The Future of the Great American Road Trip

On Making the Long Haul in Alternative Fuel and Advanced Technology Vehicles

CityLab recently released a selection of articles from its nine-month, 2014 series on “The Future of Transportation” in an e-book available for free download online. An entertaining, interesting, and, at times, jarring evaluation of national travel patterns and transportation policy present and future, we at the SFCCC absolutely recommend a read.

My favorite piece included is titled “What Running Out of Power in a Tesla on the Side of a Highway Taught Me About the Road Trip of Tomorrow”. This narrative by author Nate Berg is set in the context of a 209-mile evening haul – from Barstow, California to Kingman, Arizona – in a rented Tesla Model S.

A recent college graduate in my early 20s and Tucson, AZ native, I grew up in a 3-person family with 4 cars, and am all too familiar with the great American road trip. In fact, as a kid Kingman was a frequent travel stop on trips to visit family in Las Vegas. As a legal adult it served the same purpose for Vegas trips of a…slightly different nature. But as an aspiring clean transportation professional, my relationship with driving is complicated. I cannot deny the pleasant nostalgia I derive from thinking back on my sophomore-year spring break trip, driving from Tucson to San Francisco, down the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara and San Diego before returning to Arizona. Recalling the feeling of cool mist on my face passing through Big Sur, flanked by towering redwoods to my left and violently beautiful Pacific waves to my right, I feel no compunction about saying some of the greatest moments of my life thus far have been spent inside a vehicle. A gas-guzzling, tailpipe-puffing car.

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In Berg’s retelling of this journey, he speaks first to the prospect of taking all-battery electric vehicles like the Model S on hundred-mile-plus trips. Tesla’s network of “Superchargers” – DC battery-charging stations that can bring a Model S to full charge in slightly over an hour – should, in theory, allow Tesla drivers to charge up over lunch, and make it up to 250 miles before stopping at the next charge point for the night. This distance certainly qualifies as a road-trip-status drag, presenting opportunity for EV drivers to achieve comparable mobility to traditional drivers in long-range travel.

As you may have discerned from the title, Berg doesn’t make it from Barstow to Kingman within his estimated 38-mile buffer. Spoiler alert: he misses the next Supercharger station by a mere 3 miles, and proceeds to endure a disheartening, epic tow effort that slogs through the night and through much of the next morning.

The article suggests three main constraints limit the all-electric-vehicle market:

  1. The limits of battery capacity
  2. The time it takes to charge the battery
  3. The availability of charging stations

With ever-advancing battery technology, issues (1) and (2) should be given minimal consideration compared to charging station accessibility. For although this is essentially an infrastructure concern, it exerts a strong influence on behavioral barriers associated with buying EVs – namely “range anxiety”. As we spoke to in January, potential adopters of alt fuel and electric vehicles, understandably, need to know they can make it where they need to go.

Despite his experience, Berg presents a compelling case for Tesla’s efforts to ease range anxiety for EV drivers hoping to make inter-city trips – citing figures that the company’s Supercharger network should be able to reach 98 percent of the U.S. population by the end of 2015. To date, it is estimated covers a range accessible to approximately 80 percent. 

Michael Nichols, a UC Davis researcher, asserts overcoming this anxiety is key to kick-starting the EV market. While Tesla seems to be taking this approach to heart in expanding their Supercharger network, others say this infrastructure investment might not be necessary if the market continues heading in the ‘hybrid’ direction. This said, ‘hybrid’ does not necessary mean the gas/battery mix we’re used to. It might be some combination of oil, natural gas, batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells, among other emerging fuel technologies on the horizon, says Timothy Lipman of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. These varieties might allow drivers to achieve greater range on batteries via alternative fuel boosts that supply the vehicle with more power when the battery runs out.

Ultimately Berg is able to make the return trip from Kingman to Barstow, and then back to Los Angeles problem free. And in a surprising twist, he’s sad to return the vehicle following his first electric-car road trip, however tumultuous it was. He says, “It felt a little like coming back to the present after a brief visit to the near future”.

The future Berg speaks to is one I want to be a part of. I’m not ready to give up the road trip, nor do I intend to spurn my commitments to reducing the collective costs of vehicle travel. So we here at the SFCCC encourage advancement and innovation in expanding EV charging networks and developing new advanced vehicle technologies that combine the best of what alt fuel research, present and forthcoming, has to offer.

Here’s to moving forward, and not letting one breakdown outside of Kingman stand in our way.

-AC