A bumpy ride into the electric car future

So, we bought a thing.

Chad standing in front of new car with a giant novelty bow on the hood

When I asked the dealer to take a photo he said “Do you want the big bow?” and I was like “Yes please sir I would very much like the big bow!”

It is a Nissan LEAF, a fully electric vehicle. This is our first electric vehicle. In fact, it is our first vehicle. We held off on owning a vehicle for a very long time, but the only place we could find to rent is quite a ways out of town so we thought it was time. There is a lot more involved in the decision, but today I am here to tell you a different story, a tale of woe. Cue ominous (and foreshadowing!) thunderclap…

We purchased the vehicle in Vancouver. The dealer could ship it to us in the Okanagan for a fee, but my wife and I decided this was a chance to take a little getaway — just the two of us — and also a good opportunity to test the electric vehicle on a long trip. Running such an experiment at the height of summer, in ideal conditions, seemed like a better idea than leaving it for the winter.

After picking up the vehicle, we booted around town, enjoying the near-silent smooth ride of an EV. We stayed on Granville Island and enjoyed some night views of the city. The next day we set out, excited for the road trip, completely unawares as to what a fiasco it would be.

Charging ahead

Theoretically the LEAF can get about 350kms of range on a full charge. Travelling from Vancouver to Kelowna is 390kms. This means one should probably stop in Merritt for a 40 min charge. Because we expected this was our first trip of many between the two cities, we decided to stop at every place with a charging station, charging for a few minutes at each point along the way, just to get used to things.

map showing route from Vancouver to Armstrong with 5 charging stations marked
Our route with five charging areas highlighted

By the time we got to Hope (161kms) we were just under half the battery (we had been driving around Vancouver for the last two days) so we initiated our very first charge. It was like a scene out of Mr Bean as I tried to figure out which cable goes into what port and get things started. Most EVs are equipped with two charging ports: one for “slow charging” which on the LEAF can take up to 11 hours to go from 0% to 100%; and one for “fast charging” which takes about 50 minutes. We stopped in Hope for about 20 minutes, took a walk around the park, and came back to the car which had charged up to 54%, well enough to get us the next 120kms to Merritt — or so we thought.

The cenotaph at Hope, BC. Flag is half-masted and shoes cover the cenotaph in memoriam of residential school victims.
The cenotaph at Hope, BC. Flag is half-masted and shoes cover the cenotaph in memoriam of residential school victims.

EVs have a lot of torque. When you step down on the accelerator they gooooo! Since there are no gears, there is no build-up to the shift. The ride is smooth and you don’t feel much of a difference between 60 and 120. It is easy to go fast… you push go and it just goes! And in all conditions.

In order to get into the interior of British Columbia you have to go from sea to sky, climbing over the Coast Mountain range into the central plateau, which stretches on to the east until it hits the next big step: the Rocky Mountains. The best way to get through the Coast Mountains is along the Coquihalla Highway, which summits at 1,444 meters. It is very steep. But my brand new electric vehicle, with all its torque, was easily able to climb. I was bombing up the hill, passing people, and enjoying the lovely mountain views in a carefree mood.

On the dashboard my navigation app was ticking down the kilometres to Merritt. Looking between that and the estimated range of the LEAF I noticed something a bit alarming: the “estimated range” in kilometres was decreasing twice as fast as the distance remaining in our journey.

Lesson #1 of EVs: these things burn lots of power going up hills.

The numbers started to get pretty worrisome, but I was not that nervous because I knew at the Britton Creek rest stop at the summit there are charging stations. I asked my wife to check their status online and they were all open and ready for use. Phew!

One key feature of being an EV driver is the plethora of smartphone apps that display maps of charging stations, showing if stations are in use, and helping plan routes. This is all very useful while charging stations are relatively scarce. It is also helpful to know when a charging station is unavailable, such as when it is under construction, or even in need of repairs. At a mall in Vancouver we saw a charging station with its cable completely severed! Hopefully it was on purpose, because that seems like a big risk to take for some petty vandalism.

Anyways, the Britton Creek charging area had a couple fast chargers and a slow charger, so we were going to be okay. I was watching the kilometres melt away on the LEAF’s “guess-o-meter” and starting to sweat a bit. I had taken my foot off the gas and switched to “Eco Mode.” This mode puts a ceiling on how much power gets sent to the motor to move the vehicle. To use a gas car analogy, it limits the “revs” of the vehicle. When Eco mode is off, you are effectively in “Sport Mode.”

Lesson #2 of EVs: Always drive in Eco mode.

We crawled over the summit with a mere 57kms remaining on the range meter. Merritt is 64 kms away. Of course, it is all downhill from here, and the LEAF recharges its battery on the way downhill, so we might be able to make it all the way to Merritt, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. We pulled off the highway and into the rest area.

Lesson #3 of EVs: An EV will use the momentum of the vehicle to charge its own battery.

Coming down the hill there was a bit of a confusing sight: a bunch of electric vehicles parked in the fast charger spots. Strange, the app said nothing was in use. The only charger free was the slow charger. Well, I thought, we can at least get going on the slow charger until one of the fast chargers opens up. I got out to plug in, and that is when the lady in the car next to us delivered the shocking news.

“There is a power outage. Nothing works. We have been sitting here for five hours.”

That powerless feeling

The drive up the Coquihalla was pretty windy that day, which probably contributed to some the power loss on my car’s battery. Apparently, the wind knocked out some electrical power infrastructure which blacked out the northern part of the valley. Over 1600 people in communities from where we were up to southern Merritt were affected.

The EV charging infrastructure has being growing rapidly. According to Plugshare there are 23 charging networks active in BC alone. Tesla of course has its superchargers, but big companies like PetroCanada and BC Hydro have been rolling out their own networks. But you can tell it is still early days. When I called BC Hydro to learn more about the outage I asked why the charging stations were shown as online on the app. It sounds like since the power was cut, the charging stations were not able to communicate that they were offline. I was shaking my head as this is API building 101. 🤦‍♂️ The BC Hydro operator said she would make a note of it.

Lesson #4 of EVs: Power outages are a much more likely threat than gas shortages.

BC Hydro told me crews were on site and trying to fix the problem now. We didn’t have enough kilometres left in the tank to YOLO it and get to Merritt, and even if we did the outage was affecting there too. So we got ready to spend the night.

The food truck! There was an old van selling all sorts of random stuff so my wife ran over there and bought a bunch of water and provisions. Good thing she had cash because the vendor could not use his credit card processing machine! The bathrooms at the rest area were also locked and unusable. Everything up here was automated with electricity. We sat in our car, next to two Hyundai Ioniqs, watching the gas vehicles come and go, buzzing around us on their way home or to vacation destinations.

One of the Hyundais was on the way to Vancouver from Kelowna. They were a Korean couple and this was their first road trip in their EV. The other Hyundai was piloted by a pair of older women returning to Vancouver from their first EV road trip. We were all in the same boat… a bunch of EV n00bs with the wind taken out of our sails.

Then a miracle happened: just 45 minutes of waiting and the power came back on!

When it rains, it pours

There was a scramble to get connected. Each fast charging station has two cables: one for cars that use CHAdeMO, and one with a CCS connector. The Hyundais both used CCS so I whipped my LEAF around and connected to the CHAdeMO.

Lesson #5 of EVs: Even though a charging station has 2 cables, it can only charge 1 vehicle at a time.

Dammit… so even though it looked like there were four fast charging stations here, there were actually only two. We had to wait.

Charging station
A BC Hydro Fast charging station. Notice the cables coming out of the left and right sides of the device.

Lucky for us, the pair of ladies that had been sitting there for 5 hours were unluckier than us. While they had been sitting in their car reading, knitting, and generally whiling away the time, they had been using the AC and other cab features of their car. The standard 12 volt battery under their hood, the one responsible for starting the vehicle and keeping the onboard computer alive, was totally dead. Due to this, their onboard computer could not communicate with the charging station and initiate the charging process for the big main battery! Even though the power had come back on, they still could not charge their vehicle.

Lesson #6 of EVs: There are TWO batteries, one to power the motor and the other to power onboard electronics. When the small one dies, the big one is useless, and can’t even take a charge.

By this time the sky had darkened. The wind had blown in some black clouds and it was looking like rain. I had pulled my car beside the ladies’ to fast-charge with the other cable while we worked the problem. I had a crazy idea, and did some fast searching online and voila!

Lesson #7 of EVs: You can jumpstart an electric vehicle.

We canvassed the nearby gas vehicle drivers for a while until we found someone with jumper cables. By this time, the Korean couple’s car was charged up, so they popped their hood and under the Guidance of Our Lord The Internet, we tried to jump the ladies’ vehicle to get it going enough for the onboard computer to communicate with the charging station. Rain drops started to fall as we all questionedthe prudence of using one EV to jumpstart another in the rain… but success was at hand! We were able to get the car going and connect the charger. All that was left was for the ladies to sit back for an hour to be fully charged up and then they could complete their journey. By now we were at 80% battery. With the ladies all set, and the Korean couple ready to go, we all said goodbye and parted ways. I really hope they made it home.

We left chuffed that we did not have to stay over night at a rest stop in the middle of the mountains, but our journey of woe was not done. The first sign was that the rain came pouring down and I was forced to drive at about 40 kms/hr, hydro-planing our way toward Merritt.

A confluence of cursed conditions

Recall Lesson #1 of EVs: these things burn lots of power going up hills.

After Merritt we would next have to tackle the Okanagan Connector, another high mountain pass between Merritt to Kelowna. I wonder how much juice it would take to get over that? By now it was getting quite late, and according to Google Maps there was another massive storm heading right for the Connector. Although there is another charging station at the top of that pass, with the electrical infrastructure problems we had already faced we decided it would be more prudent to just stop in Merritt for the night and continue our journey the next day.

While I was trying to help the ladies at Britton Creek, my wife was searching for accommodations in Merritt. It was surprisingly busy there, but she was able to nab the last room available on Booking.com.

The rain had let up at the top of the last hill before we coasted down into Merritt, picking up a percentage point or two of battery power. The lights at the bottom of the valley were a welcome sight after such a long and arduous adventure. Pulling into the Last Motel in Merritt we were greeted with parking lot packed with big trucks. I pulled our small electric LEAF in between two extremely tall and muddy four-by-fours, loaded with equipment. Once we got our room I would go across the street where there was a fast charger and juice up to 100% so we could leave in the morning. On the way to the front office we saw many shirtless men sitting outside in front of their motel rooms, grimy and smoking after a long day of… fighting fires. Of course! No wonder the hotels were all booked. There were massive fires just to the north of us, and many evacuees and volunteer firefighters needed accommodations. The entire town of Lytton had just burned down the previous week. As of writing of this post, BC has seen 1,232 fires just this year.

Map of southwestern British Columbia with smoke overlays and a number of fires labelled
Map of fires for July 8 on https://firesmoke.ca

It was late and the motel office door was all locked up. We called the number for the night desk. “I am sorry, I don’t know why Booking.com let you get a room, we are all booked up.” Dammit. First the power grid let us down, and now the internet. I shook my fist at modernity!

We extracted our car from amongst the giant diesel vehicles, like a lone gazelle amongst a herd of elephants, and crossed the street to the fast charger while we figured out what to do next. It was 10PM and we didn’t want to tackle the next big mountain pass. So we decided to route around to Kamloops and started calling hotels there, not trusting internet booking sites at this time of night.

Then it started to rain again. Buckets and buckets. I quickly searched on the internet, relieved to learn:

Lesson #8 of EVs: Yes, you can charge in the rain and snow.

A moment of weakness, a night of unrest

At 80% charge and only 90kms to our hotel room, confirmed and booked over the phone, we set off into the storm. The lightning lit up the rolling hills of the Nicola Valley like an old-timey photograph. This is the ancestral home of the Syilx people, settled by fur traders and ranchers back in the frontier days. We cruised through in our electric vehicle, somewhat worried about the lightning crackling above our heads. The rain was heavy and I slowed right down, driving in the centre of the road following the tail lights of a tiny VW Bug.

I thought to myself: A rain this hard has got to be good for all the forest fires. But that lightning could be starting all new fires. Just 10kms out of Kamloops though, the roads were bone dry. The storm seemed to have totally missed the fires.

The hotel in Kamloops was also full of fire fighters, evacuees, and railway workers. As we checked in I regaled the night desk attendant with our account of our first day in our brand new electric vehicle. He nodded the empathetic manner of one well-trained in customer service, and assured us in a soothing voice, “Well, you are here now, so just relax and have a good night’s rest. The weather will be clear in the morning.”

We trudged up the stairs and entered our overly air-conditioned room with its red carpet pocked with cigarette burns. We had only spent about $15 on this trip charging our car multiple times, but were now blowing $250 on this.

My wife said, “I can’t believe you said that to him!” and I, shaking my tired head, replied, “I know! As soon as it slipped out of my mouth I was just… ”

I had just given a perfect stranger the license plate to a 1 day old car in the parking lot. I crawled into bed, dog-tired, but kept wide awake by the fear of having my brand new car stolen in the night. This is a lesson that has nothing to do with EVs.

Possibly the longest 5 hour journey in history

The next morning the sun shone brightly through a haze of forest fire smoke. It was a new day! I was happy to see that our car was still in the parking lot.

Armstrong was only 108 kms away. The drive from Merritt to Kamloops starts off with a bit of a climb, but the long slope into the Thompson Valley meant we recharged quite a bit. We could top up at the Canadian Tire while we shopped for jumper cables, and then head home.

Using the bicycle directions on Google maps gives you a handy elevation profile. Knowing the climb and descent, and driving on Eco, I estimated it would take about 30% of our battery to get to our destination. I drove the speed limit, only exceeding it twice to pass two vehicles. By the time we got home the car was down just 31%. I was starting to get the hang of things!

Lesson #1b of EVs: Consider altitude in calculating your route.

What a trip! We just laughed in disbelief/despair the whole way. Boy were we lucky it was just the two of us and we didn’t have the kids. That would have been a real disaster! Nevertheless, what a great opportunity to learn a lot about electric vehicle ownership. It was like a bootcamp.

After three weeks of ownership I really like the car. It is the infrastructure that I am not fond of. In the city an electric car is great. Even in Kelowna there are many charging options. Going between the communities in the Okanagan valley is simple, and I have a good sense of how much battery each leg takes (I no longer pay attention to the guess-o-meter). But for long distance driving we are still leery of the infrastructure. Power outages happen a lot in Canada. We saw how many charging stations were damaged or unusable. And if it is a long weekend and everyone is travelling, there could be some big lines. You not only have to calculate battery until the next charging station, but the next next one in case something goes wrong. It makes long trips much longer as you have to plan in redundancy. There are just not enough stations yet, especially when you compare with the availability of gasoline stands. It will get better though. There are more and more stations popping up, and many more on the roadmap. But for now, we will hold off on long road trips in the family vehicle. And I am not just ready to tackle a winter trip to Vancouver over the Coquihalla. Range anxiety is a lot better than it used to be, but it is still there until we get more rock-solid charging infrastructure.

Published by Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes.

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