The U.S. EV charging network isn’t ready for your family road trip, let alone the expected wave of new cars

Christina Wilkins

Electric cars are the future. Whether you want to go green or not, most of us are going to be driving an EV in the next two decades. Automakers are spending billions retooling factories and revamping their fleets to go most or all-electric in the next 10 to 15 years, […]

Electric cars are the future.

Whether you want to go green or not, most of us are going to be driving an EV in the next two decades. Automakers are spending billions retooling factories and revamping their fleets to go most or all-electric in the next 10 to 15 years, plans fully endorsed by President Joe Biden who wants half of all U.S. auto sales to be electric vehicles by 2030. That’s a massive goal considering the market, including plug-in hybrids, currently stands at about 3{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255}.

One of the biggest barriers to EV adoption is America’s charging network. There are roughly 136,400 gas stations in the U.S., but just 43,800 EV charging stations, according to the Department of Energy. And it takes about 10 minutes to fill your car with a tank of gas but about 45 minutes to fully charge an EV, sometimes longer.

While the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill in Congress budgets $7.5 billion for charging stations we are still a long way from a widespread charging network.

So my producer Harriet Taylor and I decided to put California’s charging infrastructure to the test on an eight-hour road trip from Southern California to San Francisco. California accounted for 9{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} of EV sales in the first quarter and has the largest charging network in America, so it made sense to start there.

We specifically wanted to test anything other than a Tesla, which has the single-largest charging network in the world with 25,000 global charging stations. You need an adapter to use it, but the benefits and wide availability of Tesla’s charging network are generally well known. 

Charging on the road with any car brand other than Tesla is something you don’t hear much about. 

I admit that even as a “car guy” I had a lot of questions about charging, the new terminology, the speed, potential costs and more. 

We rented a brand-new Polestar 2, Volvo’s recent entry into the electric car market, from Enterprise. Most EVs have a range, how far it can drive on a single full charge, of between 100 and 300 miles. The Polestar’s range was advertised at 265 miles, but that can change depending on a variety of things: cold weather, driving up or down hills or using the AC, for instance.

I had driven the Polestar 2 on a brief test a few months earlier so was familiar with it enough to feel comfortable on a long drive.  

We drove about 60 miles from Enterprise to our first stop at Mountain Pass, California, about 15 miles from the Nevada border in the “high desert” at around 5 p.m. on a Tuesday night at 105 degrees.

We had to remove a metal cover from a power outlet at a mine but then we were able to plug in and get to 100{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} before setting off.

Two initial takes after just a few miles: One, it’s easy to get anxious by staring at the giant “percent charged” screen (so we turned it off) and two, we had to download a bunch of apps as we learned to navigate the new “range world.”

Our go-to became PlugShare, which shows you where charging stations are regardless of who owns them, which network it was on, how fast it took to charge, whether it’s currently available and, hopefully, a picture so you can see what you’re getting into. 

PlugShare became a favorite because it was brand-agnostic and customers left reviews of their experience. Those reviews were valuable, because we found that many chargers weren’t nearly as fast as advertised and some just didn’t work or were in weird locations.  

The Polestar also has Google map integration that shows charging stations along the route as well as your projected percent charge when you arrived. We found the charging forecast very accurate, but we think Google could improve the experience by filtering by types of chargers (we had Tesla envy as their stations popped up everywhere).

Stop 1: Electrify America at a Walmart

We rolled into our first stop at a Walmart in Barstow, California. It was an Electrify America location, and they had about eight chargers. Only one was occupied — by an Audi eTron — and so we plugged in, hitting the store for the facilities and, honestly, just to walk around in the air conditioning (did we mention it was hot, hot, hot?!). 

Charging took 37 minutes and cost us $13.33.

Brian Sullivan using a charging station in Sunnyvale

CNBC

Now, off to Bakersfield.

The drive along Route 58 was fascinating. We passed one of the airplane storage fields along with the Alta Wind Energy Center, one of the biggest wind energy facilities in the world.  It was a gorgeous drive at sunset coming down the mountain with lots of hills along this route. 

Hills matter for the Polestar 2 in two ways: first, up hill seems to burn more charge as the car is under load pulling its own weight, but going down is a win because the car has a system that generates power by slowing the car without braking. So once you get the hang of it, you almost never touch the brake pedal and produce some power while you do it.

Stop 2: The Hampton Inn

We rolled into Bakersfield at an 18{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} charge after covering 135 miles and plugged into a Chargepoint system at a Hampton Inn. It only had two plugs but we were the only car there and the night manager said he’s actually never seen anyone use it. It was slow, but free, and we left with an 89{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} charge about 10 hours later.

The long, boring and hot (did we mention it was hot?) drive straight up I-5 through the breadbasket of California was next. Harriet had a 4 p.m. flight out of the San Francisco airport so we were on a bit of a tight schedule and had to leave time to charge.

Pro tip: when planning a trip, it helps to be relatively good at math to help calculate various charging time scenarios.

Stop 3: Electrify America at Shell gas station

The various apps showed us the best possible stop was in Firebaugh, about 140 miles up the road.  There looked to be a few fast-food joints and places to get a coffee. And that’s pretty much all it was.  Our Electrify America plug was at a Shell gas station (as many seem to be) with a small convenience store.

We grabbed some water and just, well, stood around. It took us 41 minutes and cost $21.93 to get to an 87{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} charge, and we enviously eyed the Tesla network across the road, where drivers charged more quickly and had shade from the stations’ roof (did we mention how hot it was?).  We went back in to buy sunscreen.

Now, the final leg. Firebaugh to San Francisco International Airport. Or not. The car’s software indicated we would hit SFO with a meager 5{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} charge. And since I was continuing on to the city, it wouldn’t be enough. We would have to stop again. Annoying, but not the end of the world given that we were going to be hungry and we were rolling into Silicon Valley, where charging stations are as plentiful as garlic in Gilroy. We found a charger near a ramen joint and powered up both ourselves and the car.

I dropped Harriet off at the airport and finished the short ride into the city, arriving near the CNBC studio with a solid 42{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} charge and a lot of curious looks from drivers wondering what kind of car it was.

Pro tip No. 2: Because of the hills, SF is the perfect place for the Polestar 2 and its regenerative braking!  

Final thoughts

A long road trip in an EV right now is not impossible, but it’s not ideal. Yes, we know that something like 95{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} of trips by car are short hops along the same routes: work, school, store, repeat. 

Electric cars may be the future, but the future needs to speed up. And by that, we mean charging speeds have got to accelerate as quickly as the Polestar 2 at a green light: 45 minutes every 200 miles or so won’t cut it for any family looking to make a longer road trip.

We didn’t see a shortage of chargers. Even in the desert we found chargers to use. There is, however, a shortage of chargers in places you really want to stop. Ultimately, I think the EV play is less about cars and more about real estate.

The more EVs on the road, the more charging stations that will be needed. There’s not a lot of demand for them right now, so charging ports were plentiful on our trip. But just think of 20 cars sitting for 45 minutes or more at a time at a single charging station. That takes up a lot of time and space.

For most people, a new car needs to have utility 100{d193e09a58b59d8db4f9cbfbd917777d90b1450a77600673ac73279d595e6255} of the time. Based on this trip, it’s not clear we are there yet. 

— CNBC’s Michael Wayland contributed to this article.

Correction: The bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill in Congress budgets $7.5 billion for charging stations. An earlier version misstated the details of the bill.

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