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A nail-biting road trip to the river in an electric RAV4

Toyota might not have designed its electric RAV4 for long road trips, but I decided to take a drive up into Northern California for a whitewater kayaking trip recently anyway. I wanted to see how the electric car would fare on the long(ish) journey, particularly given all of Tesla’s talk about using its cars for road trips.

I knew the trip wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as driving and fueling up my Subaru. The range of the RAV4, at around 100 miles, would require some planning in advance and a good dose of optimism. But I wanted to test the limit of the EV a little and get a first-hand experience of what range anxiety feels like.

The journey would take me from my home in Oakland to the South Fork of the American River, a mecca for whitewater boating. It takes about 125 miles of traveling on Interstate 80, Highway 50 and a two-lane road to get to the historic town of Coloma, where paddlers meet to launch their boats. This area also was where gold was discovered in 1848, kicking off the Gold Rush that altered California’s fortunes.

The electric RAV4 makes it easy to transport my kayak and gear to the American River.
The electric RAV4 makes it easy to transport my kayak and gear.

Toyota launched this current generation of electric RAV4 only about a year ago and is limiting the sales to major cities in California. The carmaker set a modest goal of selling about 2,600 through 2014. The car runs on Tesla’s powertrain, including the battery pack and charging system, which of course gives it a cool factor. But that hardly registered in my mind when I mulled over the idea of camping overnight so that I could use the campground’s 120-volt RV hookup to pump enough juice into the RAV4’s 41.8-kwh battery to get me to the nearest fast-charging (240-volt) station, where I could get the rest of the energy needed to get home.

Toyota loaned me the RAV4, which came with a charging cable for plugging into a 120-volt outlet, for a week. I live in an apartment, and that makes electric car ownership far less convenient. Naturally, it’d be nice — and I’d pay less for electricity — to charge the car overnight if I had my own garage and charging equipment.

Charging up

My first trip to a charging station provided a glimpse of some of the hassles of refueling an electric car. I decided on a station in a parking garage in downtown Oakland. I couldn’t find the entrance to the parking garage initially and circled the block a few times before realizing that the app I used to give me the location listed the wrong street.

After I rolled down the ramp to enter the parking garage, I found the spot in front of the charging station blocked by non-electric cars. The charging equipment wasn’t used often enough, so the staff would park other vehicles in that spot. Good thing the drivers had left the keys with the parking attendants.

I relied on the ChargePoint app developed by Coulomb Technologies, a charging equipment and service seller, to help me find the nearest fast-charging station and map my charging stops for the long drive to the river. Aside from the wrong address for the first fueling station and another incident in which its listing of an available charging station turned out to be unavailable, the app delivered the other half a dozen times.

The Marshall Gold Discovery Park by the American River in Coloma is a popular starting point for kayakers.

If you happen to work for an employer who subsidizes charging or public charging stations are located within your driving sphere, then you can save some good money on electricity. Free public charging stations aren’t common though in most areas — you will find them more readily on college campuses and by city halls or other government buildings.

I used free charging twice. For five other times, I paid $0.49 per kilowatt-hour. An hour and 50 minutes of charging cost me $4.80 and gave me just over 20 miles. When I had to refill the car while it had 5 miles left, it took roughly 7 hours and nearly $20 to recharge it to full. Pacific Gas and Electric charged me an average of $0.14 per kilowatt-hour in my most recent bill. Here is where the option of home charging would make electric car ownership more financially appealing over the long run, after paying off the charging equipment and installation costs.

There were some glitches with the ChargePoint system. Although I used my credit card to pay for charging five times, only three charges showed up on my bill.

The road trip

On that Sunday of my trip to the American River, I got up at 4:30 a.m. to load my kayak and gear. It was a plus that the car had ample space to fit my 7-foot, 9-inch red Jackson Fun Runner inside. This saved me the trouble of hoisting the kayak onto the car roof and tying it onto a rack.

The trip takes 2 to 2.5 hours without traffic, so I usually start driving around 8 a.m. to meet other boaters at 10:30 a.m., when water from the dam release rises to a desirable level for boating. With the electric car, though, I had to set aside charging time. The RAV4 had 90 miles left when I took off around 5:20 a.m. There are two benefits of driving that early: having fewer cars to contend with and seeing the pretty glow of the sun warming up towns and farms along the way.

My first attempt at fueling the RAV4, in downtown Oakland, involved moving gasoline cars from the designated charging spot.
My first attempt at fueling the RAV4 involved moving gasoline cars from the designated charging spot.

I stopped by UC Davis to use one of its charging stations. By then, the RAV4 had 24 miles of estimated range left. I took a nap for about two hours while the car charged to 68 miles, enough to get me to Coloma (the roomy car allowed me to nap next to my kayak).

When I pulled in to the riverfront park to meet the boaters, the car had 12 miles left. It should be noted that I gave up using air conditioning during my trip to the river and back, despite the temperatures reaching the low 90s that day, in order to conserve energy. When I took delivery of the car, I found out that the 100 estimated range would drop to 83 miles if I turned on the AC.

So here was my original plan for what to do after a day on the river: I’d camp overnight, using a 120-volt RV hookup there to get enough miles to get to the nearest charging station, at Whole Foods Market, about 23 miles away in Folsom. Or, I could call AAA and have the car towed to that charging station.

I didn’t have to do either. A fellow kayaker who lived nearby offered to let me charge the car at his home while we were on the river. So, I spent nearly all of the remaining miles driving up some hills, and by the time I parked in front of his garage, the mileage indicator no longer showed a number. Instead, it read “Low,” along with a warning message that had actually lit up on the dashboard a while back that urged me to charge promptly.

The charging station at the Folsom outlet mall gave me the necessary miles to get home from the river.
The charging station at the Folsom outlet mall gave me the necessary miles to get home from the river.

Nearly six hours later, my car took in mere 18 miles’ worth of electricity. Though I knew using a 120-volt outlet would be an agonizingly slow way to draw energy, I was still surprised and dismayed to see that the battery was barely filled.

How could I get to a charging station 23 miles away with a car that was only good for 18 miles? The kayaker who let me charge at his home, along with another kayaker, convinced me that I just might make it. They were both aerospace engineers, and somehow that made them persuasive. Regenerative braking, they thought, would help since I was, generally speaking, heading toward a valley from up in the hills. One of them also figured that the car’s battery might have more energy in reserve than indicated because the car’s computer likely calibrated the range based on the uphill driving I had done getting to Coloma and then his house that morning.

I made it! With 10 miles left, I arrived at the charging station by Whole Foods. Except . . . the station wasn’t available, contrary to what the ChargePoint app showed. Yikes.

The next station was roughly 5 miles away, according to Google Maps, so I took a chance and continued on. When I reached the charging station at the Folsom outlet mall at around 6:15 p.m., the RAV4 showed 5 miles left. I needed just over 99 miles to get home.

Fate was kind to me. Not only did I find a charging station at the mall, I also happened to be near a movie theater. Two movies — “Red 2” and “The Lone Ranger” — and a bag of popcorn and an Icee later, I checked on the car and saw the battery was fully charged and showed 101 estimated miles. It was just after 1 a.m. when I drove off. When I got home around 3 a.m., the car had 5 miles left.

Toyota’s publication relation representative advised me not to take the RAV4 to the Trinity River, a 275 miles, or 6 hours, drive away. This photo shows me running a rapid called Hell Hole on the Trinity.

Like what other electric car drivers have noticed, the mileage calibration doesn’t jive neatly with the actual miles driven, something that could present a significant challenge in mapping out the logistics for a long road trip, especially when charging stations aren’t nearly as available as gas stations.

One of the issues has to do with a lack of good understanding of the inner workings of each battery cell, making it difficult to correctly gauge a battery’s performance, as this Technology Review story points out. The software for calibrating the range is another issue. How well can the car’s computer accurately estimate the available miles left when it doesn’t know the topography, road conditions and other factors in the drive ahead?

Car makers understand that range anxiety is one of the biggest reasons that prevent consumers from buying electric cars. We need both a big improvement in the cost and range of the batteries and the availability of charging stations to make electric cars mainstream. ┬áHaving ample testimonies from drivers — preferably people we know — will help ease range anxiety. I would consider buying an electric car if I didn’t have to work so hard to get home.

6 Responses to “A nail-biting road trip to the river in an electric RAV4”

  1. Very nice description of your experience. I drive a 2012 Nissan Leaf, and I would recommend a different app called PlugShare. Plugshare is agnostic as far as manufacturer, so it will show not only the Coulomb stations, but SemaConnect, Eaton, Clipper Creek and whoever else is out there, plus individuals who have made their home chargers available for use. A quick check near the Coloma area shows three 240V Level 2 locations in Placerville alone, with gobs east of Sacramento.

    I know two people who drive Rav4 EV’s and love them.

    • Thanks for the tip! There are quite a few east of Sacramento even with just Coulomb’s stations, and that was why it was ok that the first one I tried was tied up. I just looked at PlugShare’s map of stations. Looks like the distance between Coloma and Placerville is shorter but might be more hilly. The distance between Placerville and Oakland is 120 miles, says Google Maps. So I likely would’ve had to stop somewhere to charge up a bit to get home.

      I really liked driving that RAV4, and its roominess was great. People are fascinated by electric cars and would buy them if driving experience was the biggest factor for making the purchase decision.