By Jason Bohrer (Oct 30, 2020)
Last year I wrote about a road trip my wife and I took to Minneapolis to see Garth Brooks in concert. Because of charging infrastructure, the trip needed to be a two-day affair. Recently, we needed service on the Tesla (upgraded the computer module and replaced the windshield) and so once again made the trip.
Once again, my objective was to drive the Tesla like I drive my ICE car—treating it as a 1:1 replacement. I know plenty of EV drivers who don’t drive like that, but I don’t think the market truly develops until people are comfortable driving an EV without changing anything. It might not be “fair” to Teslas or other EVs, but it’s a fact. I also found that driving like that reveals shortcomings or differences that otherwise might never become apparent. So I write about them so others will learn and be informed.
Quick! What’s the number one thing people tell you when promoting an EV? That they are cheaper to drive, because electricity is cheaper than gas, right? Well, although that can be true, what I learned is its not universally true.
We left Bismarck fully charged and drove to Jamestown, where we met a friend for lunch. We drove about 80 mph all the way, using Autopilot, which is probably 2-3 mph slower than I would have driven any other car except my wife’s Jeep Wrangler. Finally, thanks to Tesla’s recent investments, we now have a chain of Tesla Superchargers lined up and energized across North Dakota, so we picked a restaurant close to the Supercharger and plugged in.
When I got back to the car, I unplugged and checked how much it cost. It had refilled to maximum capacity. Cities in North Dakota are spaced out around 100 miles, (I think that is related to how railroad towns developed, or at least that’s what my Dad told me), so I was blown away when I saw how much that first 100 miles of travel cost in the Tesla, which everyone knows is cheaper to operate than an ICE car. It cost $12.00. I could have driven my Chrysler Pacifica, which gets about 20mpg driving 80, with gas being right around $2.00 per gallon, and it would have cost $10. This surprised me, and I’ve been driving this thing for a long time.
Next leg was from Jamestown to Fargo, another 100 miles. Just like the railroads, I like to stop about every 100 miles anyway, but for different reasons than the old-time steam engines. I refueled with Coke Zero and plugged the car into the Supercharger again. I didn’t need to—I had the energy to go further, but I figured, “I’m stopping anyway, let’s plug in and take advantage of the infrastructure.” So because I didn’t top the tank off, so to speak, I don’t know how much that particular segment actually cost, but I was in and out of the convenience store, with a fresh Coke Zero and an empty bladder, while my Tesla drank up 20kWh of electricity for a total cost of $5.00. It was probably double the length of my ICE pitstops, so about 10 minutes, and I certainly didn’t notice the extra five minutes.
Next stop was Alexandria—another 100 miles—and another rest and refreshment break. This one was a little longer, because we wanted to get all the way to Minneapolis. It cost $13.44, but once again we didn’t really “top off” the energy.
We made it without problem to Minneapolis, with about 20 miles to spare, and in the morning we plugged it in and wandered about the area’s shopping opportunities. This was the first time I really thought I was “wasting time” waiting for the car to charge. Up until then, all the other stops were places I would have stopped anyway, for a drink or snack or bathroom break, and only the one in Alexandria was more than slightly longer than I would have ordinarily done in my other cars. It would have been smarter for me to book a hotel with a charger in the basement, but this hotel was where I needed to be and in my price range. The closest hotel with a charger was more expensive. I predict that this experience will decrease over time as more hotels install charging infrastructure. Nevertheless, I was stuck with an empty car that needed to charge so I charged it in and killed some time.
And this time I felt it. Charging a car can be inconvenient—not nearly as inconvenient as some people who simply reject EVs claim, but the transition isn’t seamless either. After we figured we had charged enough, we came back to see that we’d spent another $16.50 on fuel for 69kWh.
That got us around Minneapolis for the next couple days, where we went to the Prince Museum and did some electric biking on some awesome bike trails along the river. Really cool.
By the time I turned the car over to Tesla for the service Monday morning, the thing was dead. Like 2 miles left. I’ll have more on the Tesla service experience later, but they worked hard and got the car back to me—with a full tank, provided for free—around 5 p.m. on Monday. We took off and headed home.
We basically followed the same stops on the way home, with a 38 kWh stop in Alexandria ($9.00 and 15-20 minutes) and then a 49kWh stop in Fargo that cost $12.00 and another 20-25 minutes. That one felt long, because by that time my wife was sleeping and I just went into the store, grabbed my Coke Zero, and went back to the car. With no one to talk to and with all of the publicity of The Social Dilemma, I just sat there with no one to talk to and no social media to keep me company. It was a boring 25 minutes. This one I did count, because did I mention I was bored?
By this time I was trying to get home as soon as I could, but it was also getting colder. I was worried about the battery life and the range, so I started going 70 instead of 75. (Did I mention I only drove 75 on the way home? I knew that extra 5 mph going from 75 to 80 would suck the battery life going home, causing me to have to charge for a longer time.) My worry was justified, because several times I got the warning from Autopilot that my speed might be too high as temperatures dipped to 23, then, 22, then 21. I started watching the real time and averaged energy consumption screen and calculated exactly how much energy I would need to absorb at my next stop (Jamestown) to arrive at home.
My calculation required a stop of 29 minutes in Jamestown, but it only cost $6.50. That was a long 29 minutes, because it was 12:30 in the morning. And I did a great job of calculating my needs, beca
use I got back to my house looking at this:
I kept really good track of how much time we spent at the chargers on the way home, which did a good job of replicating the scenario of, “I need to get somewhere with no wasted time.” So I didn’t stop at any point other than to charge. I needed two stops of 20 minutes and one stop of 30 minutes to get home, which contrasts with 1 stop of ten minutes in my ICE Pacifica. If time is your greatest priority, that’s one hour of difference. So here’s what I found. Driving with a good Supercharger network is nothing short of amazing. There really is very little of “range anxiety” in the traditional sense. I NEVER doubted that I could get where I needed to go. However, I did have some “time anxiety” which isn’t a great term but it encapsulates what I felt sitting in those parking lots after my stop in Alexandria. That feeling of, “I need to get going; I’m going to get to bed at 1:30 am and have to be at work tomorrow, come on electrons, move!” That feeling is significant and not easily quantified. But its real.
And after all that, it cost $75—but Tesla gave me a free tank of gas, so to speak. I was on 3 miles rolling into the service station, and Elon Musk filled up to “Road Trip” status for free when I left.
Its 430 miles from my house to the hotel I stayed in, so round trip we are looking at 860 miles. Its 15 miles to the Prince Museum/Paisley Park, so add another 30. Then another 10 to where we biked, so tack on another 20. So add it all up, and you are looking at 9100 miles.
Decreasing the mileage of my Pacifica slightly to accommodate decreased mileage in city driving, we are looking at a range of 47-48 gallons burned had I driven the ICE car. At $2.00 a gallon, that’s 94-96 dollars, which rounds up to $100. Had I not gotten a free tank of fuel at the Tesla station, I would have spent above $100 based on the $0.25 per kW cost at a Supercharger. Quite frankly, given what I myself have said about how electric cars are so much cheaper to drive—I was floored by those numbers. I was expecting to spend maybe a quarter of that.
I have another car that gets 30mpg, as well as a Suburban that gets maybe half that, along with the Pacifica that is my benchmark vehicle. Since I was taking bikes on the back, I couldn’t have taken the car with better fuel economy on THIS trip, but that car would do that same trip for $60.
Similarly, if time were my only consideration, I could have done that trip faster in the Suburban. I can make the trek with no stops in the Suburban, due to its massive fuel tank. Sure, it costs $60 one way, but it only takes 5 ½ hours—a full hour and half, maybe longer, than it takes in the Tesla.
So once again it comes down to trade-offs and priorities. I love the Tesla, and driving it is easier than driving the Chrysler. Its faster, and so much more advanced than what was state-of-the-art in 2006. The Autopilot is amazing, especially with the upgraded computer or on the Interstate. Side by side, I’m going with the Tesla probably four times out of five, but there are definitely times when I’m getting in the older ICE vehicle to save time, and if I were my younger self just out of college with a family I’d take the cheapest route possible no matter what.
This road trip to me illustrated that the cost conversation around EVs isn’t as black and white as we think—or even as black and white as I thought. I think its fair to say, EVs are significantly cheaper than ICE vehicles on average. But that’s when they are fueled by Level Two chargers like the one that we have at the Lignite Energy Council and used to get around town in the typical short trips. Although we talk about the need for a charging network for long trips, we don’t seem to talk as much about the cost differential between cheap Level Two chargers and more expensive fast chargers. That’s not a huge deal, since most people are going to do most of their driving around town.
I’ve gotten so used to driving around town, basically for free, (link to blog post) that I was expecting the same experience on a long road trip. It didn’t happen that way, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t do it again. All in all, I enjoyed the trip. Drive Electric ND exists to promote knowledge about electric vehicles, and educate the public so they can make truly informed choices—and we hope our real-world experiences increase your comfort level for when you finally decide to plug in and Drive Electric.