Road Trip

/ 24 October 2021

In September our little bubble of Mary, Alex, and I decided to take our first journey beyond our corner of Minnesota since the Covid pandemic began. We wanted to visit family in Cleveland, adopt a cat that needed a new home, and give Ally (our new Volkswagen ID.4) her first real road trip.

The trip from Saint Paul to Cleveland is roughly 700 miles and in our Prius it took us about 11.5 hours. My goal on long road trips has always been getting the trip over with as quickly as possible. We rarely stop for more than gas, trying to squeeze food and bathroom breaks into the gas stops. We knew that our trip with Ally would be different. The ID.4 only has a roughly 200 mile range and each stop would require much more time for charging. This was something that I had accepted in principle before we bought an EV as our only car, but the trip to Cleveland was the first real world test.

The first step was planning. I wanted as little stress as possible on the trip, so I wanted a good idea before we left of where we would be stopping along the way. VW’s built in navigation and planning are still very poor, we hope they fix these in an update some day. Luckily, they have an excellent implementation of Apple’s CarPlay and there are some great route planning tools available for the phone. I tried both A Better Route Planner (ABRP) and PlugShare. While ABRP has some really great features, I found myself using PlugShare the most during both planning and the drive. I especially appreciated the social aspect of PlugShare, which gave me much more confidence that the charging stations we were aiming for were in good working order.

Our planning was also simplified by the fact that VW is providing ID.4 owners with three years of free charging on the Electrify America (EA) network of chargers. By planning to only use EA chargers we could end up with no fuel costs for the whole trip!

Our plan called for stops at a Walmart in Tomah, a Sam’s Club in Rockford, a mall near South Bend, a service plaza on the Ohio Turnpike, and a Giant Eagle near Cleveland. This final stop was not necessary to complete the trip, but we wanted to be fully charged so that we could do whatever we wanted during our weekend in Cleveland.

Spoiler alert: the trip was great! The car performed wonderfully.

But there were two significant lessons we learned on our very first leg that I want to share: (1) speed matters and (2) don’t follow Electrify America’s instructions. Let me also share a basic reminder about EV car charging in 2021.

EV charging basics

EV manufacturers like VW will quote a “range” for their vehicles that is verified by the EPA. For example, our 1st Edition ID.4 has an EPA estimated range of 250 miles. But this range assumes you charge the car to 100% and most manufacturers (including VW) ask you to only charge the car to 80% under normal circumstances. They do this to protect the health of the battery over the long term. The batteries used in cars today will last much longer if the car is not stressed by continually charging to 100%. From time to time it is OK to charge the car to 100%, as long as you plan to immediately drive the car enough so that the charge will quickly fall below the 80% threshold. In other words, if you are on a road trip and charging before a highway drive, feel free to charge to a full 100%

However, there is another constraint to be aware of: today’s EVs will usually charge much more quickly for the first 50%, reasonably fast for the next 30%, and very slowly for the last 20%. For example, while our ID.4 can charge from 10% to 80% in about 45 minutes, it can take another 20 to 30 minutes to charge the final 20% for a 100% charge.

This means that the game you play on a road trip is to do your best to arrive at a charging station with the lowest charge possible and only charge enough to get to your next charging station. Any extra charge is, effectively, a waste of time, since it will always be faster to charge a depleted battery than a half full or more battery. You can decide how rigorously you want to play this game, because arriving at a charging station with almost no charge is stressful for the driver, even if it is healthy for the car. Also, if unexpected events occur between here and there, you may appreciate a bit of extra charge.

Speed matters

Our first leg was approximately 165 miles and we were starting with an 80% charge which usually gives us about 200 miles or more of travel around the Twin Cities. This time, though, we were traveling on the highway, most of it posted with a 70 MPH speed limit. I started the trip with a determination to do pretty much my usual thing. One of my usual practices is to drive at 5 MPH over the posted speed limit. On this drive a lot of drivers were driving much faster than this, but I don’t feel that much of a need for speed.

For the first half of this leg I watched the ID.4 range estimate (we call it the “Guess’o’meter” or GoM) drop much more quickly than the number of miles we were covering. We started with the GoM telling us we could drive for 241 miles, but by the time we had covered just 80 miles the GoM was telling us we could only drive another 110 or so. Those first 80 real miles had cost us over 130 guesstimate miles. We had another 80 miles to go and if the same rate held true we would not be able to make it.

I decided to moderate my speed, dropping to the posted speed limit of 70 MPH. After a few miles it was not yet clear to me how great the impact on our milage was, so I dropped below the speed limit to 65 MPH. Within a dozen miles or so it became clear that at 65 miles per hour our range was increasing slightly as we drove. By the time we had 35 miles to go our GoM was estimating 58 miles of range. I returned to driving at 75 MPH and we arrived at the charger with 10 miles on the GoM and 5% remaining in the battery.

While I know, intellectually, that higher speeds reduce milage (even in a gas car), it was really powerful to see just how clearly speed ate away at our range. In fact, one test by Car and Driver only got 190 miles out of a fully charged ID.4 driving at 75 MPH. We eventually found that when we drove at 65 the GoM would underestimate our range, when we drove 75 MPH the GoM would overestimate our range, and if we drove at 70 or so MPH the Guess’o’Meter would pretty much guess right. Learning this made us much more confident about range estimates.

Another lesson along these lines was the Chicago leg of our trip. Usually Chicago traffic on the highway is a huge annoyance. We creep and crawl along at low speed, lots of stop and go. On this trip we noticed that we got incredibly good milage through this Chicago leg, easily making it between chargers that were over 180 miles apart. This was, I am sure, due to a combination of lower speeds and the regenerative power that our brakes were storing up in the battery.

Don’t follow EA instructions

When we stopped at Electrify America in Tomah, WI, for the first charge of our road trip we initially struggle to get the charger working. EA very prominently asks you to “plug in first” when you pull up to a charger. We learned this was a mistake, at least when trying to charge a VW with the free charging plan we were using. Here’s the process we followed that worked every time:

  1. Park at the charger and note the charger’s number (the last two digits on the long number identifying the charger).
  2. Pull up the EA app on our phone, make sure it identifies the right charging station (it usually would do this just fine using the phone’s location).
  3. Scroll on the list of chargers at that station until you find the one that matches the charger number at which you are parked. Tap that specific charger.
  4. Make sure you are positioned so you can grab the CCS plug from that charger.
  5. Tell the app to “Start Charging” then immediately grab the CCS plug and plug it into the car.
  6. Wait and verify that the charger identifies the vehicle and starts charging. Once it says “hi” to you by name, you are good to go.

All of this presumes you have an account set up at Electrify America and that this account knows you have an ID.4 and has confirmed the free charging plan.

The journey is the reward

As expected, the stops for charging added a considerable time to the length of our trip. A journey that took 11.5 hours in our Prius took closer to 14.5 hours in the ID.4. Our stops were roughly 45 minutes each.

Less expected was the effect this had on our trip. A journey that in the past felt stressful and exhausting was much more enjoyable and relaxing. Part of this, I am sure, is due to what a wonderful car the ID.4 turns out to be. Between the electric drive, the safety features, CarPlay, and the general comfort of the cabin, it is just a fun car to inhabit! But part of this was also due to the breaks that were forced on us. At each stop we got out of the car and really relaxed. Meals were slow, bathroom breaks were long. There was no rush to get back on the road. By the time the car was charged up, we were ready to go.

We arrived in Cleveland much more refreshed than in the past, enjoying each other’s company and with energy for conversations with family. We had the same experience on our return, spending two hours in conversation with a friend upon our return after a 14 hour drive. In the end I can honestly say that I really preferred the longer, more relaxing trip that Ally forced us to take.

I am looking forward to our next road trip!

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