By Mary Bergin
One dramatic tableau at the 2023 Chicago Auto Show featured a Subaru Crosstrek hybrid SUV pirouetting slowly in front of an enormous screen flashing panoramic scenes from national parks. One magnificent landscape morphed into another, indicating that a future of clean, efficient electronic transport is imminent.
Nearby stood an actual replica of a national forest replete with a campfire, treehouse and electric Subaru Solterra, whose roof rack carried camping gear and two kayaks. Not lost on passersby was the fact that in the midst of this bucolic scene, the Subaru was plugged into what resembled a charging station.
The idyllic notion that EV charging is possible anywhere in the U.S., including national parks, is deeply premature. Nationwide charging infrastructure is absent, incomplete and/or unpredictable. America is not the pace car leading the pack in the global race to a green economy.
Environmentalists are welcome to do the right thing by driving an EV on their upcoming summer vacation. But expect to pay for lower tailpipe emissions with recharging complications all along the way.
Power surge coming
Washington politicians love to talk about the 2021 federal infrastructure plan that includes $7.5 billion to install 500,000 fast-charging EV stations in urban and rural areas. By 2030, the ability to drive an EV coast-to-coast should improve dramatically, especially along interstate highways.
The National Park Service admits that at present there are only 140 EV charging stations in/near the 424 national parks. An additional 20 chargers are planned for California. Change is coming. One decade ago, only a dozen EV chargers were available in national parks nationwide. But an NPS map of these charging hubs is still under development.
“Where, exactly, the chargers will be located, what powers them, who builds them and what drivers do while their cars are juicing up could shift the fate of companies, cities and utilities and have repercussions around the globe,” Reuters reports.
In the meantime, welcome to an uneven in-between time, where the ease of a domestic road trip in an EV will depend on route, destination and accessibility/reliability of chargers. Gasoline-fueled or hybrid rentals remain a safer bet for travelers during this awkward age of EV politics, competition, skepticism and growth.
Consider this recap of a 2022 EV road trip of 1,082 miles and 26 hours of driving. Total time to recharge or wait to recharge: around 13 hours.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center in early 2023 pinpointed about 51,000 public charging stations nationwide. Data from software firm CoPilot indicates that one-third are in California, followed by New York with 20 percent. When comparing the number of EV chargers to a state’s population, the leader is Vermont (139.7 chargers per capita).
The good news: Only 1 or 2 percent of U.S. households own an EV. Most U.S. families are waiting for infrastructure to appear before seriously considering buying a more expensive electric car. That theoretically means fewer EVs jockeying for an escalating number of charging ports.
The bad news: Each of the 50 states has its own idea about how best to recharge EVs. Contending concepts complicate uniform EV infrastructure development
Critics say an EV’s lithium battery is a grave landfill contaminant and impractical fuel source in cold-weather climates because battery energy drains quickly.
Add consumer frustrations with EV chargers. A 2022 J.D. Power study documented shortcomings in charging speed and reliability (because of out-of-service or malfunctioning units).
What else? A charging station may not accommodate all EV brands. Example: Tesla Motors in 2022 manufactured two-thirds of all EVs in the U.S., but much of its charging network is only workable with Tesla EVs. Federal funds are available to convert these Superchargers for universal EV use.
Fun fact: Although Tesla is headquartered in Austin, TX, Texas ranks 36th in the number of EV charging stations per 100,000 population (18.7 compared to 104.7 in California and 39.4 in New York). Lowest ranking: Louisiana (8.3 chargers per capita), Kentucky (11.8) and Alaska (12.9).
China leads the world in EV infrastructure with about 215,000 stations (one for every 6,500 people) compared to one per 25,000 in the United States. EV sales in Europe are more robust than in the U.S. (about 80 percent of new cars sold in Norway during 2022 were EVs).
“But new technologies are being introduced weekly,” observed Nick Pupich at the Chicago Auto Show, as part of a Powering Chicago panel to discuss EV trends, challenges and logistics.
He said the Midwest U.S. “is like the Wild West” because EV charger availability is inconsistent. Reliable EV recharging options are especially fragmented in remote/rural areas, which requires a shift in mindset for new EV drivers.
What does that require? Plot a smart vacation route and add a contingency plan. Recharge more frequently than necessary. Traveling across this new landscape is more about “topping off a tank” than waiting until the energy gauge nears “empty.”
Make it a smoother getaway by coordinating EV charging with a restaurant or attraction stop, to lessen the sense that time is being wasted. Is the quick gas station fill-up gone forever? In the short term, Yes.
Kicks on Route 66
One of the nation’s most popular retro road trips is to follow Historic Route 66, the first fully paved national highway, linking Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. That’s 2,400 miles, through eight states. The centennial anniversary for “The Mother Road” is in 2026.
The Illinois Office of Tourism is thinking ahead by introducing its first itinerary for EV drivers: The three-day Zero Emissions on Route 66 pinpoints 13 charging stations near tourist attractions and restaurants along the highway’s 302 miles in Illinois.
The Illinois segment is Chicago to Collinsville (where ancient Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). In between is the state capital of Springfield and nostalgic sites like Cozy Dog Drive In, long known for its corn dogs (a Tesla Supercharger is three miles away).
“We chose to focus on Route 66 because it’s an iconic road trip that showcases all that Illinois has to offer,” says Jan Kemmerling, acting deputy director for state tourism. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in the level of interest for trip ideas from EV owners. We look forward to creating more custom EV trip ideas through Illinois as the demand increases.”
The latter will tell the story of International Fiberglass Co., known for manufacturing giant statues as roadside advertising pieces (nicknamed “Muffler Men” and “American Giants”). Anchoring the music museum are tributes to Illinois natives REO Speedwagon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Cheap Trick and more.
Kemmerling predicts: “As EV use becomes more widespread and the number of charging stations continues to grow statewide and across the country, proximity to these locations will become an even more important factor for travelers when deciding which destinations to visit.”
Ken Freeman of Route66RoadTrip.com says he knows of no other Route 66 state (Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California) that has pursued an initiative similar to Illinois: “I would think over time that as the EV population increases, other states might create charging station maps/databases.”
He suspects the National Historic Route 66 Federation would be a good candidate to do that on behalf of the iconic roadway, just as it’s pursued multi-day events and awards for Route 66 restoration work.
Leading the charges
Most major car rental agencies have EVs to rent, but Florida-based Hertz Corp. aims to offer the world’s largest fleet of rental EV vehicles and “become a zero emissions platform in Europe and North America by 2030.”
By the end of 2022, the car rental company had ordered 100,000 Teslas and hired retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady to help promote the program.
Hertz in early 2023 announced a partnership with Uber to make 25,000 electric vehicles available for Uber drivers to rent in Europe’s capital cities. It is an expansion of Hertz’s North American work with Uber; about 50,000 of those drivers already have rented a Tesla.
“As Hertz invests to create one of the largest EV fleets globally, our Uber partnership will ensure that we continue to lead in the rapidly changing mobility landscape across Europe,” said Hertz CEO Stephen Scherr.
Plan it right, and you can recharge with your vehicle. California-based EVgo is among the nation’s largest fast-charging EV networks, and the company is courting hotels that include Marriotts, Hyatts and Holiday Inns.
“As EV adoption rises, drivers seek stays and stops with charging amenities, particularly when planning a long road trip or renting an EV,” the company says online. “Offering EV fast charging as an amenity gives sustainability-minded travelers a reason to choose your hotel over the competitors.”
Fast charging” means 15 to 45 minutes to refuel. Compare that to the more common and less-impressive Level 2 chargers that add about 25 miles of range per hour of charging.
EVgo says at least 80 percent of Californians are within a 10-mile drive of an EVgo fast charger; the company’s 850 stations already pop up in 30-some states.
Amped up consumers
For Hilton, the addition of EV ports is part of a “Travel With Purpose” initiative and a response to growing consumer interest in favoring environmentally sustainable brands.
“We are continuously tracking trends and consumer habits so that we can innovate and anticipate the evolving needs of our guests,” Chief Brand Officer Matt Schuyler told Skift.com. The addition of an EV search function at Hilton.com “was a result of knowing that interest in EVs is increasing and the need for charging stations is apparent.”
The website filter lets visitors know which Hilton hotels have charging stations before booking. Hilton.com reports online that at least 1,400 of its properties offer EV charging.
The demand for EV charging at hotels is only going to grow, observes Doug Rice of Hospitality Upgrade magazine, but little definitive data exists. He writes:
“There is a large gap today in the ability of EV drivers to find a hotel where they know they can reliably charge. While many hotel booking sites list ‘EV Charging’ as an amenity, they rarely answer the important questions a driver may have, such as is it at the hotel, or a mile down the street? Is it Level 2 or DCFC? How much will it cost, and how can I pay?
“Can I drive up and use it or do I need to check in at the parking garage office or front desk? Do I need a reservation? And is it a dedicated electrical feed of 48 amps for me, or am I sharing that with other EVs charging at the same time (in which case a normal 10-hour charge might take 20, 30, or 40 hours)?”
In Hotel Management magazine, CEO Rich McNulty of the Maryland-based Blue Wave EV charging station contractor, adds this perspective:
“Before smartphones and tablets were everywhere, Wi-Fi availability wouldn’t make or break most people’s decision to book a room. Now, everyone expects easy access to the internet during their stay.
“One amenity that will surely evolve into a must-have in the coming years? Electric vehicle charging.”
What’s up on apps?
Digital apps to help EV drivers are abundant but consider the source before relying on them. A company that installs EV charging stations may only point out ones from which it gains revenue. A hotel chain’s map of charging stations may include locations that are planned but not yet operational.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center lists EV charger locations at
ChargeHub finds the closest public charging station, regardless of the network in North America, and gives EV drivers an outlet for sharing feedback about these locations.
PlugShare pinpoints public charging hubs in North America and Europe. Consumers can leave reviews too.
EVHotels is not free but points the way to lodging with EV charging ports, plus stations near lodging.