San Francisco Clean Cities Coalition

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.


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.


New Year, New Fuels

Getting to Know the Alternative Fuels Data Center

It’s 2015. Back to the Future II promised me hoverboards, self-tying shoelaces, and flying cars. If you ask me, a lack of hoverboards is this list’s greatest disappointment (if you can levitate up to 574 people on a high-speed train, why is it so difficult to levitate one young woman on a skateboard-sized deck?). Others in transportation might fixate more on the futuristic automobile - a literal Thunderbird. While it sounds like an ideal solution to congestion, there is little evidence to support that a flying car would increase one’s fuel efficiency, or decrease our nation’s petroleum dependence (in fact, I would posit it would take quite a lot of fuel to power a flying car’s jet engine). 

As our new year’s resolutions at San Francisco Clean Cities thematically identify with the latter aim, I would like to take the opportunity to familiarize those reading with a resource that most certainly can make a difference in supporting America’s clean transportation future: the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC). Looking to save some money on gas (you may interpret this either as the cost of gasoline or the cost of auto emissions)? The AFDC is the site for you. Providing information, data, and tools to help decision makers navigate their way towards cleaner transportation choices, the AFDC is a one-stop-shop for knowledge on alt fuels technology, policy, and news.

Some of our favorite features of the AFDC include:

1.     The newly added “Alternative Fuel IQ” Test for those of us who don’t know where to start. Give it a go yourself! Don’t fret a poor score; there is plenty of information stored throughout the AFDC to boost those alternative fuels brain cells until they rise off the charts.

2.     The Alternative Fueling Station Locator for those of us who have already ventured, or are considering venturing into the land of alt fuel vehicles and are a little anxious about that ever-pressing question: “Can we make it?”. Plan trips in your brand new, fun sized Prius c without worrying about where to charge up!

3.     The Laws & Incentives Database for those who want a little more bang for our buck (as if the internal satisfaction of keeping harmful emissions out of the environment and boosting our nation’s energy independence is not enough). Search by state to review incentives, laws, and regulations related to alt fuels and advanced fuel vehicle technology wherever you are now, or wherever you’re going (it is a new year after all – adventure calls!).

As these features merely skim the surface of what the AFDC has to offer, we at the SFCCC encourage you to take a closer look in 2015. Let us know what you find helpful, and please do reach out with any additional questions, compliments, concerns, or simply to share your new year’s transportation resolutions. Here’s to a cleaner fuel future (and to never losing hope for hoverboards)!