I rented an electric car so you don’t have to.
I’ve always loved the idea of electric cars. I mean, what’s not to like? Lower emissions (depending on your utility), instant acceleration, less maintenance (in theory), nearly silent operation—sign me up. However, there are still some hurdles to overcome, so I figured it would be several years before I found myself behind the wheel of an EV.
So, you can imagine my surprise when, with no warning, I was suddenly driving a Tesla Model 3 on a recent a weekend trip. But first, let me back up.
When I bought my first car, I remember thinking it would be the last gasoline-powered car I would purchase. At the time, hydrogen fuel cells seemed like the next step in automotive evolution and Tesla was just the name of the inventor of alternating current. Things have changed a lot since then. The average electric car has more than twice the range of one made less than a decade ago and charging stations are becoming more common in urban areas and along major interstates, alleviating some of the range anxiety that plagued earlier models. But even so, I’m still driving a gas-guzzling SUV. I’ve had my eye on a few cars like the Rivian R1S, in the hope that advances in technology and manufacturing will eventually bring the cost of EVs down into the realm of affordability.
Which brings us to my family’s recent weekend trip to Phoenix, Arizona. It was a cool night in spring when we arrived at Sky Harbor International Airport and took the tram to the rental car center. With reservation in hand, we stepped up to the counter and were told we could either wait two hours for an economy car or pay for an upgrade and leave right away. It was getting late and our toddler was grumpy from a long day of travel, so we chose the upgrade and suddenly, I was driving a fully electric vehicle for the first time.
Here’s what I learned.
First off, electric cars are fun to drive. I knew this from what I had read, but there’s nothing that can really prepare you for how an EV zips off the line with the lightest touch to the accelerator. There’s no waiting for the transmission to find the proper gear, just instant torque and you’re off. With regenerative braking slowing the vehicle and recovering energy when you lift off the accelerator, it’s kind of like driving a supercharged go cart. It’s very different than driving an internal combustion car, but you get used to it very quickly.
Second, as much as I enjoyed driving it, there were a lot of features of the Tesla that were annoying. Nearly all of a Tesla’s functions are controlled through a touchscreen, making simple tasks like adjusting the climate controls or turning on the radio really, really difficult and downright dangerous if you don’t have a co-pilot on hand to dig through the menus. Our rental also came with a key card instead of a key fob, which meant we couldn’t unlock the car from a distance or open the trunk/frunk unless we were sitting in the car. We couldn’t even tell if the thing was locked when we walked away (spoiler: it wasn’t). The lack of physical controls, like climate controls, a volume knob, or a shifter that lets you feel what gear you’re in without tearing your eyes from the road was sorely missed.
We soon discovered that chargers were plentiful. If only they were easy to use.
Finally, there was charging. The Tesla Model 3 we were driving had 270 miles of range, which would’ve been more than enough for our entire trip; however, the rental car company required us to return the car with the same level of charge we got it in, which meant we had to figure out how to charge an electric car on the fly. Luckily, we were in Phoenix, a dense urban area full of EVs and we soon discovered that chargers were plentiful. If only they were easy to use.
Our first charging adventure happened at the Phoenix Zoo, which offers free charging. This was when we learned that not all EVs use the same chargers. It took a few minutes of panic, another minute of studying the setup on another nearby Tesla, and several more minutes of searching the car to find the correct adapter before we got successfully plugged in. The free charging was great, but free, public chargers are also slow and despite spending two hours at the zoo, we left still needing to top off the battery before we returned the car.
I arrived at the Tesla Supercharger station at a nearby mall with high hopes that were quickly dashed when I found all 14 stalls in use. Not knowing how long I would have to wait for one to open up, I found another charger operated by a different network in the same parking lot. Unfortunately, that charger wouldn’t let me charge unless I downloaded their app, made an account, gave them my address, and then waited for a membership card to arrive in the mail. By the time I realized that it wouldn’t just take my money in exchange for electrons, one of the Superchargers opened up and I hastily re-parked to grab it before someone else showed up. Getting up to full charge1 only took 15 minutes, not counting the 40 minutes I spent just figuring out how to charge.
The whole experience was frustrating and left me less inclined to make the switch to an electric vehicle. The cars are cool and the environmental benefits are real, but for people who can’t charge overnight at home (ie. those of us who don’t have a garage), public chargers are the only way to fill up. Based on my experience, charging is the weak link in the system. Until you can drive up to any charger, plug in, swipe your credit card, and drive off the same way you can drive any ICE car into any gas station and fuel up (or until there are affordable options that get 400+ miles on a full charge)2, EVs aren’t going to be practical for a lot of people. Hard-to-use charging infrastructure will continue to be the biggest barrier to widespread EV adoption if the process isn’t simplified.
Electric vehicles are the future, but EV manufacturers and charging networks still have a ways to go—and they would do well to look at what has worked in the past to ensure the electric future is accessible for everyone.
- EV owners will be quick to point out that it’s usually not necessary (and can even degrade the battery) to charge to 100%. Charging speeds vary over the course of a session, with the sweet spot falling between 20%-80% according to Kelly Blue Book. Beyond 80%, the speed of charging slows way down.
- An interesting thing I learned doing research for this article is that gasoline has been the preferred fuel for automobiles for so long because it is actually quite energy dense. According to Car and Driver, a 15-gallon tank of gasoline stores the equivalent of 505.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. For comparison, Tesla’s largest battery pack can store ~100 kWh. In addition to improving the public charging experience, improvements in battery tech to store more energy will go a long way toward convincing the average driver that it’s worth making the switch to an EV.
Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, and jet-setting world traveler. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.
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