EV’s, and the return of the Great American Road Trip

My family and I took a well-earned road trip back in the spring; two days in Portland, after which we picked up the kids and took them up to the Olympic Peninsula. We drove our EV, bought as a splurge after an unfortunate accident in February resulted in a car-shopping scramble. The trip itself was wonderful, yet more importantly, it made me really think about American Car Culture, and my own history.

If you’ve watched the Pixar movie ‘Cars’, it builds strong nostalgia for how people “used to” travel in cars. They’d drive, stop, look around, spend some money, then keep going. As a kid, I caught the tail end of that culture. Every summer we would pile into our excessively large Buick Electra, and drive to all kinds of places: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Minnesota, Louisiana, Utah, hitting ever major park along the way. This is likely because my parents had three kids, and regularly kicking us out of the car to explore was a way to maintain a small measure of sanity. To me, however, I got to see the changing countryside and experience it … more slowly, and more thoroughly.

As I moved to college and bought my own car, I had lost that sense of wonder. It was more about getting to a location as quickly as possible, sticking to highways and bypassing every town along the way. I recall one roadtrip from Pittsburgh to Texas that I did in 3 days of unbroken driving, stopping only for gas and sleep.

As we attempted something similar with our EV, I could’t help noticing that the need to charge the car forced us back to a more leisurely pace. We would drive for about 2 hours, then be forced to take at least a 30 minute break before moving on. Gone were the days where we could gas up and go, putting 10 hours of straight driving on the clock to cover some real distance. Instead, we stopped wherever we could find a charger, strongly preferring locations that had something to do, something to see, or both.

This was tricky; finding that magic intersection of “Car Charger” and “Walkable Family-Friendly Location” takes some real effort. We found some gems: Finn River Cidery, for example, has two chargers as well as a pizza oven, playground, and live music on weekends. Downtown Port Angeles has a few chargers and a whole lot of pedestrian charm. The road from Seattle to Portland, however, found us at a run-down, mostly empty mall.

Conventional economic wisdom, of course, means that this limited practical range of EV’s marks them as ineffective road-tripping cars. Thus, chargers are more likely to be seen at local locations, such as shopping malls and grocery stores. And, speaking for myself, I have no desire to roadtrip if I have to stare at the outside of a Walmart every two hours.

And yet, EV’s are becoming the norm; there’s no way to avoid this. As the charging network expands across the United States, I see real opportunity for smaller communities and national parks to recapture some of that travel nostalgia. Put a few chargers near a quaint downtown, and you’ll create a magnet for EV drivers. Allow charging at your national park, you’ll get more visitors who will take a break to explore, before moving on. 

I’m ready to be one of them.

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