Trying -- and kinda succeeding -- at going the distance with an electric car

For Road Trip 2015, CNET drives an all-electric car 500 miles around Britain's most scenic spots to see how easy it is to take a road trip without petrol. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well.

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Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
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Andrew Lanxon
12 min read

Watch this: What happens when you attempt a UK road trip in an electric car

LONDON -- As I watched my car being loaded onto the back of a tow truck, I knew my road trip hadn't gone to plan.

I'd hoped to enjoy a proper road trip with an electric car (or EV, as they're called). I'd planned a 500-mile journey around England. I wasn't going to go through the major cities, where charging points to replenish the car's battery are easy to find, but along the sweeping roads and picturesque villages -- where there are fewer places to charge an EV.

Check out all the places we've been on CNET's Road Trip 2015. CNET

That was my plan. Instead, my jaunt through the countryside featured three malfunctioning charging points, two rides in a tow truck and an exhausted drive back to London in the wee hours of the morning. While I technically completed the route, it was plagued with so many problems that I can't call it a success.

Planning the route

My vehicle was a 2015 Nissan Leaf Tekna, currently the most popular all-electric car in Britain. (You can read CNET's review of the 2012 Nissan Leaf SL here .) I charted a route with CNET Senior Editor Luke Westaway, who was joining me on this road trip, that relied on three types of charging points, commonly referred to as slow, medium and rapid. The slowest charging point would take up to eight hours to recharge the Leaf, while the most powerful would boost the car to 80 percent charged in only half an hour.

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Our planned route would take us from London to the Peak District and back again, avoiding major cities and the main motorways where charging points are easy to find. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Using a combination of Google Maps and Zap-Map, a site that shows the location and live status of all the UK's public charging points, I knew the number of miles between each charging point on our route. The Leaf has a theoretical range of up to 100 miles on a full charge, but in reality that number is closer to 70 or 80 miles, even when you're driving carefully.

To complete the route in our planned two days, these charging points would be our lifeline.

Leaving the city

The trip began in London at 5 a.m. on Friday, 7 August.

It was the first time I'd driven a Leaf, or any electric car. I was immediately impressed with how the Leaf handled the road. It was an automatic, which makes driving in the city a breeze and gives you a smooth and comfortable ride. It's certainly no slouch either, though a lead foot will cause the expected driving range on the dashboard to plummet -- and fast. We had to drive extremely carefully, and keeping the Leaf in Eco mode -- which extends the driving range by using less power for things like air conditioning -- was a must.

To help eke out even more juice, the Leaf has a "regenerative braking function" that simulates the engine braking you'd feel in a petrol car when coasting downhill, helping to generate power to feed back into the batteries. The dashboard display indicates how much power you're using from the accelerator and how much energy you're recovering when braking. We would rely heavily on this regenerative braking throughout the trip.

A 500-mile journey in an electric car (pictures)

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Our first charge

Our first charging stop was supposed to be the Glyn Hopkins Nissan showroom in Cambridge -- most Nissan dealerships have charging points for Nissan electric cars. However, the showroom doesn't open until 8:30 a.m. and our projected arrival was 7 a.m., so we stopped for a quick charge at a service station in Bishop's Stortford, before driving through Cambridge's city centre.

After a modicum of sightseeing in the university town, we headed over to the Nissan showroom to plug in the car. There, we used a 50-kilowatt rapid charger -- the fastest one available -- giving us most of our power back in about half an hour.

From there, it was back through Cambridge and onwards to Grantham, our next stop. We found a rapid charger at a Grantham service station, so we were on our way again after less than an hour of waiting.

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This Nissan showroom in Cambridge had a rapid charging dock. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Range anxiety

As we continued on our route, there's a steady uphill stretch between Bakewell and Buxton (where our next charging point was located). While only about a mile in total, it reduced our expected range from 28 to only 14 miles because of the amount of energy required to accelerate uphill. We left Bakewell with no worries about reaching Buxton, but now we had to be extremely careful about how we drove if we hoped to reach our next charging point.

With only a few miles of range remaining, we parked at the Old Manse Guesthouse in Buxton, where the owner Tim Blagbrough had allowed us to use his outdoor charging spot -- one of only a few charging points you'll find in all of England's Peak District.

Tim's charging points were of the medium 7-kilowatt variety and it would take around four hours to fully recharge the Leaf. We gave the car a two-hour boost, but found on our return that the charging point itself wasn't switched on -- meaning the car had received no power at all.

Lesson learned: always make sure you check the car definitely is charging before you leave it. We had to settle for a quick 20-minute boost instead.

After a jaunt around the beautiful Goyt Valley Reservoir, we returned to Buxton to charge the car overnight. We plugged into a standard 3-socket plug, which would require a full night -- around 8 hours -- to charge the car completely.

Day one had been long, but ultimately successful. We'd driven over 200 miles without much fuss. Sure, the half-hour waiting time at rapid charging points is a bit of a drag, but it gives you time for coffee. We were ready to conclude that the clean-energy, electric-car future we've been promised was already here. In fact, Luke and I even recorded a closing segment for our video diary declaring the road trip a success. Little did we know that day two of our road trip would change our outlook completely.

The day of failure

We unplugged the car from its charging point at 5 a.m. the following morning and, with a battery brimming with power, headed off.

Five minutes later and we ground to a halt behind a herd of dairy cows being brought in for milking -- a regular cause of traffic jams in the north's farming territory. Fortunately, it didn't take long to clear. Our route took us over the hills, past the Cat and Fiddle pub, through Macclesfield, Chester and on to Oswestry, near Wales.

According to Google Maps our route was 75 miles, well within the car's range. Even after driving extremely economically, however, we arrived at our planned charging point in Oswestry with little juice left.

Luke and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief as we pulled up in front of the Ecotricity rapid charging dock, but it was short lived. The charging point displayed an error and no amount of button-pushing (including the red emergency stop button) would bring it back into action. It didn't look good.

The plan fails

We called the helpline number on the charging point, hoping it may be a matter of simply restarting the charger. Ecotricity's helpline for its entire network of 250 chargers around the country operates only on Monday to Friday -- this was a Saturday. There was nobody to help us and the manager of the Esso garage that hosts the charging point wasn't able to assist (the charging points are managed entirely by Ecotricity).

With no power to drive to a different charging point and no ability to charge here, we had no choice but to call for roadside assistance. An hour later, a tow truck arrived to rescue us.

This wasn't the result I was hoping for. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Even after all our meticulous planning, just one broken charging point (listed as functioning on Zap-Map) had broken our drive. No amount of planning could have prevented this.

More than anything, the broken charging point showed the poor infrastructure and support for electric vehicles in the UK. At the Esso filling station where we were stranded, around 30 petrol pumps were available. When the only electric vehicle charging point is unavailable, though, you have no other option for recharging an EV battery. And not offering support on a weekend -- when people are more likely to take a long drive -- is particularly frustrating.

Ecotricity, it turned out, had cut its support during off-hours. "We previously had 24-hour telephone support, but this proved to be quite costly and limited in the amount of practical help it could provide down the phone line -- repairs can only take place in normal working hours, for example the fault at Oswestry you encountered could not have been fixed remotely or over the phone."

Of course, it is free to use Ecotricity charging points. While that's great, I wonder whether it makes around-the-clock support impossible. I'd gladly pay a small fee to have engineers on standby when I need them.

"If drivers do come across an electric pump that is not working," Ecotricity continued, "we recommend that they head over to the nearest alternative location." That's sound advice, assuming you don't arrive at the charging point with no power left -- like we did.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Things didn't get much better from there. We were towed to a nearby Nissan showroom, where they had two charging points -- both of which were out of order. Our last option: a 20-mile tow to Shrewsbury, where there's an Asda supermarket with charging points in the car park.

The charging points we found in Shrewsbury were operated by ChargeMaster, which required me to download its app and register my credit card. A few taps on my phone and several minutes later the lock over the socket popped open and we could insert the Leaf's charging cable.

Once connected, I used the app to start the charging process. But an error quickly popped up on the app saying the charging process could not start. Oddly, the car itself suggested (via blinking blue lights on the dashboard) that it was receiving power, but the app was adamant that it was not charging the car. When I tried to activate the charging point again, the app said it was unavailable.

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The charging point had locked our cable in place. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Then we made a fatal mistake: We pulled the charging cable out of the Leaf to check if it really was getting juice. Indeed, it had been. When I plugged the cable back into the Leaf, charging did not restart. And when I went to remove the cable from the charging point to start from scratch, it was physically impossible to remove.

As it turned out, the error with the app locked our cable to the charging point as a safety measure. So, for the second time in a day, I was stuck at a non-functioning charging point with little range left to get me to a different charger. As with Ecotricity, ChargeMaster's helpline only operates Monday to Friday.

Worse still, Luke needed to be in Oxford by 3 p.m. Had things gone to plan, this wouldn't have been an issue. However, with the delays we'd had (around six hours in total), he had no choice but to abandon the road trip and get a train from Shrewsbury. I was now alone, but still determined to finish the drive.

Nissan has another showroom in Shrewsbury. It was only a few miles from the Asda where I was and just within my remaining range. I risked it and drove the Leaf (leaving the charging cable behind) to the dealership. I made it. At around 12 p.m., I plugged the Leaf in for a three-hour charge at a medium 7-kilowatt charging point (which could fully recharge the car in about four hours) outside Nissan's showroom.

The journey continues

The delays meant that I had to change the later parts of my journey. After charging at the Nissan showroom in Shrewsbury, I drove back to the charging point in the Asda parking lot and rescued my charging cable by calling an engineer that Nissan connected me with. I then drove down to the village of Leominster for my next charge.

The charging point in Leominster was a medium 7kw charger, tucked away at the back of a car park. It's operated by the Charge Your Car network, which I paid for over the phone.

From there, an easy and enjoyable drive through to Winchester took me to my next rapid charging point. Oddly, this point is in the back end of the car park used for the county council offices. To access it, I had to go through a security gate and explain why I was there before the barrier went up.

By this time it was almost completely dark and the car park didn't have any floodlights. For 40 minutes I sat there, in the silent darkness, by myself, in the middle of an empty car park. It was one of the most creepy experiences of my adult life.

I found a rapid charging point in the car park for Winchester's County Council building. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

More malfunctions

I was on my way soon enough and headed for the picturesque town of Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds, where another rapid charger would, I hoped, get me up to full power quickly.

Things didn't start well. When I arrived at the charging point, the Charge Your Car's automated phone service wasn't able to activate charging. It told me to call the helpline "in office hours," so I was again out of luck.

It was possible to activate the charging point via an app, but to add a credit card for payment I needed an Internet connection. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any signal in this small village. I jogged a quarter mile to a hotel and used its Wi-Fi to set up the app with my details. I then jogged back to the car and plugged it in, and jogged back to the hotel to connect the app and start the charge.

After a phone call with my mother, who impressed upon me the dangers of driving when tired, I went back to the car expecting to see it fully-charged. You can imagine my annoyance then when it actually hadn't charged at all. I was left with the same 40 miles of remaining driving range I had when I arrived.

This required a change of route. Instead of heading south back towards London, I had to almost double back on myself, heading north to a service station in Warwick in order to charge up. A careful, steady drive was called for in order to extend the range and make it all the way to Warwick.

I arrived at the charging point in Warwick at around 12:40 a.m. I was able to put the Leaf on charge at one of Ecotricity's rapid docks, and I double checked that it definitely was charging. Then I headed inside the service station to get a giant Starbucks drink with an extra espresso shot.

From the Warwick service area, it was a simple drive down the M40 motorway to a station near Oxford for another rapid charge, another coffee, and a jog around the chilly car park to wake myself up a little. I was then back in the car for my final journey back to London. At 3 a.m. I was still driving. Having been awake and driving since 4 a.m. the previous morning, I was seriously starting to flag. In hindsight, it would have been safer to pull over for a rest.

I arrived back home in West London exactly at 4 a.m., -- 12 hours later than expected, tired and frustrated.

What I learned

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The last part of my journey looked like this. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I was able to complete the 500-mile journey, showing that, technically, long road trips in electric cars are possible. However, there are some extremely important things to keep in mind.

Planning is absolutely essential for a trip like this. You have to know the location of the chargers you're using down to the mile. If your travel plans will require several charges in a day, you'll need to find the location of rapid chargers.

You also need to be extremely economical with your driving style if you hope to get even close to the car's maximum range. That means driving slowly on motorways (around 55 mph), accelerating out of junctions steadily, avoiding big uphill stretches and using regenerative braking when possible. You're forced to think a lot about how you're driving and that means it's not a worry-free ride. It's quite the opposite when your next stop is 30 miles away and your range is blinking 22 miles -- and dropping by the minute.

However, even with the meticulous, mile-by-mile planning that I did before this trip, we were still thrown off by malfunctioning charging points. This highlights the larger problem facing electric vehicles in Britain: the lack of support.

The problems we faced on day two of the road trip all started with that one out-of-order charging point in Oswestry. Had it worked, we would have continued on our route as planned, arriving in London by about 4 p.m. Instead, a broken charging point and total lack of customer support on the weekend meant we had to rely on a petrol-powered tow truck to rescue us.

After all that, I still remain hopeful about the future of electric cars. Right now, electric cars are fantastic for everyday city driving. They will certainly have a huge role to play in the future, but we've still got a way to go before they become a viable option for everyone.