Can Plug-In Electric Road Trips Revitalize Fading Historic Route 66?

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U.S. Historic Route 66 is one of the most famous highways in the world, but it's a mere shadow of the journey it was in its 1930s to 1950s heyday.

Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Act of 1956 effectively signed the route's death warrant--and indeed, the towns along it, as flat, smooth, effortless interstate carved its way through the country and around previously prosperous towns..

But could the electric car rekindle interest in the historic highway?

TriplePundit thinks it might, after a trip along the St. Louis to Tulsa leg in a 2013 Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid.

This author thinks it could too. Back in 2007, myself and two friends decided to take on the famed Route 66 ourselves, having just finished college and keen to travel before several years of university weighed us down.

If you're to take on a road trip you might as well start big, and few come bigger than a trip along the 'Mother Road'. Chicago to Santa Monica, "more than two thousand miles all the way", as Chuck Berry famously put it--our final total was around 2,400, if I recall correctly--and a healthy slice of Americana en route.

Electric highway?

Of course, doing such a journey in an electric car in 2007 would have verged on the impossible.

Not only were suitable vehicles few and far between--if they existed at all--but the abandoned towns and dilapidated gas stations wouldn't have provided many opportunities to charge, either. In the end, we drove across the country in a thoroughly sensible (if not particularly green) gasoline-powered Mitsubishi Outlander.

Nowadays, the prospect of such a trip in an electric vehicle would still fill many with dread, but it's far from the impossibility it once was.

The route has enjoyed a minor resurgence over the last few years. This is partly thanks to adventure-seeking tourists like ourselves, partly through the combined efforts of local preservation groups, and partly thanks to exposure from the hit Disney film Cars--whose central plot revolved around a town suffering in just the way many historic Route 66 stops did when the interstates opened.

This resergence provides towns along Route 66 with a unique opportunity to bring themselves screaming into the 21st century--electric car charging.

Before those interstates moved in, many towns along the route had their own small gas stations, rest stops for weary travelers and plenty of kitsch curiosities to draw in tourists. The practicalities of fast interstate driving made these redundant, but for the electric driver with less range and a need for fast charging, the historic route now makes more sense than any time over the last 50 years.

Road trip on historic U.S. Route 66 (Images: Antony Ingram)

Road trip on historic U.S. Route 66 (Images: Antony Ingram)

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The perfect road trip?

Plenty of electric car owners are only too keen to demonstrate that their vehicle is capable of driving long distances. We've covered more electric road trips than we can count here on Green Car Reports.

I can't help feeling there's too little romance to these trips though. It's all, "look what my car can do", rather than "look what we can experience". Admirable, but not aspirational.

The electric road trip should be looked upon in a different way. Shorter ranges and longer recharging times should be an excuse to stop, rather than a hindrance to your destination.

We're chalking up experiences here, rather than simply watching miles go by. To myself and two friends, Route 66's country-wide distance was largely irrelevant. I've no idea of the exact distance we drove, and often we stopped several times a day anyway. If anything, we might have seen more in an electric car, just as two Chromjuwelen writers did last year on their own electric road trip in France.

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