Part Two – in which getting home seems impossible
In the previous post, we had rather nervously made it to Devon – 205 miles from home – in an electric van. It was our first experience of driving an electric vehicle long distance and while it hadn’t been without plus points, chilly toes and range anxiety were very real downsides.
After managing to find an angle that allowed me to thread a cable in through a window, I was able to charge the e-NV200 at my parents’ house. As the cable went in via a window, we obviously had to do this in daylight hours. We went for a delightful walk to Bideford, watched crap telly and chatted about the sort of things families chat about. My mother wasn’t overly interested in our electric experiences, but then she’s never quite shared my enthusiasm for motor vehicles and doesn’t drive.
The time came to head back. I knew there was a steep downhill section towards Tiverton, so range anxiety wasn’t a huge factor this time. We even stopped for photos.
Actually, I’m going to divert from the narrative slightly here. Look at the picture above, and note how the rear wiper does a really good job of cleaning the wrong side of the rear window for right-hand drive. There’s a huge unswept area, right where you’d like to look. The van, with its split doors, is even worse – there’s only a rear wiper on the left-hand door! Sorry, but it bugged me.
Returning to our road trip, we took on more electricity at Sampford Peverell. The 43 miles we’d travelled left us with 14 miles remaining, though I must concede that I had taken the Combi up to 70mph on the dual carriageway to see what sort of a difference it made. The phrase OM NOM sums it up pretty well. We pushed on, charging again at Sedgemoor Services near Bristol. It was starting to get a bit boring to be honest.
After nervously approaching the M4 bridge toll – the e-NV200 is counted as a car luckily – we turned into the rather pleasant Cardiff Gate Services for the second time on our trip. Yet again, we bumped into another LEAF owner! Again, we got there first so were able to plug straight in. It seems this charger gets a lot of use! Our fellow EV-pal this time was freelance journalist Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, who runs Transport Evolved. She is quite the EV enthusiast and back in 2006, converted her Morris Minor to electric power. Shame I didn’t know that when we met as I could have picked up some tips for the electric 2CV I want to build one day…
Our 37-minute charge took the battery up from 13% to 87%. Frustratingly, the 77-mile range dropped almost immediately as we hit the motorway, to 68 miles. With 54 miles between charging stations, we were back to having chilly toes and playing with the trucks again as I aimed to keep our speed around 50mph. The weather got increasingly unpleasant, so wipers and lights had to be used, as well as bursts of air conditioning. This was not fun.
At Llanelli, we had only 10% battery remaining. We knew the next 61 miles would be tough, so we’d let it charge for as long as possible. To save herself from utter madness, Rachel began noticing how long it was taking. It’s easier to charge an empty battery, and much harder to charge one that’s almost full. You have to remember this, because the regenerative brakes are much less effective if the battery is over 90%. Getting from 10% to 62% took just 17 minutes, with 85% status arrived at after 28 minutes. But, after another six minutes, the charge had only gone up to 91% at which point the charger turned off. The Combi ambitiously predicted a range of 87 miles (or 78 with the heater on). Surely that’d be enough?
No, it wouldn’t. There are no more photos now, because our only aim was to get home. With us the wrong side of Lampeter, the Combi reckoned it had 22 miles of charge left. Home was still 24 miles away, with two VERY steep hills to climb. I was becoming so tense that I didn’t really need the backrest of the seat. I hate driving slowly, but began to treat 50mph as undesirably fast. The slightest downhill section left me battling whether to use momentum to gain speed, or to gently regenerate a little power. I mainly opted for the latter – just lifting the throttle to the point that one bar of regen was showing.
The fabulously-named Pontrhydfendigaid saw our first steep climb. I made sure there was no traffic behind us, then nervously kept the speed to just 20mph. This was apparently using four bars of power – far less than if I’d tried to tackle the hill at normal speed. We were now less than nine miles from home. Surely we were going to make it?
A downhill section allowed us some valuable regeneration, but battery life was now less than 10% with another climb to go. We ambled up it, with me nervously watching my mirror for approaching headlamps. We were travelling slowly enough to constitute a hazard, though it should be pointed out that heavily-laden lorries travel up this hill at about the same speed. Even my 2CV could go faster than this though, and our toes would be warmer!
After another couple of miles, the displays stopped predicting mileage or showing battery life. That means less than 6 miles remaining, and less than 7% battery life. And we still weren’t home. I became ever more grateful that nothing was coming up behind us, nor coming the other way and forcing us to give up our desperately required momentum.
But, we did make it. Just! If things had got really low, the van would have gone into ‘Turtle’ mode. This is your last chance – your must-take opportunity to find somewhere safe to park up. We can’t have avoided that by much but with serious hyper-miling, we had managed to drive 61 miles in the dark, in the depths of winter, in very hilly terrain. The relief was enormous!
So, conclusions. I didn’t set out to see if electric power can be compared with petrol power for a journey like this. Only a quick glance at the facts proves that it isn’t. I knew the range would be around 60 miles. I knew ‘filling up’ would take half an hour. What I hadn’t really accounted for was the range anxiety. It was seriously stressful! Not did I fully appreciate the impact charging and slow driving would have on time. A three-hour journey took six hours.
By deliberately choosing to stage this test in winter, I’d demonstrated another expected hurdle – heating. The e-NV200 lacks the clever heat pump technology of the LEAF, so keeping warm is very bad for range. I was disappointed that the windows misted up so readily though, so you have no alternative but to keep putting the heating on. Heated seats and steering wheels also do not keep your toes warm! I’d even worn thick socks.
So, there’s absolutely no surprise that electric vehicles are still not ideal if you’ve got serious mileage to cover. However, it is possible! That wasn’t true not so very long ago. It means that if you’re struggling to decide on an EV because you’re worried about that occasional long trip, you don’t need to. Just allow plenty of time!
I did find the impact on my usual driving style hugely upsetting. The thing is though, I now find I’m driving my own cars more gently. That desire to improve efficiency is addictive stuff actually. Sure, I still drive pretty quickly, but with a degree of smoothness I don’t think I possessed before this test commenced. It seems a little part of me is tuned into EV.