desert, Great Basin Desert, and even back-country two-lane blacktop across the Columbia Plateau. Still, there were always chargers and we never got close to using the full 300-mile range of our car. Until Fort Collins, Colorado.
We pulled up at an EVGo charging station at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery to park while we ate an exceptionally chilly brunch at the famed Ginger and Baker, which was kindly offering outdoor seating in midwinter. But we couldn’t get the charger to work, and we had to use an Electrify America station on the way back to Denver.
Almost inadvertently, we had only been using Electricity America and ChargePoint rapid chargers while on the go. They’re both great networks. ChargePoint even has uptime and availability reporting so you can see how many plugs are available. And after that EVGo experience, we stuck with those trusted networks. They both have extensive coverage across the nation, so we never needed anything else anyway.
Finding hotels with EV chargers
Most days we’d charge at the hotel and then use one or two rapid chargers during the drive. We found chargers at a wide range of hotels, and just about every booking site has a way to filter hotels by those who have chargers. Salt Lake City, Utah, was the only place where we couldn’t find a hotel where we wanted to stay with chargers. But when we pulled into the TownePlace in Murray, just south of Salt Lake, we found that it had just installed four chargers and hadn’t listed them on its website yet. The infrastructure is going in quickly.
We’d drive 150 to 200 miles and then take a rapid-charge break. We would pee, feed the baby, and often feed ourselves too. Sometimes pee again, just for good measure. Hydration is important. We were always done charging well before we were done with other activities. If you’re road-tripping with kids, or simply enjoy a chance to stretch your legs, you’ll likely find charging time is not a concern at all if your car can charge at 75 kW.
How EV charging works
It’s important to draw a distinction between home chargers and the type of rapid chargers you use out on the road. At home you can plug into a wall for roughly 1 kilowatt per hour of charging. You can also have a more powerful charger installed that will give you around 4–6 kW; these are called level 2 chargers. But out on the road is where the mighty beasts of charging are to be found. Level 3 chargers run at 50–150 kW, or even faster for some of the newest chargers and cars.
Our car has an 88 kilowatt–hour battery, which gives us an official range of 304 miles. Since we were normally driving two hours, that meant we typically used around 50 percent of our battery between charges. At most chargers, we were topping up in 20 minutes or less. Hopefully, this also shows that you don’t need the great range that we’ve got to do a trip like this. Almost everything we did could have been accomplished in a car with 260 miles of range.
The surprising benefits of road-tripping in an EV
If you’ve got an EV, you should get it out on the open road. If you’ve never driven a long distance in an EV, let us tell you: The difference isn’t subtle. Friends we saw in Seattle called it “magic on wheels.” In comparison to our old 2005 internal combustion car, magic might be understating the case. Without thousands of little controlled explosions, it doesn’t vibrate in the same way and is beautifully quiet. The ride is smooth and the driving is effortless.
At the end of a long day on the road in our EV, we still felt fresh and ready to go play in a park in Salt Lake City, have beers in Flagstaff, or find the best Vietnamese food in Denver.
But our most common meal was the fresh veggies, hummus, and cheese out of our mini-fridge. With such a massive battery on board, plugging in a small electric cooler just cost us a mile or two of electricity each day. In exchange, we kept pumped breastmilk cold, as well as the best road trip eats we’d ever had. And no mess from ice or worry about refreezing blue ice. Another win for the EV.
From Bandelier National Monument to a residential street in Portland, folks always had one question for us: How did we get the car? Admittedly, that was the hardest part of the trip and involved the family calling every dealership in a 50-mile radius. But the supply is already improving, so we hope you’ll join us in this new and improved way to enjoy the classic American road trip.
Weldon documented his adventures in a series of videos. Head to YouTube to see more of the trip.