Electric Vehicle Edge Cases in Eastern Washington

In my first three months as an electric vehicle (EV) owner, I’ve put nearly 2,000 miles on my Chevrolet Bolt EV. Seven hundred fifty of those were on a long weekend trip to the Palouse, a hypnotically beautiful rural region of Washington and Idaho, with rolling green hills and few population centers outside of the college towns of Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho. While I enjoyed my trip through America’s most potato-producing and wheat-producing counties, it also helped me to better understand the limits of an EV in lightly populated areas.

I’ve tried to start my trips to far-flung areas on weekdays, to avoid traffic jams of tourists, and so far, I have succeeded. What I’ve found instead is very fast-moving truck drivers, none of whom are driving on roads to enjoy the scenery. Rural Washingtonians may live and work in a beautiful environment, but they have places to be, and they’re not interested in an EV driver trying to drive more slowly for the sake of his mileage.

As with gas-powered cars, EVs consume more or less fuel based on the way they’re driven. Running the heater or the air conditioner hurts efficiency. Driving at lower speeds, especially if there’s a lot of coasting and deceleration involved, lets the battery recharge (or “regen”) as the car slows down. On a straight rural road with a high speed limit, like most of the ones that I drove on during my Eastern Washington trip, deceleration is only really required when I drive through a town; during my trip, a “congested area” sign meant a lower speed limit for a few minutes, but no actual gridlock. With urban and suburban driving, the Bolt gets about 280 miles or more on a full battery charge, but on rural highways, 220 miles is a more reasonable estimate. That’s a 20% drop in range to drive in a region where chargers can be few and far between.

My Palouse trip was my first where I really needed to plan a route with specific charging stops. On my way east, I stopped in Moses Lake at a Tesla Supercharger, with a built-in “Magic Dock” to allow my Chevy to connect, for my longest charging stop yet, just over an hour to get to an 80% state of charge (SoC). The charging station was near a supermarket, a few fast food restaurants, and a few parks to walk around during the stopover; I was grateful to have some audiobooks and Pokémon Go to pass the time. After doing a side trip to Palouse Falls, which required a little deviation and a couple of miles’ drive down a harrowing gravel road, I arrived in Colfax, Washington for another brief charging stop at a free public charger before continuing to Pullman, where I arrived at my hotel in the red, with a 15% SoC. My hotel had two charging stations on site, with a couple more at a parking lot for Washington State University’s visitor center a couple blocks away. Unfortunately, the hotel’s charging stations were often “ICEd”, with an internal combustion engine car parked at a charger, and one was broken on my second night there; the hotel’s staff were unable to ask drivers to move cars or troubleshoot the chargers. It brought back memories of stopping by a coffee shop primarily to use the Wi-Fi, only to get disappointed by a network equipment problem that a barista wasn’t trained to fix.

PlugShare’s map suggests that Eastern Washington and the Palouse have a fair number of charging stations, but its map is misleading. Some listed stations are restricted to customers of an associated business, particularly an RV park or a hotel. Some stations are ICEd, broken, or in use when I want to use them. One station was on a street in the town of Palouse, Washington, which was barricaded due to a hot rod festival that day; to their credit, the classic car owners left the EV spot vacant, but I decided not to drive through the festival to get some electricity. Some listed plugs are Level 1 chargers, which provide only about 5 miles’ worth of juice per hour from a 120-volt outlet. Level 2 chargers are about 4 times faster than Level 1 chargers are, but 20 miles of range per hour of charging still isn’t great if a L2 charger is in an area with few services and a long way away from my destination. Some of the listed L2 chargers used a NEMA 14-50 connector, but I don’t have a cable to connect this higher voltage plug to my car, and I can’t expect an RV park to have one to lend me. WSU’s visitor center had a Level 3 charger, which could get me to 80% SoC in one hour, but its L3 charger was broken when I tried to use it, and there were no other public L3 chargers in Pullman or Moscow, 8 miles to the east. The next nearest L3 chargers were at a a car dealer asking $30 per charging hour in Lewiston, Idaho, 25 miles to the south, or a reasonably-priced public charger near a park in Clarkston, Washington, just to the west of Lewiston. Ultimately, I strung together enough L2 charging hours in Pullman to drive around the Palouse, and then, the next morning, head for home at 100% SoC. I needed most of that charge to get me to Ellensburg, at the foot of Snoqualmie Pass, for a charging session and a fast food lunch, after a brief detour to the Grant County PUD Visitor Center for a little sightseeing and a bathroom break.

At no point during my Eastern Washington trip was I in serious danger of running out of charge. Even though my estimated range dropped below 40 miles on a couple of occasions, those were times when I was within 10 miles of several charging stations, because I planned ahead. The “guess-o-meter”, as some EV owners call the range estimate gauge, sometimes dropped lower than my distance to the next charging station as I drove up a long incline, but after going down in elevation or slowing down, lower power usage and higher battery regeneration made the guess-o-meter jump back up. I could do a couple of side trips to points of interest on both the eastern and western drives, but 220 miles of highway range isn’t enough to go just anywhere on a whim. If I want to explore more, I might pick up a Bluetooth OBD2 adapter to connect with the A Better Routeplanner (ABRP) app for real-time updates on SoC and efficiency. I’ve used ABRP, and its estimates without real-time data have been good, so I haven’t bought a device to pair with it yet.

There are plenty of other EVs that are designed for longer drives and quicker L3 recharge stops. Some plug-in hybrids can go further still, but they’re best suited for people who do a lot of their driving close to home, and that’s not me; I’m still using my bike for my 5-mile office commutes. I’m still happy to have my humble Bolt for short and medium drives, but to go much further than Pullman in one day, I’d probably fly to my destination.