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12,000 miles in an electric vehicle, or bust

Norman Hajjar hopes to set the record for the world's longest car trip powered by electricity. He also wants to make a point about the need to build out US infrastructure for e-vehicles.

Norman Hajjar, research director at Recargo. Recargo

Call it a publicity stunt with a higher purpose -- or at least one that transcends the usual pursuit of narrow self-interest. There's that, too, but when Norman Hajjar completes his 12,000 mile traverse of the continental United States in about three weeks, he hopes to have made a larger point about electric cars and their potential.

The journey would set a record as the world's longest-ever car trip powered by 100 percent electricity and offer further testimony as to the promise of this nascent technology. But it's not a challenge most electric-vehicle owners of right mind would be ready to take on.

That's because Hajjar is driving a car that's beyond many people's budget. He's lucky enough to be setting out in a Tesla Model S sedan, a vehicle with an average range of more than 250 miles between charges, or more than triple the distance that lower-end electric vehicles can cover before their batteries hit empty.

Hajjar's company, Recargo, makes an app for locating EV charging stations, so finding one of Tesla's so-called "supercharger" stations, where he can fill up in less than 30 minutes, shouldn't be a problem either.

As for the rest of us, we can either wait until Tesla prices fall to mass market levels or wait till the government or the private sector builds out the nation's fast-charging infrastructure.

Hajjar, who directs Recargo's research division, says that the paucity of fast-charging stations effectively keeps drivers of electric vehicles with midrange batteries relatively close to home. He says most people aren't going to contemplate long trips where they'll have to stop in the middle and wait four hours before they finish refueling at slower Level 2 charging stations.

"The point is that these cars today are not achieving their potential," Hajjar said, adding that a real metropolitan transporation infrastructure is still not in place.

And so Friday afternoon, Hajjar put his vehicle into gear, leaving the Pacific Northwest for a journey that will take him through 27 of the lower 48 states before ending up at Recargo's offices in Venice, Calif. (You can track his progress via live updates on the interactive Web site.) The following is an abridged transcript of a conversation I had with Hajjar shortly before he started his trip.

Q: Outside of getting written into the "Guiness Book of World Records," what's your ambition here?
Hajjar: I'm a Tesla enthusiast and also an EV enthusiast. But I'm also managing director of a research firm. We have a panel of 9,000 EV drivers and we submit questionnaires and do research with them. In the course of doing this research, I've really come to the profoundly strong point of view that there's a need for fast-charger infrastructure to really make the EV category blossom. There's a wealth or glut of level 2 chargers out there, which, from a logistical standpoint, doesn't allow you to do what I'm doing on this trip. We need to underscore the need for the development of a fast-charging infrastructure and the incredible utility that would bring to EVs.

Which doesn't yet exist, really.
Hajjar: People still don't understand that EVs have gotten past the quirky stage, the exotic stage, the experimental level. And by doing trips like this, we can make it obvious that we're on the cusp of a new era of transport.

But you're also driving a unique vehicle that goes about 250 miles on a single charge. What about the same trip in a Leaf? Would that be doable?
Hajjar: Not yet. But eventually, journeys of 1,000 miles -- you could do it. The problem with the Leaf is that every 70 or 80 miles, you have to recharge. That's not the end of the world, but we'll see battery capacity increase very shortly.

Why is it taking so long to reach that point?
Hajjar: The one technology that was always the laggard here was the battery. It was the one that was on the least Moore's Law curve. It was always a real stopper.

So how long is it going to take before there's a reasonably broad charging infrastructure and people driving electric cars won't need to sweat it if they decide to take extended driving trips?
Hajjar: The midrange EV with a 70-, 80-, or 90-mile range is really a metropolitan-area vehicle. Realistically, for 99 percent of drivers, it's something where they wouldn't want to go more than 300 miles from home. There won't be cross-country (electric) vehicles until the range increases. But their utility will increase if there are more fast-charging stations out there.

So, do you plan to pick up any hitchhikers along the way?
Hajjar: We'll do a limited number of "ride-alongs" for whoever wants to ride. So people can contact our (Venice, Ca.) headquarters and they can jump in from one station to the next.

(Editors note: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the company's headquarters.)