Owning an EV Isn’t Quite Carefree—Yet

Traveling with an electric vehicle still requires some additional planning.

A friend of mine will soon take delivery of a new 2019 Audi e-tron. He resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but owns a home in Chicago, where the EV will live. Delivery of the e-tron will happen at the Audi dealer in Grand Rapids (GR). It will then be driven to Chicago, making occasional runs back and forth to Michigan. While that plan doesn't throw up any red flags at first glance, a small delta between the range of the EV and the distance between the two Midwest cities means some planning is needed. I sat down to help plot the maiden voyage, including a charging stop. And that's where things got interesting.

The EPA range of the Audi e-tron is 204 miles. Google Maps says it's 185 miles from GR to Chicago. The aforementioned charging stop is needed because all the stars would need to align to effortlessly make the trip without a top-up. The direct route from GR to Chicago (and back) is via westbound I-196, I-94, and I-90. A free-flowing highway isn't the best environment for maximum EV range. Luckily there's a growing network of fast chargers.

Electrify America (EA) is a subsidiary of VW Group of America. Included with every new e-tron is a total of 1000 kW of free charging via EA. Unfortunately, there are no EA chargers on the direct route to Chicago. There's an EA DC fast charger in Mishawaka, Indiana, but diverting there adds 26 miles to the trip. It's not ideal, but it looks to currently be the best option. One could also take an alternative route via an EA DC fast charger in Portage, Michigan, but then you're stopping for a top-up after only about an hour behind the wheel and that stop itself adds 23 miles to the direct journey.

Of course, you can't really talk EVs without mentioning the current powerhouse in the segment: Tesla. Well, the powerhouse as far as sales. Its SUV and e-tron competitor, the Model X, offers range that easily topples the Audi at 250, 305, or 325 miles, thanks to a recent update. Additionally, there's a Tesla Supercharger (150-kW fast charger) perfectly placed for a journey from GR to Chicago, in St. Joseph, Michigan. But a trip between GR and Chicago in any of the three Tesla Model X models can be accomplished without stopping to charge. Tesla also has multiple Superchargers in northern Michigan, something not currently offered by Electrify America. Mr. Musk has clearly done an excellent job building the company's fast-charging network.

Moving back to Audi, one advantage of its DC fast-charger configuration versus Tesla's proprietary Supercharger setup is the ability to top-up the e-tron's battery at fast chargers that aren't strictly on one network. Yes, you're able to charge a Tesla away from the Supercharger network via a J1772 plug and an adapter, but that's at the significantly slower Level 2 charging rate. But the DC fast charger world does open up a can of worms. EVgo, another charging network, has a DC fast charger located just outside Chicago (165 miles from GR) but it's past the I-90 turn-off to Chicago, on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294). Plus, it's only a 50-kW charger. All EA locations have both 150-kW (max charging speed for the e-tron) and 350-kW DC fast chargers (for future EVs including the upcoming Porsche Taycan). Going the EVgo route also adds another company to your vehicular mix, with a different payment structure versus EA.

ChargePoint is yet another EV-charging company (I don't have the space to list all the charging networks—it's an extensive roster). Its website and smartphone app lists that same EVgo charger on I-294 but claim it's a 60-kW charger. Confusing. ChargePoint also lists the EA DC fast chargers but it doesn't note the network info or charging rate. My point here is that there's a complicated mix of companies, charging rates, and roaming agreements in the DC fast-charger world. Increased consistency and stronger roaming agreements would be extremely helpful to consumers.

Digging deeper into the EV-charging world, I corresponded with Darryll Harrison, senior director and communications leader at ChargePoint. He brought up some good points about consumer "fueling" (charging) behavior. "About 80 percent of charging takes place at work or home, followed by charging 'around town' at retail locations, etc.," noted Harrison. "Less than five to 10 percent of the time, charging drivers charge on fast chargers." Of course, it's logical that fast-charger use will be even less as EV range increases. But that doesn't change the fact that fast chargers are needed, especially in more rural areas where drivers take longer trips. And with increased range, there may be more EVs heading out on road trips.

Luckily, more chargers are coming, both at EA and ChargePoint (who have just announced a collaboration) as well as other companies. "At the beginning of 2017, ChargePoint had a little more than 30,000 places to charge on its network in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of which were Level 2," said Harrison. "Today, we have more than 63,000 places to charge and growing. By 2025, we anticipate that our network will grow to 2.5 million split evenly in North America and Europe consisting of Level 2 and fast-charge options. The 2.5-million number doesn't include home chargers."

Audi has a combination with the e-tron and the EA charging network that carries potential but also needs to catch up to Tesla. Again, EA plans to grow its charging network. Plus, EV range will increase as new models hit the market, both at VW Group and at other companies including new names like Rivian. The Porsche Taycan, like the e-tron, will have a deal with EA (three years of free charging). Porsche's EV sedan is said to carry a significantly superior range. Of course, it will be more expensive than the e-tron, too. The cost of progress. Tesla is ahead of the game in many ways, but it has its own teething issues, including a distinct lack of consistent profitability. Also, Audi blows away Tesla with a superior dealer network and better parts-distribution model. You only need to talk to collision centers to learn about the headaches obtaining replacement parts for a crashed Tesla.

It will be interesting to see where the EV market sits in five years. That's especially true when you look at the U.S. as a whole. As we work through this transition away from fossil fuels, we must remember that we live in a huge, diverse country. California is not North Dakota or the Great Lakes region. Commuting in Silicon Valley is not the same as herding cattle in Medora or trips between Grand Rapids and Chicago. The needs and wants of consumers vary greatly and we have a very long way to go before the internal-combustion engine exits the market, no matter what you've read.

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Georg Kacher |
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