4000km electric car road trip
04 May 2021
Mungo National Park

I am slowly working my way through my 'gap year' to-do list.

It dawned on me that since arriving in Australia in 1997, I only travelled to the big cities and the country's east coast. I think it's time to discover the vast empty spaces that make up the rest of this southern land. With international travel restrictions in place, I think it's an excellent excuse to embark on an epic road trip. The idea is to travel around Australia (15,000km) later this year.

But in the meantime, as a precursor to the big trip, we embarked on a shorter 4,000km family road trip across NSW, South Australia and Victoria. To make it more exciting and a little more challenging, we are making the trip in an electric car.

How hard can it be?

Electric car sales in Australia accounted for a mere 0.7% of the overall market in 2020. A drop in the ocean compared to 10% in both the UK and the EU.

Australia is massive with a tiny population and long distances between small towns and car charging infrastructure. In this post, I want to share my thoughts on owning an electric car and share my experience of driving it through some of these semi-remote regions.

Oh, and don't be fooled. We are not roughing it up on the red centre dirt roads. We are doing it in an inner-city, latte-sipping Tesla Model 3.

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room, EV (electric vehicle) range anxiety.

Whenever I mention my around Australia trip, two topics are guaranteed to come up, Wolf Creek and range anxiety. The first is only a movie, and for the second, I will blame our politicians. They have been banging on about the inferiority of EVs for too long, spreading misinformation while subsidising the coal and gas industries. I will stick to the facts and my own experience.

As for range, some planning is required, but that is true for all cars when you venture into the vast open space that is Australia.

"But I can have a jerrycan in the boot", you say. That is true, and currently, there are no options for EVs. A generator and a jerrycan in a boot of a Tesla is not quite the solution we are looking for.

EV life on the road

On paper Tesla Model 3 Long Range has a range of 650km based on NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) test standard, which favours inner-city driving and is notorious in producing figures around 30% above 'achievable' distance.

On our road trip (4 people, a full car boot), and mainly driving at highway speeds, we managed a real-world range of about 450km. Unlike ICE (internal combustion engine) cars, EVs are more efficient in town, helped by low speed, lower drag, constant start, stop and regenerative braking. ICE cars, on the other hand, increase their efficiency on open roads.

We planned to limit the travel distance to around 350km between charges as driving for 4 hours without stopping is a bad idea to start with. In the end, it made more sense to take a break every 200km, which proved to be a perfect fit with available chargers en route.

It's no secret that charging EVs takes a tad longer than filling up with petrol. However, the unintended result of that delay was that instead of visiting smelly petrol stations, we ended up discovering small towns along the way. 

Not only did we find little gems you would have never considered visiting, but we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent coffee, good food and incredible parks for kids to expend excess energy. We even stumbled across a vintage car show, something you would not find at your freeway service station.

Chargers are usually near places where you can spend your money, win for the traveller and a win for those little towns taking my lunch money. Suppose you are a small town, lobby for a charger to attract those latte-sipping city folk. It will pay itself off in no time.

Road trip NSW, South Australia, Victoria. Charging infrustructure in Australia via PlugShare

If you are interested here are all the chargers used on our trip:

  • 3 x Tesla Superchargers (DC), charging at 800km of range per hour
  • 8 x Fast chargers (DC), NRMA, Chargefox, charging at 300km of range per hour
  • 3 x Destination chargers (three-phase AC), charging at 70km of range per hour
  • 2 x Wall socket (single-phase AC), Campsite cabins, charging at 11km of range per hour

Oh, and if you are wondering how to find chargers and plan your trip. There is an app for that.

Plugshare is your friend.
It's the most accurate and complete public EV charging map worldwide. With stations from every major network, it's the world's largest EV driver community. Users contribute station reviews and photos to help drivers make the most informed charging decisions possible. The latest count included over 400,000 electric car charging stations across the globe.

Road trip distance and energy usage

The total energy cost for this trip came to $72, yes, seventy two dollars, that is crazy. Keep in mind that many fast chargers are (still) free. Some will stay that way (destination chargers), but many will start charging in the future, but even if you paid for all the charging at a relatively high rate of 40c/kWh, the trip would cost around $250**. The equivalent cost of filling up a petrol car would be about $530**

These numbers look even better if you use your car for short local trips, as there are many options to fill up. You can install an EV charger at home or plug it into a wall socket for overnight charging at 25c/kWh or much less when using roof solar. The alternative is to use the increasing number of chargers at local shops. Where I live, there are ten AC chargers (free) near our shopping village.

"But how can they be free?" you ask. These are run by the local council using roof solar and batteries, or at worst it's based on favourable electricity rates.

Let's do the numbers. If I stop for 2 hours to grab a coffee or lunch, maybe do a quick shop for dinner, it would cost the council $4.40 (22kWh) @ 20c (cost per kWh)). That's a price of a large coffee. I think I spent that in the first 5 min of getting there, clearly a good investment on their part. 

All in all, with a bit of planning, range anxiety is just a myth, or at least it was for us as the range on our trip never dropped below 50km. The real test will be later in the year, travelling longer distances and in more remote places around Australia.

Electricity is a beautiful thing, and we can find it everywhere humans live. Its flow might be slow when using a wall socket, but it's still more abundant than petrol stations.

Yes, yes, I know, you have a jerrycan in your boot, so in case of an emergency, you win - for now.

On our road trip, 80% of the driving was on Autopilot.
Autonomous vs Autopilot vs Cruise Control, what's the difference?

I am a technologist at heart. I love using tech, playing with tech, and getting excited by the innovations technology can bring. It's never a dull day in the world of technology.

So how cool is autonomous driving? Well, it's not, at least not today.
So far, it's a case of over-promised and under-delivered. Don't get me wrong; I don't want to dismiss the idea, as it would be awesome if it worked today.

What do I mean by 'work'?
I mean more than a demo - I worked long enough in the world of make-belief to tell the difference between a sleek demonstration and real-world implementation. The test is quite simple, show me a car that can drive itself around Rome, in tight streets, dodging thousands of crazy, suicidal Vespa riders, and I am in.

I feel that we are still a long way from that day, and for now, the idea of a fully autonomous car is limited to highway driving. Maybe we expect too much, perhaps we want it to be perfect, it will never be perfect, but then again, neither are human drivers. I can already see the lawyers rubbing their grubby hands, looking for someone to blame in the event of a crash, and as yet, we have not figured out who that might be, the sleeping driver, the car manufacturer, a software bug, the other car. I digress, as that is a topic for another day.

However, what is impressive and very useful today, is the ACC (adaptive cruise control) or Autopilot in Tesla speak. Not that it's new, these systems vary in sophistication, and many cars have them as a standard feature today. 

The Tesla Autopilot can control the throttle, brakes and steering, move in stop-start traffic, adjust the car's speed according to road sign recognition cameras. But the driver still needs to intervene if the systems fails to detect objects, so you are required to keep your hand on the steering wheel.

So why did I end up on Autopilot for 80% of the road trip?
Two words, 'demerit points'. A week before the trip, I received a letter in the mail. It stated that I already had 7 demerit points out of a possible 13, which was a little too close for comfort.

Unlucky for me or maybe very stupid of me, I have seven demerit points due to minor speed infringements which happened on double demerit days during earlier holidays. And don't get me started on why we are still limited to driving at 110km/h on modern highways in modern cars in 2021? Sadly these rules are based on vehicles and roads from the seventies, another topic for another day. 

With double demerits looming over the holidays, the only option I had, was to let the car be in charge and allow it to enforce the speed limit. I am happy to say, 4,000km travelled with no infringements.
In technology, we trust.

In addition to the financial benefit and keeping my licence, the idea of the car augmenting the driver is brilliant. It made the trip more enjoyable, less stressful, and I felt less tired even after a 500km drive. I like driving, so this might be the happy medium between total control and no control. I do not doubt that this alone is already making driving much safer and saving lives.

Fun, Fun, Fun
Fun, I cannot compare my experience to other EVs, but this is the most fun I had in a car since my parent's VW Kombi I used to borrow in high school.

There is something very satisfying to effortlessly glide in two tons of metal without creating noise or air pollution. And it doesn't end there. As you bring all this weight to a stop, you are magically transforming inertia into electrons to feed your batteries. Maybe it's just me, but this kind of simplicity and efficiency blows my mind. Laws of physics and conservation of energy on display right there.

And 4 seconds from 0 to 100 could be so much fun if it wasn't for those demerit points.

The good...
EVs are not cheap, but prices can only go one way.

Tesla Model 3 is $10,000 cheaper today than just seven months ago. If you can afford one - and help save the planet - I can guarantee that you will never go back to a fossil fuel car again. There are no scheduled services, running costs are lower, and your car is like your phone, getting new features over the air while you sleep. There is no need for scheduled services as there is no oil, no gearbox, no engine parts fighting the laws of physics, no extreme heat, no exhaust, and mostly no need for brakes.

But if you are one of those people who routinely forget to charge your phone, maybe owning an EV is a step too far.

The surprising...
When we book our holiday stays, we ask about car charger availability. Lack of charging facilities is not a deal-breaker but most definitely a preference.

"Tesla Superchargers are too fast", I said it. It's true.
As a result, there is just not enough time to enjoy a relaxing lunch en route. It's a challenge as Tesla will charge you a dollar per minute idle fee. A first-world problem :-)

The annoying...
As an Apple user, I know all about a bag full of dongles for my Mac. With EVs, it's a boot full of cables and adaptors, at least for now. Adaptors are unnecessary most of the time, but you wouldn't go on a road trip without them. Lucky there is a front boot for that.

Lucky there is a front boot for that

** cost calculations

Electric charger costs:
40c (per kWh) x 627 (trip energy kWh) = $250

Fuel cost to run equivalent petrol car (250kW car needs premium fuel):
170c (premium unleaded 98) x 3920 (km travelled) @8l/100km consumption = $530