Our First Electric Car
My wife and I just bought our first electric car! We couldn’t find what we were looking for in Southern Illinois, so we bought one in Memphis. The tricky part was getting it home! This is the story of our new car and the journey to bring it back home.
What did we buy?
After looking at a variety of used electric cars online, we decided to get a 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf. It has a range of about 80 miles per charge, which is more than enough for our day-to-day needs. For our occasional trips beyond that range, we can either rent a vehicle, or take public transit, or take a more leisurely route that includes one or more rest breaks at charging stations.
Why did we want an electric car?
Our main consideration was reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As an author, community radio DJ, and “Real Life Superhero,” my main focus in recent years has been responding to the climate crisis and supporting climate justice. My wife, Grace, is also very much concerned about the climate crisis and eager for us to do what we can as a family to respond to it. She’s actually the one who bought and paid for this car, and I’m very thankful to her for choosing an electric car for our new vehicle!
As the father of a small child, I’m now even more concerned about this issue than I have been in the past. I want my daughter, Bedelía, to grow up in a world where we’ve done as much as we can, individually and collectively, to reduce our emissions and transition to zero emissions technologies. We’re still charging our car on the grid, so we haven’t reached zero emissions yet. But charging an electric vehicle is far cleaner than filling the tank of a gas guzzler, even when you’re charging with grid power. And when your power supply becomes cleaner, your car automatically becomes cleaner too.
It’s definitely too late to avert some of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but our actions still have the potential to make a tremendous difference for the better, if we work together to make it happen. Changing consumption patterns at the consumer end isn’t enough, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle while we also work on enacting climate justice policies.
In addition to the climate and environmental benefits, there’s also the lower cost of operation and greater reliability of electric vehicles. Charging an electric vehicle is usually much cheaper than filling a gas tank. Some charging stations are completely free, and others are inexpensive relative to the cost of refueling an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. Home charging isn’t free, but it’s cheaper than the commerical charging stations and refueling an ICE vehicle. And now that a growing number of used electric cars are coming on the market, it’s becoming easier for people to take advantage of that lower carbon footprint and cost of operation.
I’m a big fan of public transit, biking, walking, and redesigning our land use so that less transportation is needed. These are some of the best solutions in the transportation sector. If you’re willing and able to meet your transit needs in those ways, that’s great. In situations where personal vehicles are still necessary, though, electric cars are becoming an increasingly affordable and desirable option. Once we decided to go that route, I was excited to get started.
The Journey Home
Since Southern Illinois didn’t have what we were looking for, we did some online research. We discovered that some big cities do in fact have a lot of slightly used electric vehicles for sale at affordable rates. One of these cities is Memphis, which is (usually!) only a three and a half hour drive away from our home in Carbondale, Illinois. My brother, sister-in-law, and niece live in Memphis, so we figured that buying an electric car there would be a great opportunity to visit them while also taking care of car business.
It was a good idea on paper. But how would we get the car all the way back to Carbondale when it only has a range of 80 miles?
Clearly, we would need to stop at charging stations along the way. A wonderful website and app called PlugShare helped us to locate all of the chargers between Memphis and Carbondale. Unfortunately, the most direct route home passed through a long rural stretch that didn’t have enough chargers to make the trip possible, even with 80+ miles of range. This was also our first time driving an electric vehicle at all, so we really didn’t want to push the limits of the range too much. Instead, we would need to take a significant detour through Tennessee and Kentucky, stopping at four chargers along the way with about 60 miles between them.
After some discussion of our options, we decided that Grace and Bedelia would drive the old car home the usual way, while I would take the longer (and much slower) route home with the new car.
First Charger: IKEA
The first place that I stopped to charge on the journey home was in an IKEA parking lot just outside of Memphis. It was still dark outside, so for a moment I couldn’t even find the charging spot! After consulting my PlugShare map and circling around the lot another time, I found it.
This was a nice, quiet spot to charge, with a beautiful tree line along the edge of the lot. I don’t know how busy this spot is during business hours, but it was completely empty and dark at 5 in the morning. I suppose some people wouldn’t have liked the dim lighting, but I found that it made the spot feel more like a rest area in a natural setting rather than an empty parking lot. I stayed in my car for the duration of the charge listening to birds in the trees and cars in the distance, snacking, resting, and writing.
The down side of driving long distances with a car with low range is the frequent stops. With proper planning, though, that mode of travel has its up sides. It’s an opportunity to rest, relax, catch up on some reading, or do a little sightseeing. There weren’t many sights to see in an empty IKEA parking lot, so I just relaxed and prepared for the next stretch of the journey.
Second Charger: Casey Jones Village
This was my first time driving a significant distance to an unfamiliar charging location. I was definitely anxious about range. In theory, I had plenty, but what about in practice?
When I left IKEA, my projected range was 84 miles in Eco Plus mode and in the upper 70s in regular mode. When I arrived in Jackson, TN about 65 miles later, my range remaining was 20. This means that my range indicator was surprisingly accurate. To achieve this result, though, I stayed in Eco Plus mode for almost the entire trip.
What is Eco Plus? It’s a setting that limits certain aspects of performance for the sake of extending range. I haven’t studied all of the details, but the two most noticeable differences performance-wise were slow acceleration and a maximum speed of 60 MPH. Since I wasn’t sure about the real-world range of this model, I decided to stay between 55 and 60 MPH to extend my range. The majority of the route had a 70 MPH speed limit, so all of the cars and even most trucks were passing me the entire way. But traffic was light, and visibility was good, so it felt safe to drive at that speed. I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis, but it worked for this trip. I’m sure some drivers were annoyed, but I stayed in the right lane, maintained a steady speed, and switched back to regular mode in cases such as merging where I might need to accelerate quickly. (I later found out that they don’t recommend switching modes in the middle of driving. Oops! It let me switch, though, and didn’t seem to have any ill effects.)
I was delighted by how well my range held up, but disappointed to see that the charge time would be four hours and twenty minutes. Charging speeds vary somewhat based on the charger, but i was expecting 3-4 hours for a full charge, not 4+ hours for 65 miles worth of charge. The good news was that all chargers on my route are 24/7 chargers, so the delay wouldn’t affect the availability of charging, which was a concern on the first route I considered.
The charger there is at Casey Jones Village, a charming little tourist trap with a Casey Jones museum, diner, cafe, and gift shop. Honestly, I would’ve never ended up here if it weren’t for the charger. It’s not really my type of tourist attraction. But it was a fun place to stop for a few hours for a restroom break, Southern style breakfast, and some interesting local culture and scenery. Once I was done charging, though, I was glad to be back on the road.
Third Charger: Pediatric Place of Union City
When I left for Union City, Tennessee, my range was at 91 miles in Eco Plus mode and 88 miles in regular mode. These figures seemed a bit high, and they quickly dropped down a few miles once I started driving. When I reached my destination, I had 27 miles of projected range left. It was a 59 mile trip, so the range projection was slightly off, but close enough.
The charger there is a wonderful free charging station in the parking lot of a pediatric center. It’s a nice quiet spot just a block off of a major road. I actually met the person who owns the charger, which was interesting. He talked to me for a minute or two about my trip and said that he was happy to help electric vehicle drivers on their way through the area. Thanks to that simple and friendly conversation, this was definitely the most actively welcoming of the charging stations along the way. I parked there, got some dinner at one of the nearby chains, and did some more reading, writing, resting, and texting while I waited for the car to charge.
The charging time was once again over four hours. That’s more than I had hoped for, but not too surprising since that’s what it took to recharge after driving a similar distance. That seems to be typical for the J-1772 charging stations I’ve encountered so far.
This was the part of the trip where I really started missing home! Since I underestimated the charging times, I originally expected to be home at a somewhat reasonable hour. But it was clear to me at this point that I wouldn’t be home until well after midnight. I passed the time as well as I could and then headed on to the fourth and final charger.
Fourth Charger: Paducah Ford
This was by far the least scenic and most awkward of the chargers. Paducah Ford has a big dealership building surrounded by a lot full of cars and very bright lights that seemed almost surreal in the dark of night. The charger was fairly easy to locate at the front of the building, but I felt a bit exposed just parking in front of an empty dealership late at night under those bright lights.
If you charge in an odd location after hours, you may get a visit from the police! According to PlugShare check-ins, this charger seems like it may not be used very often, so it may not be the best place to charge after hours, even though it’s technically available. People probably aren’t accustomed to seeing visitors in the lot after hours, which may explain my experience there.
After about ten minutes at this charger, I did in fact get a visit from the police. Luckily, the officer who spoke to me was polite and understanding. He understood what I was doing there, asked a few questions, and wished me safe travels on my trip home.
When he first approached, though, I was definitely worried that the interaction would go poorly. I also wondered if they would’ve treated me with more suspicion if my skin were a different color. Unfortunately, otherwise minor encounters with the police can become dangerous or even deadly in the context of systemic racism and lack of police accountability. But for me, on that night, the encounter with the police went smoothly.
The range projection was slightly less accurate this time. It started at 83 miles (87 Eco Plus) and dropped down to 20 miles. That means that I used up 63-67 miles of projected range on a 60 miles trip. It may have been because I drove 60 MPH for more of the trip than I did last time. The range projection is definitely helpful, but isn’t an exact science — nor would I expect it to be. It does a very good job given the inherent variability of travel conditions.
Between the strange location, the police encounter, and the late hour, I was definitely eager to get back on the road. I was thankful to Paducah Ford for the charge, but also thankful to be on my merry way.
The Home Stretch
After my charging stop in Paducah, all that I had to do was drive the remaining 60-some miles home.
During the first few minutes of my drive, I was actually seriously concerned about range for the first time since the start of my trip. In theory, I had plenty of range. But I spent one of my miles of range on a wrong turn, and a few more disappeared unexpectedly. It was probably due to not having Eco Plus mode on, my rapid acceleration to join high-speed traffic, and my heater kicking on, all at once. So it seemed for a moment like my projected range was plummeting. Would I have enough to get home?
As it turns out, I had plenty of charge left to get home. The range projector was just telling me what would happen if I kept pushing performance the whole way home. To be on the safe side, I turned down the heat and took it slow, which was even easier once I reached the part of the route that included slower back roads.
By the time I made it home, I still had about 15 miles of range left. So the range projection was still pretty accurate overall. It just fluctuated in the beginning, presumably based on the assumption that I would have the heat cranked up the whole way home, that I’d be driving fast the whole way home, that I wouldn’t use Eco Plus, etc.
Once my range projection got back up to where it needed to be, I had a surprisingly enjoyable time for the rest of the trip. The back roads of Southern Illinois can be beautiful in the middle of the night! Rolling hills, countless trees along winding roads, moon looming low and large just above the treetops, morning mist rolling in over green fields.
Something felt magical about the end of that journey. Driving those back roads in the middle of the night reminded me of why I chose to stay in Southern Illinois. This is a beautiful area, rich in ecological and social diversity despite the extensive fragmentation and division that has often gone on around here. These woods, and these local communities, are definitely special places worth protecting. The twenty-some hour road trip was definitely a strange ride, but it was worth it to be home again with my family and to bring our new electric vehicle back home to Southern Illinois.
All things considered, the journey home went well. It took a long time — longer than expected! — but I made it home without any serious difficulties or setbacks. I also had a good time for the majority of the trip, in spite of the long wait at each charger and a desire to be back home with my family much sooner.
If you live in Southern Illinois, or somewhere else in the US that doesn’t have used electric vehicles available yet, you may be considering a similar journey to bring an electric car home. Since we all need to transition away from internal combustion engines as rapidly as possible, I want to do everything I can to encourage people to find the post-ICE transit solutions that are right for them, whether that may be an electric car, public transit, biking, walking, or some combination of all of the above.
If you’re considering a similar journey to bring an electric car home, here are a few pointers.
- Find a car that meets your day-to-day needs, and plan ahead for special trips. On most days, we drive 10 miles or less around town. We also occasionally drive to neighboring towns that are 20-some miles away or less, or 40-some miles round-trip. This means that a car with an 80+ mile range is more than enough to meet our everyday needs. For longer trips, we can either stop at a charger along the way, rent a vehicle, or use public transit where it’s available.
- If the car you want is in another city, and it’s farther away than you can drive it home on a single charge, you probably have multiple options for getting it home. One is a road trip similar to what I’ve described in this post. Another is talking to the car dealer about delivery options. They may be able to deliver to a dealership closer to your home. Yet another option is borrowing or renting a trailer that you can use to get your car home. I actually saw a car on a trailer at one point during my journey home, and it occurred to me that that approach may have actually been a better option for me as someone with important family commitments to get back to on a weekday. But if you’re someone who can spare a day for a quirky interstate adventure, then you may actually prefer the leisurely pace and sightseeing opportunities afforded by a longer trip. It certainly makes for a good story!
- If you find the process of getting your vehicle home stressful, remind yourself that it’s a one-time process. If at all possible, choose the option that will involve the least amount of stress and uncertainty. Once you’re home, you’ll only be driving around within the range that your vehicle was designed for, so that initial stress will surely vanish. If you do decide to drive an electric car home yourself beyond its usually range, think of it as an interesting road trip opportunity rather than a chore. Map out the route and find fun things to do along the way. And if the idea of that long trip seems too stressful, consider other methods of getting your car home, as mentioned above.
- Do your research. PlugShare is a wonderful resource, but it’s no replacement for further research and common sense. If any of the stops along your route are at a private or semi-private location like a car dealership, office building, etc, it doesn’t hurt to phone ahead and confirm that the charger will in fact be available when you need it. Picking stops with two or more chargers near each other also ensures that you have a backup plan if one spot is blocked by another car, in use, or otherwise unavailable.
Whatever route you decide to take to get your electric car home, I encourage you to follow your dreams of reducing your carbon footprint by switching to an electric vehicle. And if you’re not ready or able to make that switch today, look for other solutions to reducing emissions. There are so many things we can do on both the individual level and on the collective or policy level to make a difference for the better. We’re already in the midst of a climate crisis, so the sooner we act, the better. Let’s support each other in the individual and collective actions it will take for us all to transition toward cleaner energy technologies and a society that embraces environmental justice and climate justice.