Who thinks about the future of electric cars probably starts thinking about the success of Tesla. The American company of Elon Musk has been able to convert many petrol-heads over the past years. It’s not only because the Tesla wins almost every drag race with its ‘insane-mode’, the Model S also has a range of a whopping 350 km (217 mi). It comes with a price though; ‘the electric future’ is available to people with about 80 thousand dollars to spend.
Other car manufacturers have not been idle. Over the past years, manufacturers including Nissan, Renault and BMW have introduced more affordable electric cars. Their range? About 150 to 200 kilometers (93 - 124 mi). The limited range of this generation of electric cars is an often mentioned barrier for electric driving. People are scared that traveling will be slow, especially when you end up at the roadside. But is this fear justified?
As a group of friends we decided to find out. We came up with the plan to do a road trip with an electric car. Combining holiday with a mission, it sounded perfect. The next step was to make it work.
As far as possible
The first obstacle was the electric car itself, which we didn’t have. We created a pitch video and website to send to various car brands. The proposal: an electric car for three weeks in exchange for a movie about our trip. It was already mid-June, a month before take-off. Fortunately, Kia was quick to respond and decided to join the mission. They lent us the electric Kia Soul EV and a Kia Picanto on gasoline. Perfect reference material, it turned out. The Soul EV has a day-to-day range of about 160 km (100 mi); after Tesla one of the cars with the best range. On top, it is relatively spacious. Perfect for a road trip!
Besides fixing a car, we had to prepare and plan our trip. To visit a wide variety of landscapes and charging networks we wanted to at least cross the Alps and reach the Côte D’Azur, the south coast of France. A road trip this size was not done before in an affordable electric car. We planned a possible route of about 4000 km (2485 mi), based on charger locations. We aimed for CHAdeMO chargers, which can charge the Soul to 83% within half an hour. Without any electric driving experience, it was hard to estimate the distance we could travel in a day and the time we would have left for adventure.
Friends and family were quick to pose the first critical questions. How would the car survive the mountains? And would the limited range not prevent us from getting to the beautiful and remote places? At that moment, we were not sure either.
Another worry were the payment options at the different charging locations. We ordered a KiWhi charging pass for France and a The New Motion pass that covers The Netherlands and parts of Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. But could we rely on those passes at every charger? And what about other areas, like northern Italy, where charging infrastructure is limited and the payment options are fragmented?
When you buy a gasoline car, you buy into a worldwide network of petrol stations. At almost every station you’re able to tank and pay in the same way: with a credit or debit card. But how does that work with an electric car on the Italian campagna? After an extensive preparation we may have secured a car and a route. Yet we didn’t know the distance we could drive each day, how we could pay and if we would be able to actually pass the Alps. In absence of consistent and up-to-date information, there was only one way left: to find it out ourselves.
Smoothly electric in ups and downs
The first days of driving electric are still marked by getting used to the new car. How reliable is the range indicator on your screen and will the next charger work?
After we cross the Dutch border close to Maastricht we discover that it is a national holiday in Belgium. Not only are all the shops closed, so is our first charging location at the Belgian supermarket Delhaize. The remaining two alternative chargers follow the same logic: company closed, charger closed. It requires some clandestine wiretapping to reach the border of Luxembourg. Here, we can finally plug the Soul into a functioning charger. In the evening we discuss alternatives for our route; in this pace we will never make the planned 4000 km.
We keep learning; on the second and third day, electric driving and planning gets easier. We notice that the range shown on the dashboard corresponds very well with the actual range. The car quickly recalculates the indicated range when driving fast or while using the air-conditioning. At first we were still a bit careful, seeing the predicted range drop 10 km does make you a bit anxious, but now we dare to use the full range of 160 km more and more.
The Soul EV has more functionalities specifically designed for electric driving. The navigation system indicates when the chosen destination is out of range. If this is the case it will provide a suggestion for a charging location on the route instead. In practice we preferred to use smartphone apps; besides location, they indicate whether a charger is functioning and available, which proved to be of great value.
On the dashboard, large digits next to the speedometer clearly show the remaining range. A missed opportunity however, is that range and distance to your destination can’t be seen in one glance. To calculate your margin - something you will often do during your first trips - you have to look at both the dashboard and navigation system.
Fortunately there is a function that shows whether the margin drops or rises. The “Eco-Level” is a visualization of a tree - naturally - with 8 levels to indicate how economically you are currently driving. Level 4 indicates neutral driving; the margin between range and destination will remain equal. If you drive efficiently, the Eco-Level will increase; the margin between range and destination will grow, just like the tree.
Compared with the petrol Picanto, it’s interesting to see how much of the interface is focussed on driving economically. Whether this design approach originated in range anxiety or ideology is hard to distinguish, but it definitely has effect. The different indicators and numbers turn economic driving into a sport. A boring stretch of highway becomes an opportunity to save charge: by traveling in the slipstream of trucks, only accelerating when going downhill and anticipating traffic flow.
After a week, we face a new challenge. According to family and friends, the Alps require brute force. With an electric motor, the full torque of 285 Nm is directly available from 0 rpm. At traffic lights we learned that the acceleration of the Soul is able to press you firmly in your seat. And indeed, this proves that the Alps are no match for the Soul. Compared to the gear switching and sputter of the Picanto, the Soul whizzes smoothly through hairpin bends to the top.
And it doesn’t stop there. Electric vehicles have the ability of regenerative braking. This means that the car charges when it brakes or descends. At the top of the San-Bernardino pass, at 2066 (6778 ft) meters altitude, we had a remaining range of 92 km (57 mi). After driving down the hairpin bends and arriving in the valley, our range had increased to 122 km (76 mi) . Including the descent itself of 10 km (6 mi), the total range had increased 40 km (25 mi) . Not bad!
Parking is Charging
The first charger in Italy defeats our worries. The payment options are simple: charging is free! We get in touch with two fellow EV-drivers charging next to us. They turn out to be responsible for the construction of fast chargers in Southern Europe.
They could explain why charging is free at most locations in Italy. The purchase of a fast charger is comparable with the price of a middle class car. Although this is out of reach for most consumers, for companies the exploitation of a fast charger is easier and cheaper than a gas station. A fast charger therefore attracts a growing market of EV drivers that will likely use the (charging) break to visit your store.
We can confirm this with our experience. Especially in France, big stores like Auchan and IKEA invest in chargers as a free service. The last week of our journey we drive up north from the Côte d’Azur back to the Netherlands. We drive several legs of the route from Auchan to Auchan, with an occasional IKEA in between. And indeed, we often go in for coffee, lunch or daily groceries.
Many city centres hold a similar tactic. Monaco, Bordeaux and Paris all place chargers in their city centres. When we arrive at Monaco, the whole city is bloated with cars. Looking for a place to park, we see one free spot next to the boulevard; it is reserved for electric cars. Even better, fast charging is free! In most cities we are pleasantly surprised by these ‘privileged’ parking spots.
With warehouses and municipalities on our side, we arrive back home safe and sound. We start thinking how the deployment of chargers at home and in city centres might transform our idea of refueling. Instead of looking for a gas station, an electric car could charge while shopping for groceries. Or while you sleep. But before looking forward, let’s see what we can say about the current state of the European charger network.
A maze of standards
In our planned route, the start of the trip seemed quite stable. Apart from the Netherlands, we could use a card of The New Motion in Germany, Belgium and Austria. Unfortunately, we learned that many local networks in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are not compatible. Some charging locations work with an app, others are SMS-activated or work with a dedicated charging pass. This can yield challenging situations. SMS-activated charging locations often rely on a national service number (0800) inaccessible with a foreign SIM card. A dedicated charging card has to be obtained at a counter or office, which means that charging locations can have limited opening hours.
Besides inconsistency in payment options, there are large differences in cost calculation. At some stations you pay per session, while others charge per minute or kilowatt. In Pietra Ligure, Italy, we wanted to top up from 60% at the only local gas station with a charger. This charger lacked a meter, so the pump attendant could not check our consumption. Therefore, he came up with a price of € 10. To put it in perspective; the electricity costs for a complete charge are typically around five euros.
Fortunately this is an extreme case and the general experience was way better. Nevertheless, it shows that there is a lot to gain in the upcoming years with regards to standardisation and transparent pricing. On the other hand, charging in general was very cheap. In total we paid less then € 50 (53 USD) to travel 4486 km (2787 mi) with the Soul EV, mostly because chargers were free.
We started this trip to find out if range anxiety is justified. In our experience this issue is as much about the current range of electric vehicles as it is about the charging infrastructure.
Compared to travel experiences of EV enthusiasts in past years, we see big improvements in coverage of fast chargers in Europe. Many chargers we used were less than a year old, and they pop up from various directions. Chain stores like Auchan, Cora and IKEA have recently installed a lot of fast chargers as a service to their customers. Car dealers like Nissan and Kia create charging locations for their own fleet and offer them to drivers of other brands as well. Local governments install chargers at beautiful locations in city centres. Several energy companies see a bright future in electric driving and offer public access to their companies chargers. Lastly, we encountered passionate enthusiasts in less saturated areas like Switzerland who were willing to share their private charger.
The Dutch charging infrastructure is known as one of the most mature networks in Europe. With the charging pass of The New Motion and the app of Fastned you have access to more than 15.000 charging locations, both in cities and at highways. This is different in Germany or Belgium for instance. There are a lot of chargers but the network of providers and payment options is fragmented. In France, the charging network is less dense compared to the Netherlands but sometimes more practical. Due to the regularity of fast chargers at chain stores and the monopoly of the KiWhi charging pass, travelling in France is a breeze. An additional advantage is that charging is often seen as a service and thus free. It differs from country to country though, at a Dutch IKEA you have to pay 22 cents per kilowatt.
A long but sturdy road
Our experiences show that the European charging network is not yet mature but in full development. Today, the market is still fragmented; there are different standards and payment options. The challenge for the upcoming years will concern the standardisation of charging technology and payment options. The consistent network in France and the dedication of various companies to create a single overarching pass, show the potential of electric driving in the near future.
What about the cars? If you are an average Dutch driver, you drive about 37 km (22 mi) a day. The current range of electric vehicles shouldn’t be a problem. You could easily charge your car at home and never have to visit a gas station again. With the range of the Kia Soul EV in mind, the maximum comfortable distance in one go would be around 140 km. For longer trips, like holidays, you have to be prepared for additional charging time. During a road trip this will not be a problem, but traveling from Amsterdam to the south of France in one day will be challenging.
This will change with the introduction of affordable cars with a range of 400 km (250 mi) , like Tesla and Nissan announced. The travel dynamic will not differ much from the familiar petrol pit stops. So, the current network and range have shown to be sufficient to reach Bordeaux, the Alps or Milano. And soon the increasing range, network and standardisation will diminish the difference with gasoline travel. Except for the lack of noise and fumes, that is.
Even charged with ‘grey energy’, electric vehicles are still 30% cleaner compared to cars on gasoline over their full life-cycle, according to research by Dutch Research Institute TNO. As students we are particularly excited about the potential to drive fully green, powered by energy from solar panels on your own roof for instance. This potential comes closer with companies like Fastned, who aim at a Europe-wide charging network on renewable energy.
We hope to have shown that electric cars are currently a feasible alternative to cars on gasoline and diesel. In the future the benefits will only increase, and it’s key to realize this transition to sustainable transport as fast as possible. With our story we hope to be able to make a small contribution and inspire readers and viewers to do the same, even if doing good coincides with celebrating holidays.
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Three weeks of electric roadtripping in three minutes
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We’re more than happy to share our story and experiences with electric driving.
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