Climbing the EV learning curve
I don't drive a Tesla. I have made the journey to electric over the last 3 years. I am not a sheeple or a green activist, but the future is definitely electric.
Stephen Colbert told Americans worried about gas prices, let them eat cake. “OK, that stings, but a clean conscience is worth a buck or two. It's important. I'm willing to pay $4 a gallon. Hell, I'll pay $15 a gallon because I drive a Tesla.”
I don’t drive a Tesla, but I do understand how Colbert feels about gas prices. Sometimes my conscience bothers me that I drive an EV past gas stations with shockingly big numbers per gallon. I think some Tesla drivers have this form of condescension about them. (Many don’t. Tesla makes some good vehicles.) Colbert makes somewhere north of $10 million a year; shelling out $100,000 for a new Tesla Model X to him is like a normal family spending $500 to get the family minivan fixed.
About four years ago I began my research into going electric. I looked into Tesla, naturally. It helps that I live close to one of their showrooms. I test drove a Model 3, and looked at Tesla’s leasing program. The finances didn’t work out. Insurance was high, parts availability limited, and the car itself had some glaring issues (at least to me; I won’t rehash them here). I wrote this up back in 2019, and was quoted by the Washington Post.
I didn’t want to go full-bore into electric and spend $60 grand on a car that I didn’t know I wanted to keep. After looking at the market—I couldn’t find a VW e-Golf or a Hyundai Kona EV to even test drive—I settled on a Kia Niro PHEV. For those who aren’t up on the electric acronyms, that means “plug-in hybrid.” It’s a hybrid electric and gas vehicle that allows the battery to be charged using a car charger. I leased it for three years to see if it fit my lifestyle. The payment was reasonable, and so was the insurance.
I didn’t buy my EV because I am a tithe-paying member of the church of Climate Change. I am a skeptic that somehow the world will pivot away from fossil fuel in just 50 years, and more skeptical that every weather pattern, hurricane, or drought today is the product of my personal carbon footprint. I do believe that our dependence on CO2-creating activities is contributing to some bad trends over time, but it’s far more damaging that the Chinese are the world’s biggest cement producer, and cement production contributes 8% of the total of CO2—bigger than every country except the U.S. and China itself. My driving an electric vehicle is a negligible effect, whether Stephen Colbert’s conscience thinks so or not.
For three years, my Niro PHEV got me to work and back, most of the 19-miles each way on the small battery. At full charge, the battery took me between 24 and 30 miles, depending on my driving style, use of heat or air conditioning, the weather, and road conditions. If I was willing to freeze or sweat, I could make the trip to work with zero use of the internal combustion engine. When the battery reached 15% charge, the car converted to “hybrid” mode and ran the 1.6L gas engine as necessary.
The Niro was a useful commuter car, not particularly luxurious, quiet, or fast. On 10-gallon fill-up, it would go around 600 miles of commuting. On the highway, it was essentially a hybrid, but mostly a gas-powered little hatchback. After three years, I felt I was ready for a full-electric. Not so much me, but America—our EV infrastructure, technology, and market. I’m glad I didn’t get a Tesla in 2019. A Model 3, or Y, would feel like a compromise I didn’t want to make.
Kia announced the EV6 in early 2021, launching first in Korea and Europe. I ordered the American-market First Edition in June, when the website opened to take reservations. There were only 1500 made, and they are loaded, dual-motor GT-line (300+ HP) monsters. I picked up the car the day before its Super Bowl ad played. Yes, it was a $60k car, and no negotiations. The EV6 FE has been selling for around ten thousand above sticker, so I was lucky to get it at the sticker price (having the reservation helped).
The difference between driving a PHEV and a full EV are significant, and even psychological. Driving the PHEV, I didn’t care if the battery drained. I had gas in the tank, and if that got low, I could buy another 10 gallons. In an EV, the words “range anxiety” take on real meaning. That big number on the dash is always on my mind.
That number lies. Not so much lying on purpose, but it’s the result of an algorithm, not a prediction of how far you’re going. I believe Teslas have a very sophisticated algorithm that will plan an entire road trip, taking into account the weather, driving conditions, the driver’s style, and planning sufficient charging stops. It’s possible Kia has something like this, but honestly I haven’t had the car long enough to receive the Bachelor’s Degree in EV driving necessary to know.
The three-inch thick pile of manuals that came with the car are daunting, and written in the style of an Air Force technical order. Filled with acronyms, complex conditions for certain things to operate, and tortured language, I have to read each section three times to understand what it means. That turned out to be important on the 550-mile road trip my wife and I took last weekend.
We drove from north Atlanta to Savannah. My plan was to only use superchargers on the Electrify America network, that Kia included in my First Edition package. They offered one of three gifts: an Apple Watch, a home Level 2 charger, or 1,000 kWh of charging. My wife has an Apple Watch, and I already have a Clipper Creek 50 amp home charger in the garage, so I went with the charging credit. Kia also included a separate 1,000 kWh package just for buying the car, so I have 2,000 kWh to burn. On the Savannah trip, I used 86 kWh total.
Based on my 278-mile range at 100% charge, I thought I’d have no problem charging at the Forsyth, Georgia Walmart, spending the night south of Macon, then getting to Pooler (outside Savannah). It didn’t work out that way.
My wife and I stopped for a nice dinner in McDonough and continued to the Forsyth supercharger. I think we spent about 30 minutes charging back to around 90% there, though the first 10 minutes was trying to figure out the unfamiliar Electrify America app. We then continued to our overnight stop, and while we ate a late breakfast, we left the Kia on the (slow) L2 charger at a hotel near the restaurant.
Then my plan hit “of mice and men.” We hit an hourlong traffic jam due to road construction on a 2-lane bridge east of Warner Robins. (Thanks GA Department of Torture for doing that on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon!) The range number barely moved, so I thought “no problem!” EVs don’t idle, so sitting around with the AC on doesn’t really do anything.
When we got on the highway, I noticed the range was declining at a faster rate than the miles were clicking by. My 50+ mile buffer to Pooler began to erode. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was cruising along at 78 mph. Going really fast in an EV makes for power hungry motors. Not slowing down means no regenerative braking. On a road like I-16 between Macon and Savannah, where there’s no real traffic and no reason to slow down, EVs don’t shine unless you drive 55. Worse, I used the supercruise mode, which is a junior version of Tesla’s self-driving. It kept the car centered in the lane, did lane changes, and made a boring drive more boring if that’s possible.
I also failed to read the entire operator’s manual, which provided clear (?) instructions on configuring the climate control and motors for a more economical driving mode. I neglected to navigate to the well-hidden screen that contains a checkbox I was suppose to check to activate this mode. All of the above resulted in a nerve-wracking realization, as my wife declared just past Metter, “we’re not going to make Pooler!”
After arguing with her briefly, I came to my senses and used the car’s “find a charger” function to locate a place to refresh the battery. It turns out that was at a major gas station one exit back, for which the car gave perfect directions, while making it a total mystery. What I mean is that the car could have just said “it’s one exit back on the highway you’re on, idiot!” Instead, it planned a backroad route that made me wonder if the charger was in a locked yard surrounded by Pitt Bull dogs and fierce roosters.
At the station, there were eight Tesla superchargers neatly lined up, and nestled at a 45 degree angle where you had to back in was a single Georgia Power supercharger and a regular L2 charger. The L2 charger was out of the question: it would take hours to put enough miles in the “tank.” The GP supercharger was only 62.5 kW, versus the Electrify America (free!) ones that ran between 150 and 300 kW. And it was on the ChargePoint network, for which I had to pay. Luckily I had a ChargePoint account, because I used it at times with the Niro.
We grabbed some snacks, used the bathroom, and chatted with some Tesla owners for 25 minutes, adding 68 miles to the battery. I paid $6.46 for that session. I later noticed that GP doesn’t charge for the power; they charge $0.25/minute for parking. We used that same charger on the way back, stopping for 16 minutes ($4.00) and adding 45 miles to the range. I never had to wait for the charger (anywhere, for that matter), and noted that there’s an 8:1 ratio of Tesla vs. non-Tesla chargers.
The lesson here is that gas-powered drivers don’t think about running out of fuel unless they are traversing Death Valley, and don’t think about fuel economy until they’re balancing their checking account. EV drivers are forced to think about economy all the time. When I’m comfortably commuting my 19-miles to and from work, with 278 miles of range, I don’t think about running the battery dry. If it gets down to 15%, I hook up to my garage L2 charger overnight and I’m done. But on long trips, some careful planning—and contingency planning— is required.
Note in the picture below, the longer you drive at highway speed without slowing down, the worse the miles/kWh. It’s totally counterintuitive for gas-engine drivers.
I’m pleased I got an all-electric car, despite the cost. I feel that the Kia gives me better value than a Tesla, because it’s closer to a Model S than a Model 3 or Y. I don’t need full self driving—supercruise is plenty for me—and paying $10,000 for it seems excessive unless you’re Stephen Colbert rich, which I’m not.
There is a definite learning curve to driving an EV, a change of mindset. I might best describe it, as a private pilot, to the mindset change when you’re first learning to fly and make the first solo flight. Before that solo, there’s an instructor in the right seat, so if you mess up, there’s someone to take over. When you advance the throttle for your first solo takeoff, your mind makes a definite shift—there’s no safety net—fly this thing or die. Driving a full EV has that same feel—if the range drops below the distance necessary to get to a supercharger, you either have a very long unscheduled wait ahead, or ride in a flat bed truck in your future.
David Harsanyi lambasted President Biden’s green team, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “Let them drive Teslas.” I say Biden’s team is wrong. Let them drive Kias. But as a nation, we’re not “there” yet, for several reasons.
First, not all EVs can charge at all charger stations. For now, Tesla superchargers serve only Tesla vehicles. The charging ports aren’t even compatible. In fact, there are nine different charger port types—Tesla has just one—worldwide. In the U.S. there’s CCS1, CHAdeMO, and CCS2 for DC charging, and J1772 for AC. Depending on the car model, you might or might not be able to find a charger that works for you.
Second, one of the reasons I chose the Kia EV6 is that it’s capable of 800V DC CCS2 charging. I have seen it top 175 kW, which is faster than a Tesla supercharger. However, Ford limited its F150 Lightning to 150 kW, which, according to InsideEV, yields a 41 minute charge from 15% to 80%. I have personally observed under 20 minutes in my EV6, and Kia’s official numbers are 18 minutes. That’s a huge difference. With the Ford Mach-e (I refuse to call it a “Mustang”), InsideEV got 0% to 80% in just under 48 minutes—again it’s limited to 150 kW. EV makers have to do a better job. To me, the EV6 is barely acceptable, but the Ford definitely isn’t.
Third, there are not enough fast chargers. There’s plenty of chargers, and even free ones, if you want to hang around for hours. Tanger Outlet malls all have several free L2 chargers, if you’re there looking for shoes or slapping racks all day, great. Some parking garages have free chargers (and some charge for it). Many hotels have none, which is sad. Until there are way more DC superchargers (and not just for Teslas), for long road trips, EVs are not for everyone.
Fourth, the infrastructure for EV charging is not convenient. ChargePoint has a pretty good system, but you have to hook up the app to a credit card, and use your iPhone (or other phone)’s NFC capability to activate the charger. It’s not hard if you have all these things, but you can’t pay in cash, period. Until everyone can pay in cash, like at a gas station, EV is not going to be useful nationwide.
The Electrify America app is also fiddly. It’s supposed to work like ChargePoint (which has always been flawless for me), but it doesn’t. I hooked up my EV6 at the Pooler Walmart while my wife shopped at Tanger across the street. I was in the store five minutes when the car informed me “charge complete.” No way! I rushed out of the Walmart with my few items and found the charger had just stopped for no apparent reason. I called support. They were very sweet and told me to try again, or try another charger (luckily there were five or six there). After five minutes it happened again.
I was fortunate enough to encounter a couple with a VW who gave me specific instructions of exactly how I was to use the app (do not use the NFC mode) and the specific order of how I needed to activate the charger. After I got that tribal knowledge handed to me, I didn’t have any further problems. I’ve never had to ask for help at a gas pump. Never.
I’ve never had to configure my gas-powered car for a long trip (except to set up the radio). Moving from gas to electric, I believe, is the future of America. I think it’s better for the environment, and though there are concerns about natural resources used to make batteries, slave labor, and recycling, we’re just a few decades into real consumer development and mass production, while internal combustion engines had a 100 year head start. I think we will get there, and I think it’ll be good for consumers, our nation, and the planet. We can deal with how all that electricity is generated a lot better than having millions of gas engines running around spewing carbon monoxide, requiring coolant and lubricating oil.
But if my experience is typical (and I think, unless you’re driving a Tesla you paid for in cash, and considered it a small purchase, it is typical), there’s a real learning curve necessary to make the leap. I took nearly four years to get here. The nation will take another five to ten years, but I do think we’ll make it.
One more thing about the EV6. I love driving it. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
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Thank you Steve for this piece here. It was very helpful and informative. I see myself eventually taking the plunge to an EV sometime in the future. But for the near future like later this summer, I'll be getting a plug-in hybrid for my commuter car, and pay close attention to see how the market and infrastructure supporting EVs develop. I remember you telling me about your Niro PHEV a while ago in one of your earlier pieces. I was impressed with it after driving one recently, and is the model I'm likely to settle for this summer.
That EV6 of yours is a sweet looking ride. Love the styling of it. IMO, it is so much better looking than the Hyundai Ionic 5, which I heard was on the same platform as the Kia EV6. Kia really got that styling down good. I'm glad to hear you are enjoying it. Congratulations, and I hope you continue to enjoy it for a good long time.
Extremely informative. Best information yet on use of current EVs. Standardized charging would supercharge the EV industry. Power companies and EMCs should love it. Buy some cheap land a half mile from rural interstate highways, build a convenience store and install two dozen speedy chargers and some gas pumps. It might match a Chick-fil-A for money making.