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EV Road Trips: An Ounce of Prevention Saves a Pound of Stress

Even a little bit of hubris can set a journey back by hours if something goes sideways.

Mercedes-Benz EQS Charging
Andrew Krok/CNET

When it comes to integrating electric vehicles into your life, there may be no more difficult task than a long-distance road trip. EVs bring new variables to driving, and they can have a pretty profound impact on what seems like a simple task: getting from Point A to Point B. But I'm here to tell you that a little bit of planning will go a long way.

The biggest mistake anyone can make on an EV road trip is assuming it will feel as "normal" as taking long drives in gas-powered cars. As an EV owner planning a road trip, you are more or less at the cutting edge of this technology. Infrastructure is still being built out, and range continues to grow with each new generation of cars. It probably wasn't easy for the first gas-powered cars to take interstate road trips, either.

Think ahead, then think further ahead

We've all seen how electric-vehicle road tripping can go wrong, but while this all seems new and novel, a little old-school thinking will help. If your parents or grandparents planned a road trip back in the pre-Mapquest days, they'd whip out the ol' gas-station Rand McNally and manually chart a course. But now that we all carry perma-connected computers in our pocket, and since modern cars aren't exactly technological slouches, we can modernize this step with way more granularity.

A majority of EV chargers aren't located in the most picturesque areas, so prepare to spend a lot of time staring at the front of a Sam's Club or Target.

Andrew Krok/CNET

I'll admit to an advantage here, car-wise. The 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS580 I used for this test offers 340 miles of Environmental Protection Agency-estimated range, and it packs an extremely capable infotainment system with EV-specific navigation. Not only will the system factor range and charging into any route, it also lets me set my desired state of charge at my destination (up to 50%) and pick whether or not the charging plan includes out-of-network infrastructure. And since it's built into the car, the system knows the vehicle's battery level at all times and can adjust the routing in case I'm a little too generous with the throttle.

While not every automaker offers this robust tech, some third-party options that come close. My personal favorite is A Better Route Planner (ABRP). This free app packs all the same capabilities as Mercedes' own telematics, except it needs to be told the car's initial state of charge. It knows the location of chargers large and small across nearly every network. It works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but you can also send a waypoint-based map to Google Maps if you prefer to use that.

With navigation sorted, you'll want to sort payment. The US EV infrastructure is split between several major players; ChargePoint, Electrify America and EVgo are the biggest kids on the playground. Some chargers are able to accept card payments at the point of sale, but it's easier to plan ahead. Since I know what chargers I will encounter ahead of time -- it's smart to plan backup chargers in the off chance your intended ones aren't functional -- I download their respective apps, register for free accounts and input my payment methods ahead of time. Electrify America and ChargePoint can utilize my iPhone's Apple Wallet cards, so when I show up for juice, I only need to hold my phone against the charger's screen and I'm good to go. Some automakers (including Mercedes) also incorporate payment into the vehicle itself, so all you have to do is plug and charge.

Just as it's smart to fill up a gas tank the night before a big drive, it's wise to top off a battery in the same way. If you're one of those lucky ducks with a spare 240-volt dryer plug within reach of a parking space, congratulations: You can juice up overnight at home and skip this step. Like most folks, I do not yet have charging infrastructure at home, with my 1930s colonial offering a single 120-volt exterior plug nowhere near the driveway (and you should never charge with an extension cord); and my neighborhood in Detroit is served by a single 50-kilowatt EVgo charger that's often broken. Thus, I need to travel about 8 miles to a grocery store with a 350-kW EVgo charger. Also, don't forget that EV batteries dramatically reduce charging speeds after reaching 80% capacity, so bring a book if you're trying to fully top it off.

Planning ahead paid off early for me, because I hadn't even left town and annoyances started to crop up. The EVgo charger 8 miles from my house had one functional 350-kW charger (out of four), which was occupied by a GMC Hummer EV development vehicle topping off its extremely large battery. Instead of traveling another 10 miles down the road to the next closest charger, which could also be malfunctioning, I ended up sitting and waiting for about an hour for the Hummer EV to finish.

Calling EVgo didn't help, as their customer service representative simply told me that the offline chargers were "down for maintenance" and couldn't elaborate on why or when they're expected to be back online. This is how most calls to EV-charging customer service lines unfortunately end up.

Hit the road, Jack

On my route from Detroit to Chicago, my first charging session took place about halfway through Michigan, along I-94 just outside Kalamazoo at an Electrify America charger. The Mercedes EQS' infotainment system estimated I'd arrive with about 60% of my battery left, but a sufficiently swift flow of traffic drained electrons a bit faster than expected, leaving me closer to 50%.

That's an important thing EV road trippers need to keep in mind: Your car's telematics are likely offering best-case scenario range figures. It's in your best interest to juice up more often than those estimates, especially if ABRP or your turn-by-turn system estimates a low (under 20%) state of charge at arrival.

The Electrify America charger outside Kalamazoo did a commendable job, giving the EQS a charging rate around 150 kW. The charger was actually rated for 350 kW, but the EQS is not (drawing about 200 kW at most), so 150 feels pretty comfortable. In about 20 minutes, I was back up to 88%.

Never assume that chargers will be working every time you need them. Anything can happen, and you need to be prepared for that.

Andrew Krok/CNET

I could reach my destination without another charge, but that would leave me desperately seeking juice. Adding a waypoint in ABRP is simple, and it's just as easy in the EQS' infotainment system, so a quick search pulled up a 350-kW EVgo at the Chicago Ridge Mall. Since I had no firm plans on my arrival day (one of those "just in case" decisions) I lingered a little longer here, reaching 90% before heading off, giving me enough range for the next two days of activities.

Thanks to that little extra time investment, it was nice cavorting around Chicago and not thinking about charging and range every few minutes. Chicago is also vastly better equipped with EV infrastructure than Detroit, so if I did get paranoid and want a topper, 150-kW-and-up chargers were never more than 10 miles away. I had half an hour to kill between plans one evening, so I spent 20 minutes at an Electrify America charger picking up another 15% just to be safe. It would've been faster, but one of the chargers at this particular bank kept throwing errors, so I had to shuffle to a different one.

This is where I let overconfidence get the better of me, which nearly doomed me to a truly annoying trip home. As I left Chicago, I thought, "The battery is basically full, I'll just skip the Chicago Ridge Mall charger and do a one-stop in Kalamazoo. The Electrify America chargers worked brilliantly two days ago, I'm sure they'll be fine today."

They were not.

Rolling back up to the same chargers outside Sam's Club, I saw half the charging stations displaying a screen saying they were not functioning. I pulled up to the sole working 350-kW charger with an 18% state of charge, which was just enough range to reach one of my nearby fallback options if worse came to worse. My hubris weighed heavy on my head as I plugged in and saw a max charging rate of 35 kW, which would get me to 80% in nearly two hours. I tried one of the other functional chargers, a 150-kW unit, and saw the same speeds. Again, I am glad I had zero plans on the day of my return, but this was still frustrating.

So I called Electrify America, and within 2 minutes I was on the phone with a human being. A human being who, after I explained the issue, proceeded to tell me that there was nothing they could do, then explained all the reasons why my vehicle was likely causing problems. (It wasn't.) The rep didn't even offer to reboot the charger, which probably wouldn't fix it, but at least it would have given me false comfort that EA tried something.

As a last-ditch effort before resigning to fate — after finishing the lunch that I was glad I picked up on my way to the charger — I tried the sole remaining station in the group. By the grace of whomever, I immediately maxed out the 150-kW charging rate and thanked my lucky stars I'd only be there another 30 minutes. If that charger were bum, as well, I'd have been stuck sitting for an extra two hours... or weighing the decision to head up to Grand Rapids in search of faster plugs (or more delays).

What did I learn?

One of the biggest issues anyone with an EV will face is the expectation that functioning chargers are not a guarantee. In fact, it's one of the biggest pain points in current EV adoption. If you run into a charger with issues, call the company and tell them, so they can change its in-app status and schedule a maintenance crew. Seeing an inoperable charger in your app of choice may be frustrating, but it's much better than not noticing it until you've arrived.

The single biggest advantage on this EV road trip was planning for contingencies and not overpromising my time. I had no miss-it-and-you're-screwed obligations on my driving days, no copilot who had to be back by X date for Y reason. Not everyone can plan a trip this way, but if you can, your experience shouldn't be far off from mine: a largely enjoyable few days with a couple minor hiccups that could've eaten up a few hours.

Odds are, EV buyers already know these things. At this juncture, buying an electric car is a conscious decision to accept trade-offs in how these cars function, which can have immediate impacts on things like planning long weekends. We're not quite yet at a point where someone can grab a random EV from Hertz, pick a cardinal direction and just start driving apropos of nothing.

My trip carried some privileges, like the EQS' prodigious range and the fact that my trip wasn't exactly coast-to-coast. But think of this trip as a modular thing: If your trip is similar but longer, factor in a few more stops (and contingencies) and adjust the expected time of completion to suit. I ended up adding a couple hours of slow charging, traffic and other minor frustrations over the course of 800 miles, so for longer trips, it's as simple as expecting and accounting for a couple more hours of flex time on top of that.

Taking all these things into account while preparing for an EV road trip will pay off, whether it's because chargers are malfunctioning or because your right foot isn't as efficient as the trip computer thinks. One day, we'll be able to zip across our amber waves of grain with less concern, but for now, spending a little more time planning will make execution much, much easier.