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Green Wheels: Plan ahead before a long road trip in an EV

High freeway speeds run down your range

Published October 19, 2012

The timing seemed perfect.

Last week, I was invited to Niagara Falls to learn about a Canada-wide network of EV charging stations being launched by a company called Sun Country Highway.

On the very day it was held, Ford loaned me an all-battery Focus Electric — fully charged, since it came on a flatbed truck.

Great, I thought. I could arrive at an EV event in an actual EV.

But a little detail intervened: According to its dashboard display (and I wish they’d use something more eye-friendly than white on pale blue for this) the Focus Electric would travel up to 124 kilometres on a full charge. According to Google maps, the Falls is 127 kilometres from my door.

Oops.

This was just one of the lessons I learned in my first experience with battery power.

The Focus Electric is a fine vehicle: comfortable; spirited power and acceleration; handles well. I loved driving it.

But its limited range and longish recharge time make you think.

To be fair, I had the disadvantage of relying on a 120-volt plug-in — a home wall outlet. Ford says it takes up to 20 hours to refill a depleted battery on this trickle of electricity. In practice, it’s shorter, because you’re unlikely to run the thing down to zero. But it’s still many hours.

A 240-volt charger cuts the time to four hours, but I couldn’t justify installing one for only five days.

In any case, when you can’t travel further than 124 kilometres — and likely less — and must wait at least a couple of hours to set out again, you don’t just hop in the car and go.

You must calculate, first, whether you’ll make it from Point A to Point B. Then, if you can’t return you to Point A — or continue to Point C — without a recharge, does Point B have a plug? If so, can you wait while it does its job?

For example: Sun Country held another event, closer to home. The Focus would get me there, but I’d need a recharge for the return trip. The site had a charging station but I’d have to arrive more than an hour in advance to use it because the company needed to plug in its own EV during the event.

Another day with the Focus, I drove to a morning hockey game, home, to a North York lunch and home again. No problem. But I dropped a late-afternoon meeting up in Vaughan because the battery didn’t refill sufficiently for that return trip.

I might have made all three stops had I organized myself to be out all day, finding places to work between events.

Right!

Trip length isn’t the only variable for calculating whether you’ll reach a destination or run out of juice.

Like most EVs, the Focus flies along expressways — but not for long. On the QEW, going with the flow at about 110 kilometres an hour, I travelled 38 kilometres but lost 54 kilometres of range.

But on stop-and-go city streets, the little car achieved close to its maximum range, aided by effective regenerative braking. Making the most of it requires that you anticipate stops and ease into them. A display tells you how much of the potential energy you’ve captured each time.

This adds an impressive number of kilometres to the range. Another display shows that score.

Recalibrate again, though, for climate-control. Using the heater — with no engine warmth to borrow, it’s run by the battery — cuts the range by more than 20 per cent.

Such calculations aren’t needed if the car is for short errands or regular commutes well within its range.

It can also be beneficial to think ahead about trips. And squeezing the most from regenerative braking produces better driving.

Just realize, before plunking down more than $40,000 — after taxes, fees and incentives — how shifting from ICE to EV changes the world.

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