The Hein Residence with panels

Road Tripping in a Rented EV: How we spent our Summer vacation while taking climate action.

Nick Hein, 10/6/19

1. The Call to Action

A good friend of ours spends her summers in the Adirondacks at a family-owned wilderness camp north of Utica, NY and invited us to come and visit. As the summer was nearing an end, my fiance’ and I realized that we hadn’t taken a vacation and decided to go a few weeks after Labor Day when most of the vacation travel had settled down. However, this was also the week of the climate strike Day of Action and we wanted our travel to align with it even if we would be far away. We began considering our options for low-impact travel.

2. Travel Options

We started by considering what it would cost to drive our own car – a 2011 Honda Fit with 70K miles that gets 40mpg on the highway and has been reliable on previous long trips, except for some tire issues. This certainly would have worked – in fact we’ve taken long trips before with bikes, a guitar, suitcases all stuffed in the back with the seats down. However, this would be our longest trip and we tended to fatigue when driving it for long distances. Also, figuring operating cost at $.50/mile would mean a trip cost of $1200 and pumping 30 gallons of gasoline exhaust into the air. The other options are listed in the table, along with their cost and other considerations.

Road Tripping in a Rented EV

3. The Decision

The only option that would make a significant environmental difference was to rent an EV for the entire trip. However, we found that none of the major rental car companies offer an EV with the range we would need for this long trip with long legs. But we weren’t beat yet.

4. Rental Car Sharing

In the past few years, the sharing economy has grown to include tools, homes and cars. Apps and security protocols allow this to be done safely and securely. Air BnB and ride sharing services Lyft and Uber are examples of this. Recently a few companies have started sharing corporate or personal cars. This makes lots of sense if you need a certain type of car for a short time, but don’t want the burden of it always. Zipcar and Maven are examples of this, but they only rent on an hourly bases and aren’t suited to long trips. A new company that is breaking this mold is Turo (turo.com). Their app allows you torent by the day, for as many days as the owner isn’t using it. A neighbor and friend had begun renting out his Tesla Model S (2015 S85D –85kWh battery and dual-motor). Since I had consulted with him when he started the business we agreed to a work trade that would make this less expensive than any of our above-listed options. The car was booked on the weekend we wanted to leave, but by shifting our departure to Sunday we could work around that so we confirmed the reservation.

Because this is an electric car, we were concerned that we might be causing air pollution to generate the power if it came from fossil fuels. However, because we have a solar array that produces more electricity than we use we had already offset that production with clean, renewable power from our own home.

5. The drive

As our departure day drew near, we got excited as we began packing but realized that since we had never seen this car we didn’t know how much it would hold. This quandry was solved for us, as it turned out. The renter before us had a family emergency that was going to make him 2 hours late getting the car back. Matt, our EV host, kindly offered to drive us to where the car was so we could still leave at the time we planned. This meant our stuff would have to fit in the ferry car with an extra passenger so we would certainly fit in the Tesla. We loaded our suitcases, guitar, bike and miscellaneous items and departed Madison for Janesville. We arrived as the previous driver was cleaning and charging the car for us. He had a home charger, good for 25mph of range increase. As we loaded our items it was amazing how many extra spaces there were for things because of the absence of engine, gas tank and all the systems that feed and control a modern ICE car. Finally we were loaded and charged well enough that we could make it to the first supercharger in Rockford, which would juice us up at 300mph.

I’ll explain here that the big batteries in EVs can’t maintain this charge rate for more than half of the fill-up. After that the rate gradually tapers down so that the first 120 miles usually take only about 15 minutes while the last 120 takes about another hour. The Tesla has a navigation screen that shows you where to charge along your route to get there the fastest. That first evening we stopped about every 150 miles to get enough charge to get to the next supercharger.

We arrived in South Bend, IN about 2AM at a hotel that didn’t have a supercharger, but had a destination charger that we could use overnight that was good for about 25mph. When we were ready to go the next morning, it was up to 150 miles again.

We repeated the pattern next day of driving for 2 hours and charging for 15-30 minutes until we arrived at our intermediate destination in the Finger Lakes of NY where we would stay a few days with a relative. The stops were about as long as we would have taken to fill a gas tank, but the chargers were usually in mall or grocery store parking lots. We would either grab a meal or just walk until the car was charged again and ready to go.

Our hosts let us plug into the 110V outlet in their garage, which only gives 3mph of charge, but since we had a few days that was good enough. We took our hosts out in the car one day to visit a museum and have lunch. It handled the steep, winding roads around Keuka Lake magnificently. One time going up a steep hill I decided to floor the pedal to see how much power it had. It took off so fast it felt like we were going to do a wheelie.

On our final leg to the Adirondacks we only had to make one stop for charging. However, our destination didn’t have a charger of anykind. We wouldn’t be using the car during the week we stayed, but would need enough charge to get to a Supercharger so we could continue home. It turned out that a relative of our host lived nearby and we could plug in to the 110V at their home and by the time we left we would have a full charge.

6. The Destination

Our stay at the preserve was wonderful. It was just the beginning of Fall color change and through the week the trees went from sparks of red to blushes of yellow and orange with some green remaining so it looked like a forest of rainbows. No motors are allowed on the lake so we took rowboats, kayaks and canoes around the big lake and some of the surrounding ponds. The lake is at the top of a watershed, so it’s pure enough to drink out of –in fact, since all of the cabins are off-grid this is where they get their drinking water. Our host had been coming here since she was little, and since it’s family-owned everyone else is a relative. We made fast and great friends. Since it was after Labor Day most of the younger families had left for school and other activities, leaving mostly retirees and the maintenance staff.

Even in a pristine and isolated place like this though, there were signs of climate change that couldn’t be ignored. Though clean, the water isn’t as clear as it was 50 years ago. Soot and dust put in the air all over the world settle here and make the waters a little murkier every season. We learned that someone had just caught a 25lb trout this Summer. Definitely a cause for celebration, but we learned that the reason is that warmer temperatures are reducing the dissolved oxygen at the depth where these monsters have always lived, forcing them to shallower water where they can be caught.

7. The Return

At the end of the week it was time to leave. The beautiful weather had turned to rain, presaging cooler fall weather. Our host drove us to town where we shopped and picked up our fully-charged car to begin the journey home. Again we followed the pattern of driving 2 hours and charging for 15-30 minutes until we returned to the Finger Lakes for one last night with the relatives. Charging from the garage plug overnight gave us another 25 miles of range so we could make it to the first supercharger, where we did some grocery shopping to get some local food and snacks for the drive.

We decided to return through Canada from Niagara Falls, NY to Windsor/Detroit, MI. We found the superchargers just as plentiful and available in Canada, and good food was available in the shopping centers nearby – often familiar looking food with unfamiliar store names. That night we stayed in a hotel in Ann Arbor, MI with a destination charger so that by morning we had a full charge again. Something that had become clear after this much driving was that an EV is a much less stressful ride, particularly with the autosteer and speed control in the Tesla. Because the car takes on these tedious tasks, the driver is free to look around for unexpected hazards and enjoy the scenery. Because the car has no exhaust, you can smell things all around you.

8. Summary / What We Learned

At the end of the trip we wanted to return the car with a substantial charge, so we went to a supercharger near our regular grocery store and stocked up while the car charged. We felt energized after this long trip, not strained like we have been on other long trips in an ICE car. We felt like we had learned a few things too. Neither of us enjoys driving, our car sits unused in the driveway 99% of the time, but for the things you need a car to do EVs do them best. We are even considering trading our gas-sipping Honda Fit for an EV that doesn’t use ANY gas and can be filled from our rooftop solar array. We also learned an interesting limitation of the navigation computer. It will find you the charging stations that will get you to your destination the quickest. That isn’t necessarily the most enjoyable way, and other strategies may make for a more pleasant journey. We decided that next time we will start the day with a full charge and then drive until lunchtime, using the time to get another full charge that will get us to dinner. That way there are fewer stops, and if you want short pauses to stretch or take care of things you can do so, whether you charge or not. Finally, it was a wonderful trip –made more enjoyable in an EV, and with a clear conscience thanks to our solar PV.

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