Electric-car road trip: lessons learned in Chevy Bolt EV over 1,300 miles

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2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

Launched in December, the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is the first mass-priced electric car to go on sale with a rated range of more than 200 miles: 238 miles combined, according to the EPA.

Most owners use their Bolt EVs for daily commuting and trips, just like any other car. But road trips are an American tradition.

We've done several stories about using Bolts for trips of various lengths, from taking a daughter to college in California to traveling the width of Canada.

DON'T MISS: Drive a Chevy Bolt EV electric car 313 miles on a charge: here's how

Our reader Jay Lucas of Alexandria, Virginia, sent us the following account of his own recent trip. What follows are his words, lightly edited by Green Car Reports for clarity and style.

I live in Alexandria, Virginia, and my wife Maxine lives in Louisville, Kentucky (don’t ask). Could my new Bolt EV take me the 650 miles to her house and back? I decided to find out.

On a bright June Monday morning my buddy Stew and I drove out of Alexandria just before the morning rush hour to reach Louisville that night. 

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

We didn’t make it by sundown, but over 1,300 miles of highway travel, we learned some important lessons.

(1) Good planning pays

A long distance EV trip starts a while before leaving home with some planning on your computer or smart phone. 

To get “there” you will be driving from charger to charger until at last you are close enough to get to your destination.  And at that destination, you must find a local charger to start you off on the trip back.

READ THIS: Driving a Chevy Bolt EV electric car halfway across the U.S.: what it takes

Days before Stewart and I left, we studied the PlugShare map of U.S. charging sites—both on my desktop computer and on the app on my phone.

Clearly, my usual route from Alexandria (I-66 west to I-81 south to I-64 west to Louisville) would not work. There simply weren't enough high-speed chargers on the way, especially in West Virginia. (Tesla Superchargers don’t count; Bolt EV drivers can't use them.)

However, a northern route seemed fine: I-270 to I-70 to Hagerstown, Maryland; I-70 or I-68 to Jeanette or Canonsburg, Pennsylvania; I-70 to Columbus, Ohio; I-71 to Cincinnati, Ohio; and on to Louisville.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

Each of those cities contains multiple DC fast-charging stations, which deliver 90 miles of charge to the Bolt EV in the first half-hour, and 50 miles in each additional half-hour.

If you intend to reach your destination expeditiously, these are the sites to seek.  If  you're willing to drive to an intermediate hotel and charge overnight while you sleep, the 240-volt Level 2 charging station suffices: it takes 9 hours to fill a totally discharged Bolt EV battery pack. 

We wanted to drive through, and only stop if we were forced to. (Hint: we were).

CHECK OUT: Chevy Bolt EV: 800-mile trip in 238-mile electric car shows challenges remain

Each charging site on our route was near some kind of place we could eat or rest. Some are free, some charge fees, and many are on different networks.

It's best to enroll in advance, so you receive the activation cards in the mail before leaving. I signed up for ChargePoint, EVgo. and Greenlots for this trip.

Without membership cards, you either use a credit card if the station has a card reader, or phone the company to have it activate on the station after you provide the credit-card number.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

When planning your route, make sure you keep the distances between chargers reasonable. The Bolt EV has an EPA range of 238 miles, but air conditioning and highway speeds significantly cut into that range. 

I decided we wouldn't count on more than 180 miles between stations, which turned out to be doable without too much stress.

Finally, make sure to plan for time as well as distance. The time spent charging is not insignificant: spending an hour or more in each of four intermediate stops changed our one-day journey to an overnight trip.

Because of those extra hours, we arrived in Louisville less than 24 hours before we had to leave for home again, which left no time for leisure. 

Next time we will have a much more realistic itinerary. We will allow 2 hours per hundred miles of traveled road, plus two hours for each charging (allowing for the side trip to the charger from your route).

LESSON: Plan ahead: be sure not only that the distances are within your battery’s range, but that you are allowing time for charging, rest and relief.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

(2) Appreciate redundancy

To avoid getting lost or winding up stranded with only a few miles of range left, I suggest you have a Plan B and Plan C for all eventualities.

For example, we depended on Apple Maps display on the Bolt EV’s big touchscreen via Apple CarPlay. But CarPlay can be quirky. When you first start the car, it takes a while to communicate with your smartphone and display the map. If a phone call or text comes in, the map takes a while to reorient itself  and “find you”. 

Once, after charging for an hour in Florence, Kentucky, CarPlay just wouldn't restart after almost an hour's efforts. The phone was fine; the connecting wire was good; the problem appeared to be with the software in the console.  I had learned how to reset that software from blogs (press FF and HOME buttons simultaneously): after the reset it worked fine. 

 ANOTHER ROAD TRIP: Driving a Chevy Bolt EV electric car across Canada, all the way

Episodes like that taught me the lesson of redundancy—and most Bolt EV drivers shouldn't be expected to reset the car's in-dash software during trouble-shooting.

To provide redundancy, I took along my old Garmin Nuvi navigation system.

Its screen was relatively primitive, but when Apple Maps went to contemplate the heavens, the sturdy old Garmin told me whether to turn left or right at the fast-approaching intersection.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

Then there's the issue of "ICE-ing," which every electric-car owner will likely encounter sooner or later.

That's the term for when you find your charging station blocked not by another electric car, but by the driver of an internal-combustion-engined vehicle, abbreviated as ICE.

If this happens, your options can include finding out whether local police or security can ticket or tow (which obviously takes time), parking on curbs, sidewalks, or lawns where safe, and almost cursing, silently if not aloud.

Many people also leave notes, though it's unclear if those have any lasting educational value in changing the behavior of selfish ICE drivers.

So you should always consider: what would I do if that charging station I'm heading for is completely ICEd? (see photo)

Other redundancy planning that really helped us include:

  • Using both PlugShare and Apple Maps to find the exact location of charging sites. Remember the Bolt EV has an optional WIFI hotspot of its own that allows internet access, which gives your passenger access to any mapping app on an iPad or smartphone.
  • Get multiple memberships in the different charging networks (EVgo, ChargePoint and Greenlots for our trip).
  • Research the addresses of more than one charging site: we identified four chargers in Cincinnati, three in Columbus, and two each south of Pittsburgh and in Hagerstown, Maryland.
  • Apply redundancy to yourself; drive with a buddy who can help navigate to the chargers, and find alternative roads and destinations.

LESSON: Things happen on a road trip, and your primary plan may not work. Have backups for each system on which you rely.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

(3) Plan for your own range anxiety

The term “range anxiety” has been in use since electric cars went on sale seven years ago. With time and experience in any electric car, it abates. But you need to discover your own anxiety levels, and plan so you avoid them.

My own "anxiety buffer" is 30 miles or more. So if available range shows as 100 miles, and I know that I will either reach home or arrive at the next charger in 70 miles or less, I have a carefree trip.

Barring mechanical problems or truly awful traffic tieups, I’m confident my little red Bolt EV will soon be plugged in without a tow truck involved.

But there are other times on a long trip when the tension is obvious, when the knuckles are white, when idle chatter with your passenger masks a deep dread in your stomach.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

That exact numerical "anxiety buffer" varies for each of us: age, disposition, and "risk tolerance" all affect it. I get really tense at about 10 or 15 miles of buffer. 

On a long trip over unknown roads, when a long uphill section appears before the next charger, going past your anxiety buffer will kill the joy of driving.

Understand that available range will vary minute by minute. Starting with only 10 miles more than my minimum, I was looking at 40 miles more after a long downhill from the mountainous regions of western Pennsylvania to the flats of northern Maryland.

On the leg from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, to Hagerstown, Maryalnd, we ended with the exact same buffer of 49 miles as when we'd started three and a half hours earlier. But there were tense moment in between.

LESSON: For the joy of the trip, allow a generous anxiety buffer when you start each leg , and accept that it will vary over the segment.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

(4) Remember: speed is your enemy, but cruise control is your friend

Do you have the courage and discipline to stay at 64 mph in a 70-mph zone, even when other cars are passing you? Even when a gigantic 18-wheeler fills your rear-view mirror, blotting out the world behind you? Even when you see a hill coming up and want to build up some steam to glide over it?

For the sake of your anxiety buffer and your emotional wellbeing, find that courage.

For local driving, when you can charge up each night, enjoy the exhilaration acceleration of your Bolt EV to your heart’s content.

But when you have 170 miles “in the tank”, and there are 160 actual miles to cover before you reach the next charger or home, don’t be tempted to put the pedal to the metal.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

At 65 mph, the Bolt sips at its battery’s charge. Start going with the flow at 70 mph or more, even if that is the speed limit, and your anxiety buffer will start eroding.  That little worry in the back of your mind will gnaw at the pleasure of your ride.

At 58 mph, we found, you may even see the buffer increase. We had a choice of three routes from Hagerstown to the fast charger in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.  The shortest route, 170 miles, was split between Interstate 68 and U.S. Route 40.

We chose that over a 190-mile route along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, even though that one passed another DC fast-charging site in Jeanette, Pennsylvania. 

We left Hagerstown with 212 miles showing, but found our buffer eroding from the original 42 miles to as little as 10 miles after climbing hills on the interstate.

I found that no manual driving I could manage could match the energy-conserving behavior of the Bolt's cruise control.  I-68 eventually morphed into US route 40, with a slower speed limit, and mild rolling hills. 

The buffer started to rise under cruise control after it had fallen while I drove.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

We pulled into the Dunkin Donuts in Canonsburg to charge with 38 miles to spare.  The cruise control had converted my anxiety buffer to a confidence buffer.

At least on the East Coast, adaptive cruise control is by far the most desirable: set at a steady speed lower than traffic, other cars will always cut in ahead of you.

Remember that long-distance trips in electric cars are not (yet) about speed, but about getting there with charge to spare.

LESSON: Discipline yourself to keep the speed down, and use the cruise when you can.

Driving a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV from Virginia to Missouri, June 2017 [photo: Bill Massmann]

Driving a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV from Virginia to Missouri, June 2017 [photo: Bill Massmann]

(5) Recharge more than the minimum necessary: stuff happens

Our last leg to Louisville took us from a charging station at Wal-Mart in Florence, Kentucky (just outside Cincinnati) to my wife Maxine’s house, a mere 88 miles away. We pulled into the Walmart shopping center with about 56 miles showing. 

We were anxious to finish the trip, so we charged for just half an hour, giving us a rated range of 121 miles. It seemed 33 miles of buffer should be enough. Then we shot right back up to the nearby highway entrance and onto Interstate 75.

Ten minutes later we split off to I-71 heading toward Louisville. Five minutes after that, we ground to a dead stop at the back of the biggest tie-up that we had seen on the whole trip.

Our Maps program showed the backup to be 5 miles at least, all “solid red” on the map, bumper-to-bumper, stopped dead.  What to do? 

Fortunately we were near one of those “Do Not U-turn” openings in the median barrier. We followed a stream of other cars and emergency vehicles blithely making U-turns.

But the only alternative route to Louisville required us to travel 130 miles into the city.  We didn’t have sufficient charge to do that.

Our only recourse was to double back to Florence, enjoy the hospitality of Wal-Mart again, and add extra miles at the same charging station we had abandoned just an hour before.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

We “topped up” to 205 miles over an hour and 20 minutes; by then the traffic jam had dissipated. 

But we really did feel foolish: if we had topped off the first time we charged, with another half-hour of charging, we could have stayed in the jam, confidently kept the air conditioning on, and just continued on when the backup broke up.

LESSON: If you can add an extra 50 to 90 miles to your charge-up on a trip, do it.  On our modern Interstate system, anything can happen.

(6) Conclusions

This was a real road trip, about 1,300 miles in total.  All the charging stations worked fine, and most of my estimates and calculations from PlugShare held up.

All the charging sites were where they were supposed to be, and unoccupied. We didn't once get ICEd.

But it took much longer than expected: the normal driving time of 10 to 11 hours in a gasoline car was increased by the 4 hours required to fast-charge along the way.

So our planned long day of driving morphed into an overnight voyage with a hotel stop. It took Monday and Tuesday to get there, and Wednesday and Thursday to get home, with about 12 hours of time to spend in Louisville.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric car, June 2017 road trip from VA to KY and back [Jay Lucas]

So what are the overall lessons I learned?

I learned I could do it (and you can do it too). With proper planning and discipline, you can travel long distances in your Chevy Bolt EV. And the number of DC fast-charging sites that use the Bolt's CCS protocol is growing literally every week.

You will need to plan well; have backups for everything; discipline yourself to keep the speed down; use the cruise; err by charging more than strictly needed; and learn to keep your personal anxiety buffer within the comfort zone. 

Then you can show off your beautiful new Bolt EV electric car to all your friends in Kentucky.

But, for the moment, it will still be a longer and more leisurely road trip.

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